Your own freedom
has brought you to this position.

You have chosen to be
where you now find yourself.

So, act in good faith
by being fully present and engaged.

Take responsibility
and accept whatever comes.

With pleasure, with humility, with love, with terror,
own what is yours.

As far as Jean-Paul Sartre was concerned, 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 reveal consciousness, which entails responsibility. You simply cannot believe and choose without understanding responsibility.

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.

There is a logical problem at work here, though, within Sartre’s thoughts. Just having consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean that one has responsibility. There is no logical 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. If they do care and know they are doing something wrong but, yet, still they go ahead and do it, then they will be immoral. Unfortunately, responsibility can be evaded or even ignored.

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 was trying to appeal to those who want to be good. To do this he reworked a favourite Kierkegaardian theme: authenticity.

Anthony Manser discusses Sartre’s notion of authenticity by referring to Sartre’s 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.”[1]

“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 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 where 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.

If we choose to be good, as opposed to choosing to be amoral or immoral, then we have to accept our responsibility and in doing so we will be authentic.

[1] Manser, A. Sartre: A Philosophic Study, The Althone Press, 1966, 155.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

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

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