Police Code of Conduct and the Ethics of W.D. Ross

The Police Code of Conduct designed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stresses the ethical responsibilities all police officers are to observe. Police officers are bound by a strong sense of duty to the communities they serve. Philosopher W.D. Ross developed an ethical theory based on the concept of duty, but he recognized in a complicated world a moral agent could find themselves in moral dilemmas where adhering to one moral duty could conflict with another moral duty. To be a police officer is to work with humanity in a very complicated world. Therefore, it is appropriate to explore the dynamics of the Police Code of Conduct through the ethical theory of W.D. Ross.

Ross’s theory has three core principles; (1) ethical non-naturalism, (2) ethical intuitionism, and (3) deontological pluralism and prima facie duties (Simpson, online). Ethical non-naturalism simply asserts moral claims are absolutely true or false and the truth of moral claims depends on if the moral claim corresponds with the way the world objectively is (ibid.). An act is absolutely right or wrong, and to know if an act is right or wrong depends on if the act being right or wrong matches with the way society ideally functions.

Ethical intuitionism is the way we come to know and understand the truth of moral claims (ibid.). For Ross, moral truths become self-evident “when we have reached sufficient mental maturity and have given sufficient attention” to the moral claim (ibid.). As any act is absolutely right or wrong, a thoughtful and intelligent individual just knows if the act is right or wrong by using their common sense (ibid.).

Deontological pluralism asserts individuals have many duties, and adherence to one’s duties takes precedence over the consequences of any act (ibid.). Prima facie duties are duties which are self-evidently right (ibid.). Although Ross made duty paramount to consequences, prima facie duties recognize that individuals can face conflicts between duties which can be resolved through common sense (Skelton, online). Prima facie duties are not absolute obligations (ibid.). One prima facie duty may override another prima facie duty if doing so makes sense for the situation (ibid.). Prima facie duties cannot be given a priority ranking because every situation needs to be considered in itself for the appropriate response (Simpson, online; Skelton, online). For Ross, the appropriate response best matches the way society ideally functions; the response that best results in the higher end (ibid.). For example, suppose a person is speeding to rush a critically injured friend to the hospital. The person knows they have duty to not speed because its the law and it is dangerous to oneself and others, but the duty to save a life overrides the duty to not speed.

Several of Ross’s prima facie duties correspond with the IACP’s stated responsibilities for police officers. Ross’s prima facie duties include: fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-maleficence, beneficence, self-improvement and justice (Simpson, online). To exemplify the duty of fidelity, meaning to be loyal, trustworthy and dependable, is mentioned in the code under “Integrity,” “Confidentiality,” and “Private Life” (IACP, Police Code of Conduct). Police officers preserve the integrity of the position by being trustworthy, loyal and dependable to the communities they serve, on and off duty (ibid.).

To exemplify non-maleficence, or to not cause harm, is mentioned in the code under “Use of Force” (ibid.). Police officers have a duty to avoid harm when at all possible (ibid.). However, also in conjunction with the code’s duty of “Discretion,” if force is deemed necessary due to the situation, police officers have a duty to avoid unnecessary force, and to not behave cruelly or inhumanely (ibid.). The duty of “Discretion,” in line with Ross’s theory, recognizes the potential for conflicts to arise from two competing duties, but calls on police officers to be reasonable in examining the situation so that their response best achieves the higher end (ibid.).

To exemplify self-improvement is the duty of “Personal-Professional Capabilities” (ibid.). Police officers are to seek to improve themselves by furthering their knowledge and competence of all aspects of their position in order to efficiently and effectively perform their duties (ibid.). Finally, the duty to observe justice is paramount for police officers. Under the “Primary Responsibilities of a Police Officer” it is emphasized officers are to “ensur[e] the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice” (ibid.). The “Primary Responsibilities of a Police Officer” and “Performance of the Duties of a Police Officer” stress serving and protecting the community by treating all equally and enforcing the laws appropriately, both of which are significant elements of justice (ibid.).

Let’s look at the example of the speeder again. An officer performs a traffic stop and pulls over the speeder. The officer has a duty to apply the law consistently, but the duty to help the injured individual is more paramount. So, the officer leads the vehicle to the hospital or calls an ambulance with performing first aid on the injured person. Regarding the speeder, the officer forgoes the ticket and instructs the person to call an ambulance if they should find themselves in a similar situation in the future.

Ross sees all of the prima facie duties as being self-evident facts of the world, and as such, must be adhered to. Ross recognizes moral agents in a complicated world will find themselves in situations where these duties conflict with one another. However, in any given situation a thoughtful and intelligent moral agent will reasonably use their common sense to recognize the duty which has priority over the others and thus requires acting in accordance with. Perhaps the greatest skill a police officer could cultivate is exactly this sense of reasonable consideration to the performance of their duties.


Works Cited

IACP, “Code of Ethics,” http://www.iacp.org/codeofethics

Skelton, Anthony, “William David Ross”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/william-david-ross/&gt;.

Simpson, David L, “William David Ross (1877-1971),” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy<http://www.iep.utm.edu/ross-wd/&gt;.

*I wrote this piece as an undergraduate student. I was invited, as a philosophy student pursuing minors in Ethics and Peace and Justice Studies – thus, with an interest in types of policing and excessive force – to write this piece as part of an Ethics in Emergency Services panel of a Emergency Services conference at UVU.

Egalitarian Liberal Feminism and Justification for Restrictions on Non-Violent Pornography

Feminist arguments regarding pornography have run the gamut from full-fledged support for individuals’ rights to decide and act on their own moral convictions regarding pornography to all-out condemnation for pornography due to its claimed propensity to reinforce the subjection and domination of women. Egalitarian liberal ideologies, as formulated by John Rawls and based on Immanuel Kant’s moral and political theories, assert each autonomous individual is due the same scheme of equal basic liberties as every other individual. These theories focus on autonomous individuals’ reserving the right to choose for themselves the means to their own happiness. Traditionally egalitarian liberal feminists have opposed restrictions on pornography, except perhaps in cases of violent pornography, by arguing such restrictions infringe upon the autonomy of individuals.

The central issue this paper seeks to explore is if liberal and egalitarian liberal theories can support restrictions on non-violent pornography.[1] In order to explore this issue, I first explicate the working definition of pornography for this argument. Secondly, I detail relevant aspects of two prominent classical liberal theories and a modern egalitarian liberal theory, namely John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant’s moral and political theories followed by John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. Next, I offer two feminist viewpoints regarding pornography, namely the feminist theory of Catherine MacKinnon, with additional support from Rae Langton, as well as the egalitarian liberal feminist theory of Martha Nussbaum. Next, I argue yes, liberal and egalitarian liberal theories can be used to support restrictions on pornography if certain necessary conditions apply. If women, within liberal societies, cannot make autonomous choices because they have been denied equal basic liberties, then egalitarian liberal theory can support intervening through restrictions on pornography in order to promote equality. I grant the complicated nature of such a conditional claim and raise questions which need to be addressed in order to support such a claim. Therefore, I ultimately argue the most important question remaining to be addressed for proponents of liberalism is if pornography does, and if so to what extent it does, produce the harms to women MacKinnon and Langton claim.

