47. Responsibility


“Am I here and engaged, or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?”

To live as humans within our world and accept responsibility for our actions, I believe, was the implicit and deep ethical driving force of Being and Nothingness. And, perhaps controversially, I think it was delivered by Sartre’s insistence that we should accept our given ‘ontological freedom’. The controversy arises because, as we have seen previously, Sartre makes a very good case for an ontological foundation for freedom, however, as we have also seen, this doesn’t mean we can proceed directly to formulate any real kind of ethics. Or, does it?

As far as Sartre was concerned, the decisions taken by those who avoid accepting their freedom and act in bad faith are conscious decisions. The decision making process is one that is a conscious one. One either acts in good faith by understanding and accepting one’s freedom or one chooses to override one’s freedom and say “I have no choice” which then results in an act of bad faith. The important part being that a decision is made and that a consciousness takes that decision. Now, if a consciousness is involved one can therefore attribute a moral compass, because those possessed of consciousness are also possessed of the ability to understand that their actions can be moral or immoral. Therefore, as far as Sartre was concerned, bad faith must ultimately be viewed as immoral. When people understand themselves as compelled to act in certain ways by forces outside of their control, they act in bad faith and, as such, it can be said that they act immorally.


Now, this is interesting because it adds a second dimension to bad faith. The first we have seen already. To recapitulate, when one acts in bad faith one attempts to deny one’s freedom and become some sort of quasi being-in-itself that does not have control over its own destiny. One’s humanity is stripped away. The second dimension attempts to strip away one’s responsibility. When someone believes themselves to be compelled to act in a certain way, they both renounce their freedom and their responsibility for their actions. This is because responsibility is present whether we like it or not due to the very fact that we have consciousness. The game is given away because we choose to act in bad faith. Believing and choosing belie consciousness, which entails responsibility. You simply can’t believe and choose without understanding responsibility. There is no escape. Someone acting in bad faith would always be brought to account by Sartre.

So, even when, following Heidegger, I see myself as ‘thrown’ into the world without consultation, I cannot but accept freedom as my birth-rite and have its ethical twin, responsibility, to attend to and escort me through life. I am not, after all, a mere rock or leaf at the mercy of causation. I am a being-for-itself, I am conscious, I am free, and finally I am accountable and without excuse. Consequently, for Sartre then, the conviction with which he put forward freedom is one at the same time that brings forth ethics, because freedom is, in his eyes, entwined completely with responsibility. To accept that one is free is to accept that one is responsible and, for Sartre, this is also to accept that one is human.


Before moving on, I want us to pause and reflect once more upon the positioning of freedom that Sartre presented. By stating that freedom is an ontological given for being-for-itself he could have, in some ways, concluded his argument, packed up his type-writer, and delivered the manuscript of Being and Nothingness to his publisher in the knowledge that he had given the world of philosophy an interesting phenomenological text to read alongside Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then reclined in the nearest armchair to smoke a congratulatory cigar. Sartre, though, I believe didn’t want to stop at the world of philosophy. Instead, Sartre wanted to pursue the impossible and find ethics from ontology and give something to the whole world. Now, as we have seen there have been many problems of logical consistency that have, if we are to be fair, hampered the presentation of his ideas. Probably, as a consequence, it must also be acknowledged that Sartre’s thoughts within philosophical circles have not been universally accepted; indeed it might be more correct to state that they have been more thoroughly ignored than diligently read. That said though, it is Sartre’s wider ambition that I have always been fascinated by and it is that ambition to search for ethics that has guided our current investigation and brought us to the brink of understanding Sartre’s ethical relevance.

So, reflective pause over, let’s get back to consciousness because it seems that Sartre is backing this horse as a front runner. The reason for such favouring, by Sartre, is that even though freedom is an ontological given it is also, he has decided, something affected by consciousness. However, the introduction of consciousness into the flow of how one gets from freedom to ethics is not without its problems.


As we have seen previously in the examples of bad faith, from both psychological determinism and albeit a mis-representation of psychoanalysis, of which we can construe these are but two, Sartre obviously realised that consciousness plays a major role in the acceptance or not of one’s freedom. In both examples it was the decision of consciousness to reject freedom and act in bad faith; even in the psychoanalytic example because the individual’s consciousness chooses to believe that they have a motivating unconscious force guiding their actions which they can not necessarily control. Conversely then, the opposite must surely apply and I can consciously decide to accept my freedom and act in ‘good faith.’ And, as we are starting to understand, the role of consciousness within Sartre’s thinking must not be overlooked. Acting in ‘good faith’ is a decision, taken by consciousness that actively chooses to embrace the freedom contained within each of us. The importance of my applying such a direct spotlight is that, according to Sartre, our actions come after consciousness: the decision to be responsible comes after our consciousness. This is no small footnote regarding Sartrean thinking but rather a somewhat overlooked major cornerstone to his thought that has massive implications when placed in contrast to his contemporary Levinas who believed the opposite and stated that responsibility comes before consciousness. So, this could be a problem. Who is right? Sartre or Levinas?

