MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #23–Two Problems for Existential Ethics, & Sartre on Principled Authenticity.

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and The Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


This installment contains sections VIII.2 and VIII.3.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

Now for some critical analysis.

Let’s leave aside the worry that existential moral theory is false because some self-professed existentialists are (or anyhow, were) “romantic and slightly self-pitying,” self-indulgent, relativistic, and egoistic, even downright silly, as a good example of the ad hominem fallacy.[i]

Nevertheless, there at least two important problems for classical existentialist ethics.

First, it’s self-evidently obvious that existential moral theory (like Kant’s and Kantian moral theory) requires an intelligible and defensible robust metaphysics of free will and practical agency, aka free agency, but — so the objection goes — no existentialist (or for that matter, neither Kant nor any Kantian) has ever provided such a metaphysics.

But this objection can be directly rebutted by any contemporary existentialist (or Kantian, or existential Kantian) who works out a robust metaphysics of free agency, explicitly defends it against actual and possible critics, writes all that up, and then publishes it.

And actually I’ve already done that, in my book, Deep Freedom and Real Persons,[ii] and also in a recent essay that presents a short-and-sweet version of the same theory, “Natural Libertarianism: A New Theory of Free Agency.”

So I’ll leave the critical evaluation of that theory as another “task for the reader.”

The second important worry about existential moral theory is whether authenticity in the classical existentialist sense, on its own, suffices as the highest human good and as the ground of morality.

It’s true, as the classical existentialist insists, that inauthenticity, freedom-refusal (i.e., the refusal to acknowledge the presence of freedom in oneself), and freedom-denial (i.e., the denial of freedom to others, especially via coercion) are all morally impermissible.

But it’s equally true that there’s an important distinction between

(i) moral duties to oneself (aka, “what we morally owe to ourselves”), and

(ii) moral duties to others (aka, “what we morally owe to others”).

Correspondingly, it’s clear that inauthenticity and freedom-refusal are violations of duties to oneself, whereas freedom-denial is a violation of duties to others.

Moreover, the violation of duties to others that consists in considering or treating other people as mere means or as mere things, is arguably the essence of moral evil.

And this in turn harks back to Kant’s second categorical imperative, The Formula of Humanity as End-in-Itself:

So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.[iii]

So this leads to the following worry:

Since authenticity falls on the side of moral duties to oneself, then isn’t it really possible for someone to be authentic in the classical existentialist sense, such that they’ve fulfilled all their basic duties to themselves, yet also such that they’ve violated their basic duties to others?

And if so, then someone could be at once authentic and also morally evil, hence authenticity couldn’t possibly be the highest human good, and existential ethics is fatally flawed.

Or another, more concrete, real-world way of putting this critical point is to ask:

Couldn’t there really be (or really have been) such a person as an authentic Nazi?

And an authentic Nazi does seem to be at least really possible.

Indeed, arguably, the early 20th century existentialist Heidegger was an authentic Nazi.[iv]

But if so, then

either (i) classical existential ethics is false and should be rejected,

or (ii) classical existential ethics can be saved only by means of a morally enhanced conception of authenticity that explicitly rules out the real possibility of authentic Nazis.

In other words, in order to avoid the authentic Nazi problem, what existential ethics needs is a conception of authenticity that’s as much about duties to others as it is about duties to onself, and therefore a conception of authenticity that’s inherently guided by categorical imperatives, and more specifically that’s inherently guided by the Formula of Humanity As an End-in-Itself, thereby morally prohibiting considering or treating people as mere means or mere things.

Let’s call this morally enhanced conception of authenticity, principled authenticity.

In turn, the adoption of this morally enhanced conception of authenticity by classical existentialists would effectively transform classical existential ethics into existential Kantian ethics.[v]

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre spells out and defends one version of principled authenticity:

[W]hen we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men…. When we say that a man chooses his own self, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean that in making his choice he chooses all men. In fact, in creating the man that we want to be, there is not single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be…. [T]he image is valid for everybody and for our whole age. Thus, our responsibility is much greater than we might have supposed, because it involves all mankind. If I am a workingman and choose to join a Christian trade-union rather than be a communist, and if by being a member I want to show that the best thing for man is resignation, that the kingdom of man is not of this world, I am not only involving my own case — I want to be resigned for everyone. As a result my action has involved all humanity. To take a more individual matter, if I want to marry, to have children: even if this marriage depends solely on my own circumstances or passion or wish, I am involving all humanity in monogamy and not merely myself. Therefore, I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.[vi]

In other words, we are radically free if and only if we choose and act in such a way as also to choose and act for everyone else at the same time and in the same respect.

So Sartre’s “existential imperative” is essentially the same as Kant’s first categorical imperative, The Formula of Universal Law:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.[vi]

In the same essay, Sartre also provides a very famous concrete, real-world example of a moral dilemma in which

[a] boy was faced with the choice of leaving for England and joining the Free French Forces — that is, leaving his mother behind — or remaining with his mother and helping her carry on…. Who could help him choose? … Who can decide a priori? Nobody. No book of ethics can tell him. The Kantian ethics says, “Never treat any person as a means but as an end.” Very well, if I stay with my mother, I’ll treat her as an end and not as a means; but by virtue of this very fact, I’m running the risk of treating the people around me who are fighting, as means; and conversely, I go to join those who are fighting, I’ll be treating them as an end, and, by doing that, I run the risk of treating my mother as a means. If values are vague, and if they are always too broad for the concrete and specific case that we are considering, the only thing left is to trust our instincts. That’s what this young man tried to do; and when I saw him, he said, “In the end, feeling is what counts. I ought to choose whatever pushes me in one direction…” But how is the value of that feeling determined? What gives his feeling for his mother value? Precisely the fact that he remained with her.[viii]

For our purposes in this sub-section, the most important point is that Sartre explicitly

frames this example as a moral dilemma about how to apply Kant’s second categorical imperative, The Formula of Humanity as an End-in-Itself.

So no matter what the boy decides to do, his particular moral dilemma concerns whether, on the one hand, staying with his mother (and not joining the Free French forces), or, on the other hand, joining the Free French Forces (and abandoning his mother), is the most authentic and principled thing to choose and do in that historical context.

In point of fact, the boy did choose to stay with his mother, and didn’t join the Free French Forces.

But did the boy choose and do the most authentic and principled thing to choose and do in that historical context?

By way of concluding this section, I’ll leave that amazingly hard question as yet another “task for the reader.”


[i] The ad hominem fallacy consists in criticizing people instead of criticizing their theses or arguments.

[ii] R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), available online in preview, HERE.

[iii] I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. M. Gregor, in I. Kant, Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 43–108 (GMM 4: 387–463), at p. 80 (GMM 4: 429).

[iv] See, e.g., H. Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA Harvard Univ. Press, 1993).

[v] See, e.g., S. Baiasu, Kant and Sartre: Re-Discovering Critical Ethics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); S. Baiasu (ed.), Comparing Kant and Sartre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and R. Hanna, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), available online in preview HERE.

[vi] See J.-P. Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” trans. B. Frechtman, in S. Cahn and P. Markie (eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (3rd edn., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 396–402, at pp. 397–398.

[vii] Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 73 (GMM 4: 421).

[viii] Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” p. 400.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 25 July 2020

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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