One’s convictions regarding pornography are typically connected with one’s definition of pornography, so it is crucial to begin by explicating the working definition of pornography so far as this paper is concerned.[2] Pornography, for the sake of this paper, is not to be considered any written, photographed, spoken or visually performed material that is sexually explicit.[3] If pornography is simply considered sexually explicit material, then anatomy textbooks and recordings of childbirth would be pornographic.[4] Pornography has previously been defined as any such material that is sexually explicit and designed to incite sexual arousal.[5] However, such a definition confuses the debate regarding pornography because it fails to account for different types of sexually explicit materials which incite sexual arousal; for example, there are widely accepted distinctions between violent and non-violent, as well as degrading and non-degrading, sexually explicit material. In other instances pornography’s defining characteristic has been posited as its being obscene or offensive.[6] Defining pornography as being obscene or offensive also causes confusion because what is obscene or offensive to one person may not be to another. The fact that individuals have such varied sensibilities regarding what is deemed obscene or offensive is one prominent reason why liberal theories argue for autonomous moral freedom.

Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin define pornography more specifically as:

“the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities, enjoying pain or humiliation or rape, being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised or physically hurt, in postures of sexual submission or servility or display, reduced to body parts, penetrated by objects or animals, or presented in scenarios or degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual”[7]

Pornography, under MacKinnon and Dworkin’s definition, is considered one or more of many specific acts demonstrated in sexually explicit written, photographed, spoken or visually performed material that is designed to incite sexual arousal in observers, which is harmful to women.[8] Pornography, then, excludes all sexually explicit material designed to incite sexual arousal which is not harmful to women.[9] Liberals certainly, as will be discussed later, view rights and liberties extending only so far as they do not harm others. However, MacKinnon and Dworkin’s definition, some might argue, assumes each and every one of these specific circumstances does in fact harm individuals to the extent that warrants restriction; some circumstances may be harmful enough to warrant restrictions, but others may not.[10] In order to overcome ambiguities, propensities toward succumbing to individual moral sensibilities, and any assumptions, pornography for the sake of this paper is understood as being sexually explicit written, photographed, spoken or visually performed material designed to incite sexual arousal in observers and which harms women.[11] Such a definition leaves out the specific details of what acts one might consider harmful. As such, this definition asks one to consider what constitutes harm and thus what acts are harmful.[12]

The concept of harm plays a prominent role in liberal conceptions of liberty. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill questions under what circumstances the government could legitimately restrict liberty. Mill offers his famous Harm Principle, which asserts “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is harm to others.”[13] Mill’s assertion is anti-paternalistic; individual liberty cannot be infringed upon for the sake of the individual’s own good.[14] Mill argues a robust scheme of liberties, including freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, is a “necessity to the mental well-being of mankind.”[15] Mill asserts individuals are free to act in accordance with their own judgments concerning a good life so long as it does not harm others.[16] The reason, Mill asserts, is because “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation,” whereas, “He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties.”[17] For Mill, individual liberty must be protected in society because it allows individuals to use their human capacities, capacities which are necessary for the advancement of humanity as a whole.[18]

Another prominent classical liberal, Immanuel Kant, doesn’t focus on harm in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, but he does discuss liberty as autonomy. For Kant, human rationality gives humans intrinsic value which leads Kant to the maxim “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.”[19] Humans exist as rational beings, which gives them dignity and autonomy; dignity and autonomy that needs to be respected for itself and no other reason. Kant’s maxim proscribes, via the Categorical Imperative, reciprocal duties between the individual and the whole. The Categorical Imperative asserts “act in accordance with a maxim that can at the same time make itself a universal law.”[20] If an act can be universalized, meaning if everyone could perform the act without it contradicting treating humans and humanity as ends in themselves, then the act is permissible. The individual must treat every other individual, and humanity as a whole, in such a way which respects the intrinsic value of human autonomy.

In A Theory of Justice, modern egalitarian liberal John Rawls bases his Theory of Justice, in part, on Kant’s moral theory. Rawls argues for two Principles of Justice which any rational, self-interested, individual behind a “veil of ignorance” would choose from an “original position” of equality.[21] Rawls asks people to image themselves in a position where they would create the political structure of their society from scratch. He is confident that if people are all equal and don’t know anything about their physical, social or psychological attributes nor knew what their society was like, then people would all voluntary and rationally agree to the Two Principles of Justice. The first principle, the Equal Basic Liberties Principle, asserts “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.”[22] In other words, everyone equally shares the same scheme of basic liberties.

The second principle, the Distributive Justice Principle, has two parts and asserts “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all…”[23] The first part of the Distributive Justice Principle, the Difference Principle, asserts if there are social or economic inequalities, then these inequalities must be to the greatest advantage to the worst off in society. The second part of the Distributive Justice Principle, the Fair Equality of Opportunity Principle, asserts if there are inequalities attached to positions and offices, then these offices and positions must be obtainable by any person equally capable of performing the job, regardless of their social position.[24]

The two Principles of Justice “primarily apply […] to the basic structure of society and govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages.”[25] The scheme of basic liberties includes, but is not limited to, “political liberty,” “freedom of speech and assembly,” “liberty of conscience and freedom of thought,” and “freedom of the person, which includes freedom from psychological oppression […].”[26] It is important to note, the Equal Basic Liberties Principle takes priority over the Distributive Justice Principle.[27] As such, each individual sharing an equal scheme of liberties comparable to others is paramount.

So far, several prominent themes have emerged, namely, the concepts of harm, liberty, equality and the interconnectedness between the individual and the society. Feminist theories specifically focus on these prominent themes. In Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech, Catharine MacKinnon argues pornography portrays women as unequal, thus harms their liberties.[28] MacKinnon argues women live in “a world of inequality.”[29] She argues, women are “socially defined” as being able to be treated by men, at any moment, as inferior; by being treated sexually as an object for use or being treated in society as not worth as much as men.[30] MacKinnon sees pornography as being a force for the social conditioning of men and women. She argues “It makes hierarchy sexy and calls that ‘the truth about sex’ or just a mirror of reality. Through this process, pornography constructs what a woman is as what men want from sex.”[31] The appropriate relations between men and women become defined by pornography, and each woman’s identity is measured by a comparison to pornography.[32] The women who exemplify the roles in pornography are seen as “most men’s equals” and “the most liberated” while at the same time being subjugated, “violated and possessed.”[33] MacKinnon argues “What pornography does goes beyond its content: it eroticizes hierarchy, it sexualizes inequality. It makes dominance and submission sex. Inequality is its central dynamic; the illusion of freedom coming together with the reality of force is central to its working […] The victim must look free, appear to be freely acting. Choice is how she got there. Willing is what she is when she is being equal.”[34] In other words, pornography makes the subjection and inequality of women sexual, then asserts that the women who agree to the subjection are the most free and equal.