Well, let’s not start nailing our trousers to one or the other’s masts just yet. Sartre has another problem. One also has to make a ‘leap of faith’ to overcome a different inherent philosophical chestnut when starting out towards ethics from ontological precepts: The question of identity.


The question of identity becomes an issue because just who is it that accepts responsibility for my actions when I am free to change my identity if, according to Sartre, I have no pre-determined essence? The consciousness which I possess as a being-for-itself gives me freedom, but at the same time prevents me from having an essence from which I could gain an identity. Christina Howells highlights this dilemma:

“Consciousness is entirely spontaneous, caused neither by the world nor by its own past. It is defined in radical opposition to the being of things which is solid, self-identical, subject to the laws of causality.”

The difficulty that Sartre set himself, then, is that one can’t get to, or possess, an identity if one has consciousness. If I were to have identity then I would lose my freedom and consciousness and I would be, in effect, dead. The only way for me to have both freedom and identity would be for me to be God: an impossibility for Sartre and, let’s be honest, rightly so.


There is a solution that Sartre provides to this problem, however, and it goes something like this: The free person has to choose how to act and decide what they should do and what they should not do. Whatever they decide, though, they have to take responsibility for their actions and face up to the moral implications of those actions. But how can they if they have no identity? For Sartre, and here comes the solution, it is precisely because ‘man’ has no identity and has nothing at his heart that he is free to choose how he acts, and in doing so he will invent himself.

Now, let’s go carefully here, because it seems that Sartre might be philosophically lifting himself up by his bootstraps or he might just have resolved that which at first glance appeared unresolvable. ‘Man’, and we have to recognise that Sartre was unfortunately bereft of certain fundamental feminist principles, by having no fixed identity can be free to act as ‘he’ wishes. Or, to put it another way, the fact that I don’t have an identity actually acts to reinforce my freedom. So, I have freedom, but no identity. Plus, as we know, I also have consciousness. In order to be a Sartrean citizen I have to relinquish any ideas I might have regarding my identity, remember existence precedes essence. And, if one thinks about it, this is actually congruent with Sartrean logic because freedom means no fixed identity. Today I’m a primary school teacher in Bristol, tomorrow I might be a train driver in Aviemore, Scotland. Who knows what will happen? Freedom is limitless. Perhaps, though, I can think further than Aviemore and trains?


The encapsulation Sartre gave to this overcoming of the problem of identity was “You are free to choose, that is to say, invent.” So, it seems that as well as being condemned to be free, we are also condemned to invent ourselves; there is nothing else we can do.

However, and this takes us back to our first discussion point, we have to take moral responsibility for any ‘invention’ we apply to ourselves, and we cannot apportion blame to anyone else for our actions, because we are completely free to choose our invention. The invention of ourselves comes from our freedom not from what someone else dictates we should be.

And this is where Sartre attacks that first problem head on (as to whether responsibility comes after consciousness, as opposed to Levinas who believes the ordering of the two is reversed). Towards the end of Being and Nothingness, all right let’s state it, on page 553, Sartre writes:

“We are taking the word ‘responsibility’ in its ordinary sense as ‘consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object’.”

Our consciousness, then, gives us no wriggle whatsoever in terms of it being ‘me’ who has performed the action of eating all the chocolate mousse in the fridge. Even if I try to blame it on Peter for egging me on, really it was my choice to actually eat all the mousse. I am the incontestable author of the great chocolate mousse theft and, importantly, I am conscious as to my responsibility. I alone must take the rap for this heinous crime.


All of which means, as a freely choosing being-for-itself however I invent myself, I have to take responsibility for my actions, even the ones in the past when I was a primary school teacher in Bristol (as I said at the time, I’m really sorry that Kevin the gerbil jumped out of my hands during show and tell and was never to be seen again). There can be no running away from moral responsibility as far as Sartre was concerned, even if we have no logically provable identity.

