Bad Faith

In the face of freedom
can come anguish.

This becomes bad faith
if one flees or tries to hide.

Hiding, surprisingly,
can take place in many forms.

Psychological determinism
strains to stifle freedom,

As do excuses
or belief in one’s existence as necessary.

A critical issue for Jean-Paul Sartre, is whether each of us can stay with the anguish that appears in the face of freedom. Or, whether instead, we flee and duck behind the nearest sofa pretending the anguish isn’t there.

Flights from anguish, for Sartre, amount to what he called acts of ‘bad faith’. So, if a student, using Gregory McCulloch’s favoured example of a typical British university scholar, decides to view their life as being psychologically determined because their parents have instilled in them certain values that prioritise education. Then, according to Sartre, they are acting in bad faith. This is because they do not accept their freedom and they try to hide from it in the manner of one who is guilty. By endeavouring to flee from the anguish induced by their freedom, the student, according to Sartre, attempts to fill the void of nothingness, which is present within each of us. Following the logic through, any such attempt to fill the void of nothingness in such a manner denies our very capacity for being human. The student following their parents’ directive consequently becomes a puppet or, to be more precise, hides from freedom by adopting the role of puppet.

Early on in Being and Nothingness, when his thoughts revolved around notions of consciousness, Sartre outlined bad faith as follows: “one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.”[1] The issue being that such “hiding” or “presenting” is done to oneself, within one’s own consciousness: “Bad faith… implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness.”[2] This was a point of clarification that Sartre wanted to make within a discussion regarding the presence of others. From this point he could then get to a summary position, with the correct groundwork in place, to make the claim that it is within one’s consciousness that ownership lies and the responsibility for choosing to act in bad faith. Or, as Sartre stated, “one does not undergo his bad faith; one is not infected with it; it is not a state. But consciousness affects itself with bad faith.”[3]

Regarding the decision to act in bad faith, Sartre states “there must be an original intention and project of bad faith.”[4] This means that, as well as taking place within the closed and isolated environment of one’s consciousness and not being predicated upon any external influence or condition, “a person can live in bad faith… which implies a constant and particular style of life.”[5] Such a decision to act in bad faith therefore becomes both an internal conscious event, with no primary external cause, and also a behaviour pattern that one accepts and conditions one’s life by.

Perhaps, at this point, it should be explicitly noted that in no way was Sartre sympathetic to anyone acting in bad faith. For this behaviour alone, he reserved his most cutting remarks:

“I can form judgements upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, – I shall call scum.”[6]

For Sartre, standing quietly by, denying responsibility, giving up due to excuses, or proclaiming one’s presence as necessary (as if put on earth by God to do his/her will) were positions to be fought against. For him, each of these positions came under the bracket of ‘bad faith’ and as such they run completely counter to how he thought any human life should be led.

No compromises. Accept your freedom and take responsibility for your actions.

[1] Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995, 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet,Methuen, 2007, 52.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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