The effect of pornography is to socially construct society’s views of “normal” interactions between men and women (sexually, personally, professionally and socially), as being the hierarchical domination and subjugation portrayed in pornography.[35] Men take on the role of domination, while women take on the role of subjugation and call such roles “normal” or “natural.” Pornography constructs the society in its own image, and thus, conceals itself.[36] The harm of pornography socially conditioning men and women to fulfill gender roles of domination and subjection is social and political inequality for women.[37] MacKinnon states “The harm of pornography, broadly speaking, is the harm of the civil inequality of the sexes made invisible as harm because it has become accepted as the sex difference.”[38] The roles of subjection and domination affect all areas of society; in personal, academic, professional and political relations women are judged as being generally inferior to men and judged individually based on how they fit into the role of subjection defined by pornography.[39] MacKinnon argues pornography “systematically silences” women.[40]

Pornography silences women in three ways. The social conditioning of pornography creates a social environment where: (1) women are “reluctant to speak at all,” out of fear of the consequences or not being certain as to if it is even appropriate for them to speak, (2) if women do speak, they are not taken seriously, “especially where what women say contradicts the picture of women contained in pornography,” and (3) if women do speak, what they say is not understood or is misunderstood.[41] The systematic silencing of women violates women’s equal rights to free speech.[42]

Rae Langton elaborates on and supports MacKinnon’s theory against liberal Ronald Dworkin.[43] Langton, in agreement with MacKinnon, asserts the issue is between pornographer’s rights to speech and women’s rights to speech.[44] Regarding equality, Langton notes two relevant quotes from Dworkin: (1) “[I]f we must make the choice between liberty and equality that MacKinnon envisages-if the two constitutional values really are on a collision course-we should have to choose liberty” and (2) “First Amendment liberty is not equality’s enemy, but the other side of equality’s coin.”[45] Regarding liberty, Langton asserts Dworkin’s liberal arguments against MacKinnon distinguish between negative liberty and positive liberty.[46] Negative liberty is the liberal concept of non-interference; it is not being obstructed from acting.[47] Positive liberty is having the ability to influence or participate in public decisions; it is “self mastery.”[48] Dworkin asserts negative liberties trump positive liberties and pornographer’s rights to freedom of speech are negative liberties, whereas MacKinnon’s argument seeks to gain positive liberties for women.[49] Langton argues MacKinnon conceives of speech as acts and pornography, by obstructing women from speaking at all or by obstructing their ability to convey what they seek to convey, is obstructing women from acting; their negative liberties are being infringed upon.[50] Therefore, the issue is one group’s negative liberties directly infringing upon another group’s negative liberties. In other words, women may be seeking self mastery, but they seek self mastery through illocution, and when their illocutionary acts are obstructed, their negative liberties are infringed upon. If pornographer’s negative liberties need to not be infringed upon based on the assertion that their illocutionary acts should not be obstructed, then if women’s negative liberties are being infringed upon because their illocutionary acts are being obstructed, then women’s negative liberties should not be infringed upon either. So, the question then becomes whose negative liberties win out and why?

Egalitarian liberal feminists approach the issue by emphasizing personal autonomy; women, above all, should reserve the right to choose their own conceptions of a good life.[51] As such, egalitarian liberal feminists traditionally have been strong proponents of pornographer’s rights to free speech.[52] Martha Nussbaum is an egalitarian liberal feminist following in the tradition of John Rawls. In “The Future of Feminist Liberalism,” Nussbaum doesn’t address pornography, but her arguments can be applied to the discussion regarding pornography. She argues human nature is comprised of a rational aspect and an animalistic aspect, and as such, both aspects need to be in a balanced relation to each other.[53] Nussbaum argues, in line with Marx, that humans are “in need of a rich plurality of life-activities.”[54] Any single human life has different stages with corresponding attributes. Further, Nussbaum argues, humanity’s plurality of life-activities should be nurtured by capabilities.[55] Therefore, instead of Rawls’s basic primary liberties, the political and social promotion of Aristotelian-like capabilities which are determined by taking into consideration humans as having a plurality of life-activities would bring the two aspects of humanity (rationalistic and animalistic) into a balanced relation.[56] Social and political institutions, per Nussbaum, should be created based on considerations to human nature, stages in human life and capabilities.[57] Nussbaum argues the Aristotelian/Marxian concepts can form a liberal political theory which preserves autonomous choice regarding conceptions of the good life by “insisting the appropriate political goal is capability only.”[58] Nussbaum asserts “citizens should be given the option, in each area, of functioning in accordance with a given capability or not so functioning.”[59] Further, Nussbaum states, “To secure a capability to a citizen it is not enough to create a sphere of non-interference: the public conception must design the material and institutional environment so that it provides the requisite affirmative support for all the relevant capabilities.”[60] In other words, one can choose whether or not to partake of a given capability, but the social and political environment must support all capabilities which are required for nurturing the plurality of life-activities.

Nussbaum’s list of capabilities includes but is not limited to “Senses, Imagination, and Thought,” “Practical Reason,” and “Control over one’s Environment.”[61] Among the freedoms under “Senses, Imagination and Thought,” Nussbaum includes “Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech […].”[62] Under “Practical Reason,” Nussbaum states one must be “able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about planning one’s life.”[63] Finally, to have “Control over one’s Environment,” is “Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.”[64]

Nussbaum, as Mill, Kant, Rawls and other liberals, conceive of the protection of liberty as the guiding principle restricting or legitimizing the role of the government in any social situation. Nussbaum argues the capability of autonomy must be nurtured by political and social institutions. Autonomy is being able to decide for oneself what a good life is, it is having the ability to have a say in political decisions which affect one’s life, and to not be obstructed from expressing oneself. Mill argues an individual’s liberty can only be restricted if it is used to harm others. Liberty, for Mill, is only protected until it infringes upon another’s liberty. Kant argues the maxim by which all must abide is to respect individual autonomy, and to deny an individual their ability to make autonomous choices is to treat them as a means to an end. Rawls makes liberty the foundation of the political structure with the Equal Basic Liberties Principle which overrides any other consideration. For Rawls, the Equal Basic Liberties Principle requires every individual has the same scheme of liberties, including the freedom to speech, freedom to decide for themselves what a good life is, and freedom against “psychological oppression.” In the first quote offered by Langton, Dworkin places liberty ahead of equality. Liberal theories make individual liberty, as autonomy, paramount.