Maybe that’s the key here to the Levinas – Sartre debate as to which comes first: responsibility or consciousness. Both Levinas and Sartre would fall foul of any logically provable test applied to their thinking on responsibility and consciousness (see post 25 for Levinas). For Sartre, the foul occurs due to there being no actual, logical provaable, guarantee that having consciousness means one will bear the burden of their responsibility. Someone might just shrug and state I don’t care, which would make them ammoral, according to Sartre. And, for a different person to shy away and ooze out of the door to evade being caught with their spoon in the chocolate mousse would make that person ethically immoral, as far as Sartre was concerned. This is because they know they are doing something wrong but, yet, still they go ahead and do it. And, if they proceed to blame Peter, upon capture or declare that they had to eat the chocolate mousse to save the planet from evils of chocolate and that really their actions are entirely necessary to save the rest of the human race, then they are going to be called ‘coward’ or ‘scum’ by Sartre because they are acting in bad faith. However, whatever Sartrean name calling might be applied, the logical point still stands that having consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean that one has responsibility.


Sartre’s logical side-step at this point, however, is to state that freedom implies a kind of moral imperative, which of course is predicated upon a desire in the individual to actually be good in the first place. Those who shrug, shy away and evade in their acts of bad faith aren’t really his audience. Instead, Sartre is trying to appeal to those who want to be good. So the penultimate play that Sartre makes before setting out his thoughts on how each one of us are our own ongoing project, is to rework a favourite Kierkegaardian theme: authenticity. Reliance on any kind of religious faith and also being true to oneself are dismissed, of course, in favour of always acting in good faith.

The much discussed bad faith has it’s mirror in good faith or being authentic. In his Sartre: A Philosophic Study, Anthony Manser discusses Sartre’s notion of authenticity by referring to Sartre’s own work, Anti-Semite and Jew, from which Manser quotes:

“Authenticity, it is obvious, consists in having a lucid and truthful awareness of the situation, in bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands, in taking it upon oneself with pride or humility, sometimes with horror and hatred.”


Manser continues to examine criticisms of Sartre’s notion of authenticity. However, instead of parroting Manser I want to try and get a little further under the skin and look at authenticity afresh. “Bearing the responsibilities and risks which the situation demands” surely means sticking with the situation or problem and not running away from it or trying to shove someone else in to act as scapegoat or protagonist when actually it is “I” who must see the thing through. But it is also realising that my own freedom has brought me to this position. I have chosen to be in the situation that I now find myself and therefore I should act in good faith by being fully present and engaged and accepting of whatever comes, whether it is “pride or humility” or the more terrifying “horror and hatred.” If one stops to pause or reflect on the number of occasions one has been in a meeting, at a party, chatting to one’s partner, or walking one’s child to school and asks the simple question “Am I here and engaged or am I wishing that I was somewhere else?” then the difference between being authentic and being in bad faith should be brought into relief and easy to understand. For Sartre, at every instance, he would state that we have chosen to be where we are and that we should accept and affirm that choice by being authentic in that situation.

Possibly, there is a confrontation with Heidegger’s notion that we are thrown into the world, with Sartre taking a more affirmative stance in stating that we choose to be here. However, the Sartrean point that I want to stay with, though, is that all the way through he is fighting to get to this sense of responsibility. Sometimes, even he knows the precise logic of his argument is flawed and sometimes others have applied criticisms which if taken on there on act to disable Sartre’s particular argument at that moment. However, even agreeing that there are flaws, I’m still left with the insights, thoughts and ideas, we have seen, which even if they talk on the edges of ethics as opposed to neatly leading step by step to ethics are still sharp, meaningful and powerful. The thoughts, the glimpses, that Sartre shows, I think, do start to add up to something unique and important for everyone, not just philosophers, to understand. Plus, the yearning he has to demonstrate ethics and responsibility are palpable and present, and this can only add to his body of work. So, foundational, step-by-step, logically precise pathways be damned. I know there is wisdom to be found in Sartre’s walking and talking that circles around the edges of ethics, even with its name calling. So, as wait for our last Sartrean episode, I would like you to raise your glasses and cheer: For freedom, for responsibility and for authenticity!


2 thoughts on “47. Responsibility

  1. Dr Walsh,

    Concerning the phrase, “The only way for me to have both freedom and identity would be for me to be God”, is this a paraphrase of Sartre’s own words or an interpretation? Could you possibly point me to where this was drawn from?

    Also, great blog and communication of complex ideas to novices. Thanks!


    • Dear Servaas, a paraphrase, I’m afraid. Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism is the easiest source or, obviously, Being And Nothingness if you’re feeling brave! Best wishes, Jim


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