Equality is also a key principle in liberal theory. Kant argues every individual, equally, must be treated as an end in themselves; no one individual is more an end than others. Rawls argues all liberties must be equal; no one has a more extensive scheme of liberties than others. Further, Rawls argues, if there is an unequal distribution of liberties, the inequality must be to the advantage to the worst off in society, in order to promote equality. Nussbaum’s capabilities would not prioritize one group over another. Dworkin claimed, perhaps inconsistently, in the second quote offered by Langton, liberty and equality are necessarily conjoined.

Mill recognizes the interconnectedness of the individual and society; the individual human to the rest of humanity. He recognizes how the human and humanity exist in a relation where one can harm the other. Kant also recognizes the interconnectedness of the individual human to the rest of humanity by asserting individuals exist in reciprocal relations where one person’s autonomy can be hindered or promoted depending on being treated as a means or an end by another person. His moral maxim proclaims every individual has a duty to promote the autonomy of themselves, others and humanity as a whole. Rawls’s Two Principles of Justice offer a vision of a society where equality and liberty can exist together harmoniously because both are integral to the very structure of the society.[65] For Rawls the liberty of the individual human exists in an interconnected relation based on equality with the human society as a whole. To justify the Distributive Justice Principle, Rawls recognizes individuals exist in social relations where advantages or disadvantages due to birth or nature can be perpetuated generation after generation. Nussbaum utilizes Aristotelian and Marxian conceptions of human nature to justify her list of capabilities; concepts which inherently imply individuals are deeply interconnected with other members of the society.

Liberals seek liberty through the individual being able to make meaningful autonomous choices. Meaningful autonomous choices are choices free from any obstruction; choices which promote the psychological autonomy of the individual and humanity. If MacKinnon and Langton are correct about the harm to women, then pornography denies women liberty, as autonomy, and equality due to the interconnectedness between individuals and society. If pornography socially conditions women to think their proper role is subjection and men’s proper role is to dominate them, then this automatically infringes upon women’s autonomy. How could any woman decide for herself what her conception of a good life is when she has been socially conditioned to think the good life entails the role pornography defines for her? How could any woman ever participate effectively in pursuing her conception of a good life if her illocutionary acts are obstructed by being either reflections of or interpreted by others as being reflections of the role pornography has assigned her?

Even if a woman could break free of the social conditioning of pornography, and chooses a conception of the good life which entails the role defined by pornography, if society itself cannot break out of the roles socially conditioned by pornography, then the woman’s choice only serves to perpetuate the subjection of other women by justifying, and thus continuing, the social conditioning. Her choice would be harming other women; it would not be promoting the autonomy of other women. Her choice might be autonomous, but it would reinforce a dominant perception of women as defined by pornography and justify and perpetuate the socially conditioned roles precisely due to the interconnectedness of human society. Liberty truncated by inequality cannot give rise to meaningful autonomous choices, not for the individual and not for the group. Once individuals as a group are confined within a position of inferiority, their autonomous choices will always be restricted by that confinement, either by the social conditioning determining their choice or by the social conditioning determining others’ interpretations of their choice. Either way, due the interconnectedness of the individual to society, once inequality truncates autonomous choice, autonomous choice can only be made meaningful by ridding society of the social conditioning which gave rise to the inequality.

There are two ways women can be obstructed from making meaningful autonomous choices. First, women’s autonomy can be obstructed by being socially conditioned to believe a certain role is natural, which then prevents them from being able to autonomously conceive of, choose and act on their own conception of the good. Second, women’s autonomy can be obstructed by the choices individual women make (within a society dominated by sexism) being interpreted by others in society as justifying and perpetuating the roles assigned by social conditioning.[66] The concepts of harm, liberty, equality and the interconnectedness between the individual and the society are all significant aspects of liberal theory.  These concepts can be used to justify restrictions on non-violent pornography, if MacKinnon and Langton are correct about the harm caused to women by pornography.[67]

Liberal theories assert liberty is paramount. Liberty is achieved through autonomy. Equality is required for liberty. If women do not have equality, then they cannot have liberty. Pornography socially conditions the inequality of women and systematically silences women which restricts their autonomy and infringes upon their liberty.[68] Therefore, women do not have liberty or autonomy. Individuals have liberty only until that liberty harms others’ liberty. The government can interfere by restricting the liberty of a dominant group in order to promote the liberty of the worst off group; in order to achieve equality. Pornography socially conditions gender roles of domination and subjection, placing women in an unequal, inferior position to men.[69] The liberty of pornographers is the liberty of a dominant group and perpetuates the unequal social and political status of a dominant group.[70] Therefore, the government can interfere by restricting the liberty of pornographers in order to promote the equality of women. If liberty is paramount and women’s liberty is being infringed upon by non-violent pornography, then egalitarian liberal feminist theory requires the government restrict non-violent pornography.

The argument I am presenting rests on a conditional claim: If MacKinnon and Langton are correct about the harm done to women by pornography, then egalitarian liberal feminist theory can be used to justify restrictions on non-violent pornography. I grant this is a very complicated claim because it rests on empirical verifiability.[71]  Further, this claim is complicated by the fact that it rests on historical, psychological and sociological empirical verifiability. Several studies have been conducted on whether violent pornography can contribute to higher incidents of violence toward women, but none have been conclusive because many findings from single studies contradict other studies and because causation is generally not a straightforward, clearly established, concept.[72] Empirical verifiability is a difficult requirement to meet even when what is being studied has physical manifestations reducible to single individuals within a well-defined period of history.[73] MacKinnon and Langton’s claims make empirical verifiability even more elusive because the manifestations being sought are psychological and dispersed society wide throughout history. I have been unable to find any studies on whether the social conditioning MacKinnon and Langton describe really has the harmful effects they claim it does.[74] However, if liberal theory does truly value liberty and equality, then it should be willing to do whatever possible to ensure every individual has liberty and equality. Kant argued we have a moral obligation to pursue what we have deemed morally worthy of value and respect and we have no justification for not pursuing these values.[75]

Therefore, for egalitarian feminist liberals, it seems the most important questions to research require an examination of the historical, psychological and sociological phenomenon of pornography and its effects on social conditioning. The questions are: Does pornography socially condition individuals to fulfill gender roles as portrayed in pornography? If so, has the social conditioning of women throughout history, due to pornography, created a psychological predisposition for women to fulfill the role of subjection and for men to fulfill the role of domination? Do the roles of subjection and domination portrayed in pornography carry over to other aspects of society leading to social and political inequality for women?

Egalitarian liberal feminist theory values liberty, autonomy and equality. Liberty is achieved through autonomy and equality is necessary for liberty. If pornography socially conditions women to fulfill a role of subjection and men to fulfill a role of domination, then women’s liberty is infringed upon. If women are socially conditioned to view their proper role as subjection and men’s proper role as domination, then they are treated as unequal and cannot make meaningful autonomous choices. Liberal theory asserts an individual’s liberty can be restricted if it infringes upon another’s liberty and if inequalities exist they must be to the advantage of the worst off in society. If pornography perpetuates the inequality and domination of women, then allowing pornography would not be the advantage of the worst off in society. Therefore, egalitarian liberal feminist theory can justify restrictions on non-violent pornography. However, no evidence exists that suggests pornography does cause such harms to women because, that I am aware of, no research has been conducted toward the historical, psychological and sociological manifestations of the harms. Therefore, if liberty is truly valued, then the most urgent questions are those which require a historical, psychological and sociological investigation of pornography and its effects. These questions seek to determine whether pornography is socially conditioning and whether the social conditioning harms women socially and politically by obstructing their liberty.

[1] I am making an assumption regarding sexuality in exploring this issue which is unable to be addressed within the scope of this paper. I am assuming there is something inherently different about sex that separates it from other human activities; there is something fundamentally different about serving someone food and serving someone sex. As it currently stands, an individual is not socially defined by being a waiter/waitress to the extent that they are socially defined by being a man/woman.

[2] Caroline West, “Pornography and Censorship,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pornography-censorship/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Catharine A. MacKinnon, “From Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech,” in Doing Ethics, Ed. Lewis Vaughn, pg. 303

[8] West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cf. West

[11] Although the focus of this paper is specifically women, the definition is rightly extended to include any women, child, man, transgender person, or any other individual.

[12] West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[13] John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn, pg. 635

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. pg. 656

[16] Ibid. pg. 658

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 659

[19] Immanuel Kant, “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn, pg. 504

[20] Ibid. pg. 507

[21] John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn, pg. 694-698

[22] Ibid. pg. 699

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. pg. 700

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] For the summary of MacKinnon’s argument, I am using the term “pornography” to mean MacKinnon and A. Dworkin’s definition of it. For the remainder of the paper I will be using the term “pornography” as I defined it.

[29] MacKinnon, pg. 300

[30] Ibid. pg. 300-301

[31] Ibid. pg. 301

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. pg. 302

[36] Ibid. pg. 302-303

[37] One could argue men are harmed by the social conditioning of pornography. MacKinnon addresses similar arguments to this by agreeing it does, but by adding “whatever the damage of sexism is to men, the condition of being a man is not defined as subordinate to women by force,” pg. 300. Further, “as a social group, men are not hurt by pornography the way women as a social group are. Their social status is not defined as less by it,” pg. 304. Pornography harms women to a social and political degree beyond the issues of harm to the moral and personal development of men. Even if pornography did harm men to the degree it harms women, this still doesn’t provide justification for pornography-quite the contrary actually. Such arguments claiming men are harmed just as much as women seem to be red herrings.

[38] Ibid. pg. 304

[39] Ibid. pg. 305

[40] Ibid. pg. 310

[41] West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[42] MacKinnon, pg. 308-310

[43] Rae Langton, “Pornography: A Liberal’s Unfinished Business,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, (1999). Langton responds to Dworkin regarding MacKinnon’s theory. Dworkin argues for a liberal theory that supports “rights as trumps,” which per Dworkin would support the freedom of speech of pornographer’s because rights trump utilitarian goals. Per Dworkin, equality of pornographers to speech is a right whereas equality for women by censoring pornography is a goal. Langton utilizes Dworkin’s theories to show, if his theories are applied consistently, then his theories actually support MacKinnon’s arguments and the censorship of pornography.

[44] Langton, pg. 109-112; see also West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[45] Langton, pg. 115

[46] Ibid. pg. 118-119

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid. pg. 120-122

[50] Ibid. pg. 122-227

[51] Amy R. Baehr, “Liberal Feminism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-liberal/

[52] Ibid.; See also West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[53] Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Future of Feminist Liberalism,” Proceedings and the Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Nov. 2000). Pg. 50; 55

[54] Ibid. pg. 56

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid. pg. 54-55

[57] Ibid. pg. 56

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid. pg. 68

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Whether Rawls means harmoniously as in equilibrium or something else is up for debate. However, I don’t think either way it affects this argument because the argument I am offering via MacKinnon posits both women’s liberty and equality are not harmoniously achieved within liberal societies which allow pornographer’s liberties over women’s liberties.

[66] Along with R. Dworkin, it could be argued individual rights to autonomy, in this case the individual woman’s right to autonomy, trumps the goal of autonomy for the group of women because individual autonomy serves a greater purpose in that it is necessarily instrumental for a higher end (similar to Mill’s argument regarding free speech). The counter argument I am offering claims: (1) If social conditioning is true, then the woman may not be making an autonomous choice because her autonomy has been obstructed or (2) If social conditioning is true, then if the woman is making an autonomous choice, then her autonomous choice directly obstructs other women’s autonomous choices. If (2), and if there is interconnectedness within society, and if there is a higher end to be achieved through autonomy, then everyone’s autonomy needs to be promoted. This is the liberal’s conundrum. Charles Taylor points out something very similar, albeit not regarding pornography, as being liberalism’s contradiction in “Atomism,” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn, pg. 729-742. To promote autonomy means to interfere with autonomy. The argument I am offering implicitly challenges liberals to answer questions regarding social conditioning and the interconnectedness of society in order to then proceed to address the issue of the liberal contradiction in regards to pornography, instead of just side stepping the issue as Dworkin seems to do.

[67] Cf. West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[68] Conditional Proof.

[69] Conditional Proof.

[70] Conditional Proof.

[71] West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[72] Ibid.; See also Larry Baron, Ph.D., “Pornography and Gender Equality: An Empirical Analysis,” The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 27, No. 3, Feminist Perspectives on Sexuality, Part 2, (Aug. 1990). Pg. 364-365. Dr. Baron’s study found in U.S. societies where there was a high consumption of “soft core porn” there was a correlation with higher gender equality. Despite such claims, the study really doesn’t examine the aspect of social conditioning MacKinnon is addressing. MacKinnon is concerned with the types of pornography in which women are portrayed in roles of subjection, whereas, this study examined “soft core porn.” It is highly debatable as to if the types of pornography Dr. Baron’s study examined are the types of pornography MacKinnon is concerned with. Further, MacKinnon’s concern is that the consumers of pornography will reproduce the roles of subjection and domination it portrays. It is unclear in Dr. Baron’s study as to if the consumers of such material are the one’s promoting gender equality or if the correlation is coincidental because Dr. Baron did not study the psychological aspects of the issue; Dr. Baron only conducted a statistical analysis between two factors then assumed the correlation.

[73] West, “Pornography and Censorship”

[74] I did locate a study which examined women’s viewpoints about pornography. While such a study could be helpful as an initial starting point, it doesn’t examine if there are psychological and sociological manifestations of social conditioning due to pornography nor does it conduct a historical analysis of the psychological and social effects of pornography on men and women. See Charlene Y. Senn, “Women’s Multiple Perspectives and Experiences with Pornography,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 17 (1993).

[75] Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: ‘This May Be True in Theory, but It Does Not Apply in Practice,’” in Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, Ed. Steven M. Cahn, pg. 523. Kant states: “I may thus be permitted to assume that, since the human race is constantly progressing in cultural matters (in keeping with its natural purpose), it is also engaged in progressive improvement in relation to the moral end of its existence. This progress may at times be interrupted but never broken off. […] I am a member of a series of human generations, and as such, I am not as good as I ought to be or could be according to the moral requirements of my nature.”

Husserl and Heidegger: Rescuing Humanity from Mechanistic Rationality

Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger can both be read as addressing a crisis to humanity brought about by a tradition of mechanistic rationality. Husserl and Heidegger attempt to rescue individuals from a mechanistic rationality which reduces humans to machines in an industrialized world. I will argue if these thinkers are correct about the crisis, then these thinkers demonstrate how the root of the essence of existence is humanity’s most paramount question. I begin with summaries of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenological theories, specifically focusing on the problems and solutions for humanity as they see it. Next, I examine similarities and differences between the most significant elements of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s theories. I argue despite many similarities regarding the analysis of the problem, the differences between Husserl’s and Heidegger’s solutions is because Husserl views the essence of existence as being in the life-world while Heidegger views the essence of existence as being in time. Husserl’s solution makes historical inquiry secondary, while Heidegger’s solution makes it essential. I also explore what each solution means for historical inquiry as it relates to the thinkers’ ultimate purpose: getting the individual to reclaim their self-determination.

In The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Husserl addresses many Enlightenment thinkers because he sees them as influencing the tradition of mechanistic rationalist thinking that accumulates over centuries into a powerful driving force for his era’s crisis. Husserl specifically credits Descartes with initiating a switch to mechanistic rationality. Per Husserl, Descartes sought to bring all meaningful questions together under a set of rules, techniques and principles in order to demonstrate the objective truth of the answers to such questions (Husserl, 8-9). He states “Merely fact-minded sciences make merely fact-minded people” (Husserl, 6). Fact minded-minded people miss the most important questions of humanity; the questions which give human lives self-determination and meaning (ibid.). For Husserl such fact-minded, scientific, methodologies create several problems. These methodologies cannot answer metaphysical questions; the very questions which compose humanity’s more meaningful questions (Husserl, 11). Further, these methodologies are not able to tease apart the reason assigning meaning to the world from the reason actualizing the world (Husserl, 13). In other words, mechanistic rationality can’t separate itself out of the observation in order to see the world for how it is in itself. The result is that humanity loses faith in reason, falls into skepticism, and disregards its most meaningful questions (Husserl, 12-13).

Husserl asserts mechanistic rationality results in humanity overlooking the life-world, i.e. the real world experienced through perception, in favor of the mathematical world of idealities (Husserl, 48-49). The mathematical world of idealities acts as a “well-fitting garb of ideas,” “dressing [itself] up” as what is “‘objectively actual and true’” of the life-world (Husserl, 51). The problem is humanity mistakes the mathematical world, which is merely a methodology for predicting experiences within the life-world, for the life-world itself (ibid.). Humanity comes to believe the objective truth of existence is that the life-world is mathematical in itself and the senses provide at best subjective representations of the mathematical truths (Husserl, 54). As idealized mathematical truths are passed down through history, they become naively obvious, obscuring the original metaphysical meaning of the pursuits (ibid.). The crisis, per Husserl, is that the mechanistic rationality of science and mathematics toward the life-world strips away meaningful inquiry by turning a blind eye to the subjective way humans experience the life-world through perception.

Husserl’s solution is the self-reflective ego arrived at by an epoché, which is based on Descartes Method of Doubt. He asserts science and mathematics can “be and remain meaningful […] if the scientist has developed in himself the ability to inquire back into the original meaning of all his meaning-structures and methods,” which entails seeking and drawing out the original meaning of the pursuit (Husserl, 56). The first step in the epoché was realized by Descartes when he came to the indubitable conclusion that he, as an individual “ego,” existed because he was the one carrying out the epoché (Husserl, 77-78). The epoché is the process of suspending all judgments and observing how the individual ego constitutes meaning onto the life-world through perception (Husserl, 79). The ego examines the everyday attitude of the world and all that has been built into it as obvious by “bracketing” off all pre-conceived notions about the life-world in order to get to the rawness of experiencing the life-world (ibid.). By doing so, the ego recognizes itself as consciousness constituting meaning onto the life-world through unity and intentionality (Husserl, 77-78; 82-83; 158). Consciousness is intentionality in that it is always being directed toward something in the life-world (Husserl, 82-83; 160).  Consciousness constitutes meaning by unifying the perceptual temporal experiences of paying attention to the present raw experience, recollecting the past moments of the experience and predicting what the future of the experience will entail (Husserl, 160).

The problem for Husserl is that a history of mechanistic rationality has reduced the life-world to scientific idealities. The meaning of the human life-world does not exist pre-constituted, ready to be systematically dissected by a fully objective consciousness. The epoché demonstrates how the meaning of the human life-world exists as a constitution of the subjective conscious ego unifying intentionality. The danger of the ego being trapped in the false notions of the objectivity of the pre-constituted life-world is that it mistakes the life-world as mechanistic, which it then extends to humanity. Human rationality thus becomes a mechanistic thinking process for observing the life-world and each other, which reduces humans to mere machines calculating around everyday life instead of active members experiencing the life-world.

For Heidegger, in Being and Time, the most paramount question for humanity is the meaning of Being; the meaning of existence (Heidegger, 41).  A being, as an ontic distinction of an object or thing, is very different from Being, as an ontological realm of existence. Humans, as Dasein, are unique in their existence because they question Being, and this questioning constitutes an essential part of Dasein’s Being which can be examined (Heidegger, 48-49; 53). The process of understanding Being, thus, requires an examination of Dasein which allows Dasein to “show itself to itself on its own terms” (Heidegger, 59). Heidegger asserts the method must “show that being as it is at first and for the most part­­-in its average everydayness” (ibid.). Being for Dasein is temporal (Heidegger, 60). Dasein exists in time, and time separates Being for Dasein (Heidegger, 61). Time, he asserts, is not an objective structure of the world but a way humans experience existence. Heidegger states, “Dasein ‘is’ its past in the manner of its Being which, roughly expressed, actually ‘occurs’ out of its future” (Heidegger, 63). Dasein experiences existence through historicity (Heidegger, 64). Dasein exists at any moment as a culmination of the past that has shaped them, which in turns shapes the present moment and further shapes future moments.

Individuals can become ensnared by the tradition they are thrown into and through which they interpret themselves which also allows them to become ensnared by the underlying tradition of treating Being as a thing and time as an objective structure of the world (Heidegger, 65). The tradition in question for Heidegger, is the tradition of ontological inquiry ranging back to ancient Greece and running through the Enlightenment to his era. Heidegger asserts ancient Greek ontology can be seen influencing the way Dasein conceives of Being “in terms of the ‘world’” (ibid.). Per Heidegger, ancient Greek thought conceived of time as just another being, a thing of the world, not as an elemental part of how Being understands itself (Heidegger, 70). He states the tradition of viewing Dasein as existing in the world as opposed to existing in time has ensnared ontological inquiry up through Descartes and Kant, who both fail to inquire into the Being of the subjective inquirer and, thus, fail to inquire into the ontology of Dasein (Heidegger, 68).

Heidegger states, “Ontology is possible only as phenomenology” (Heidegger, 82). Heidegger’s phenomenological method involves destructuring. Destructuring critically examines the history of the ontological tradition in order to get to the “original ‘wellsprings’” and draw out all the accumulated influences which have shaped Dasein through it (Heidegger, 65-66). By destructuring the historicity of the ontological tradition and studying the culmination of inherited ways of thinking, Heidegger seeks to question Dasein itself.  For Heidegger, destructuring is an essential part of phenomenology in that it allows for the aletheia, or the unconcealment, of Being so that Being can be “seen from itself, just as it shows itself from itself” (Heidegger, 79; 81).  Language is an essential part of the unconcealment of Being in that it can “make manifest” Being (Heidegger, 78-79). In Letter on Humanism, Heidegger asserts Being is reflected in thinking, and thinking is primarily done in language (Heidegger, 217). Heidegger’s statement, “Language is the house of Being” exemplifies how Being resides in language, and how language opens the door to reveal Being (ibid.). Therefore, the manner in which Dasein thinks and uses language is now a primary concern.

Heidegger asserts humanity has become ensnared in a tradition of depicting thinking as a technical and theoretic process, which he attributes to Plato and Aristotle (Heidegger, 218). Heidegger asserts thinking is an elemental part of Being (Heidegger, 220). When thinking is no longer of Being, then thinking ceases (ibid.). For Heidegger, technical and theoretic thinking, i.e. mechanistic rationality, is the result of thinking being no longer of Being, and thus, is the cessation of thought (Heidegger, 221). If language is of thinking, then a dominant use of language dispersed through society dictates what is “intelligible” and what is to be “rejected as unintelligible” (ibid.). A tradition of language which depicts thinking as a process of mechanistic rationality restricts thought by dictating what is to be considered appropriate ways of understanding existence, thus Being. The instrumental use of language as a tool for domination of thought by the public realm is an individual crisis and a crisis for humanity (Heidegger, 223). The crisis lies in regarding humanity solely with a scientific and “calculative” mindset, as mere “actualities,” as things to be examined and used (ibid.). To confine thinking to structured systems by dictating what are appropriate and inappropriate ways of thinking dominates individuality making individuals easy to control, manipulate, use and discard.

For Heidegger, the problem is that Being has been reduced to mere scientific postulations existing in the world, ensnared by a tradition of mechanistic rationality and dominated by a public realm which has turned language into a mere technical instrument. The most paramount question for humanity, Being, has been concealed. For Heidegger, the solution is destructuring the tradition one is thrown into, by critically examining the historicity of the tradition. Destructuring involves questioning the origination of every concept which has been taken as obvious, tracing each to its source and then examining and reinterpreting the sources from another viewpoint (Heidegger, 84). Dasein has, throughout history, been shaped by history at the same time as it creates history. To know itself, Dasein must conduct a historical analysis of its existence. Further, if Dasein is shaped, deterministically, by its history, then destructuring is the process by which Dasein reclaims its self-determination. Destructuring allows Dasein to unconceal Being and reclaim its freedom.

Husserl’s epoché and Heidegger’s destructuring both focus on the importance of metaphysical and ontological inquiry in order to get to the essence of existence. Husserl seeks to get to the individual consciousness existing in the moment constituting meaning onto the world, while Heidegger seeks to get to Being, in itself as it shows itself. Both see their era’s historical culmination of mechanistic rationality as being taken for obvious. Such taken as obvious ways of thinking have acted upon individuals in a detrimental way, shaping their existence. The purpose for both thinkers is to get the individual to reclaim their self-determination. Both suggest meaningful inquiry can arise from the individual examining the original meaning and wellsprings of the historical tradition to which they are present.

Despite Husserl’s and Heidegger’s similarities, their solutions treat historical inquiry very differently. Husserl’s epoché seeks to set aside all historical influences which have shaped the individual’s taken for obvious everyday attitude toward the world, and only focuses on original meaning. By setting aside the accumulated historical influences present in the everyday attitude the individual can get to the raw experience of the life-world through which consciousness constitutes meaning onto the world, which is the essences of existence. Conversely, Heidegger’s destructuring seeks to sift through all of the historical influences and all of the taken for obvious ways of thinking which are shown by the individual in their average everydayness. The historical influences which have shaped the individual are present in the individual’s average everydayness, and as such, the average everydayness should not be put aside but examined and questioned in order to unconceal Being, which is the essence of existence.

Husserl’s and Heidegger’s solutions differ because the thinkers begin from a fundamentally different view of existence. Husserl views the individual existing in the life-world, whereas Heidegger views the individual existing in time. For Husserl, the individual gets to the essence of existence by getting to the raw experience of the life-world. Historical inquiry, although important insofar as it gets to the original meaning of inquiry into the life-world, can be set aside because it is secondary to the life-world at the present moment. The individual reclaims their self-determination by stepping outside of the mechanistic rationality which views the life-world as a machine. By doing so, the individual experiences the life-world in a truly human way.

For Heidegger, the individual gets to the essence of existence through thought and language, which occur primarily in time. Historical inquiry cannot be set aside because the shape of thought and language throughout history is itself a reflection of Being, although at times more concealed than others. Every individual Dasein today has been shaped by the metamorphosis of language and thought throughout history. The individual reclaims their self-determination by destructuring and reinterpreting the past that has shaped them. By doing so, the individual can break out of the conformity of the tradition of mechanistic rationality.

The question that remains is: Where does the essence of existence lie? If the essence of existence is indeed rooted in the life-world, then the individual sifting through history detracts from the raw experience of the life-world and is thus detrimental to reclaiming self-determination. If the essence of existence is in time, then the individual ignoring the way their existence has been historically shaped makes it impossible for the individual to reclaim self-determination.

Husserl and Heidegger view the greatest crisis to humanity as the tradition of mechanistic rationality which has deterministically taken over and transformed individual existence. Both assert the need for individuals’ to reclaim their self-determination. However, their solutions for doing so begin from fundamentally different views about where the essence of existence lies; either in the life-world or in time. The best solution, and thus the reclaiming of humanity’s freedom, depends on answering the question: Where does the essence of existence lie? Therefore, the root of the essence of existence is humanity’s most paramount question.

Sartre and Beauvoir’s Conceptions of Individual Freedom: Ethical Egoism and Ethical Altruism

A prominent theme throughout existentialist thought is the concept of individual freedom. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre discusses how individuals can restrict their own freedom by falling into “patterns of bad faith.” Sartre’s examples of bad faith place the individual freedom in conflict with others in the world. Sartre asserts individual freedom is a radical freedom achieved by transcending such conflicts. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, recognizes the ambiguity that arises from the individual being thrown into a world in which their individual freedom is in constant conflict with others. However, contrary to Sartre, Beauvoir offers many scenarios of bad faith demonstrating how individual freedom requires the individual maintain the ambiguity. In order to maintain ambiguity, one must engage with others in the world, and thus one’s freedom requires others in the world. For Beauvoir, individual freedom arises from the individual transcending their limitations.

For this paper, I explore Sartre and Beauvoir’s concepts of individual freedom in order to question how their theories could be applied to normative ethics. I begin with a summary of Sartre’s theory as it is portrayed through his examples of bad faith, specifically focusing on his concepts of facticity and transcendence. Next, I summarize Beauvoir’s theory through the examples of bad faith she offers while focusing on her concept of ambiguity arising from conflicting dual relations. I then demonstrate how both Sartre and Beauvoir conceive of the individual existing in relations with others. However, I show how Sartre’s conception of freedom requires the individual transcend these relations with others, whereas, Beauvoir’s conception of freedom requires the individual embrace these relations with others. Sartre places primary importance on the individual existing as an individual, whereas, Beauvoir stresses the importance of the individual existing in a unified way as both an individual and as a member of the aggregate. Therefore, I argue, it could be further questioned as to if Sartre’s theory lends itself to ethical egoism whereas Beauvoir’s theory lends itself to ethical altruism.

In “Bad Faith,” Sartre begins by asserting an embodied individual consciousness, as intentionality, arises from the “nihilation” of one’s own possibilities compared to others’ possibilities (Sartre, 137). Consciousness of being arises from negation (ibid.). Bad faith, for Sartre, is the “attitude” of “self-negation,” where “consciousness instead of directing its negation outward turns it toward itself” (Sartre, 138). It is, per Sartre, the practice of keeping an uncomfortable truth from oneself, or turning an uncomfortable truth into a more agreeable untruth (Sartre, 139). Bad faith involves an individual consciousness knowing and concealing the truth at the very same time (Sartre, 139-140).

Sartre offers two prominent examples of bad faith. In “Play-Acting,” Sartre offers an example of a woman who falls into a “pattern of bad faith” due to being undecided about the outcome of a first date with an admirer (Sartre, 146-147). The woman deflects her admirer’s verbal advances by reducing provocative comments to simply displays of respectful admiration (Sartre, 147). For her the desire, in its rawness, would be humiliating and horrifying, but at the same time, she welcomes the desire as being more than respect (ibid.). She requires that her admirer approach her in an integrated way that attends to her as a “personality” with “full freedom” as well as a desired “body as object” (ibid.). When her admirer takes her hand, she is profoundly faced with her freedom to choose (ibid.). In seeking to prolong the decision, she fully separates herself from her body and becomes entirely a personality (i.e. consciousness) trying to engage the personality of her admirer, while her hand is reduced to “a thing,” “neither consenting nor resisting” (Sartre, 147-148).

Sartre states “It is a certain art of forming contradictory concepts which unite in themselves both an idea and the negation of that idea” (ibid.). The woman responds to each interaction with her admirer by at the same time affirming and negating the physicality of his advances toward her. Sartre explains, in bad faith, humanity’s dual aspects of facticity and transcendence, which rightly should exist as a synthesis or in unison, are differentiated and transposed (ibid.). One flees from facticity to transcendence (Sartre, 149). Thus, one confuses facticity of oneself for transcendence, which allows them to flee from an uncomfortable truth, but at the same time makes them a “passive object” being acted on, unable to act freely because “all its possibilities are outside of it” (Sartre, 149; 148).

In “The Look” Sartre offers another example. Sartre describes the jealous lover peering through a keyhole at his desired with another person (Sartre, 259). The jealous lover is an unreflective consciousness fully immersed in the moment in time; immersed in the world of instrumentality and action solely directed toward his goal (ibid.). Sartre states “I escape this provisional definition of myself by means of all my transcendence. There as we have seen is the origin of bad faith” (Sartre, 260). During his immersion, the lover exists in a non-positional, unreflective consciousness, thus is unable to define himself, and escapes into a transcendence leading him to a nothingness which fully separates his consciousness from any notion of his facticity (Sartre, 260). The sudden approach of the Other’s look makes the lover’s unreflective consciousness an object of the world for the Other to judge, inducing shame, in which any free possibilities for him become obstacles and instruments for the Other (Sartre, 260-261; 264). The Other’s look orients the lover back in time and space, alienating him as being an object within the space and time of the Other (Sartre, 266-267). As an object within the space and time of the Other, the lover is simply an “unknown object of appraisals” (Sartre, 267).  His shame recognizes the justice of such appraisals, making him the object of judgment for a free being who transcends all of his free possibilities (ibid.).

Sartre’s two examples demonstrate how bad faith arises from an act of transcendence in which transcendence disengages itself from working with facticity, and is thus mistaken as facticity. In other words, where the individual mentally separates one’s being in the world from the “I am” notions of oneself, then mistakes one’s being in the world as the “I am” notions of oneself and vice versa. Such a separation allows one to flee from the uncomfortable truths of the world, but at the same time limits freedom by making the individual an object for another to act upon, either physically or mentally. One’s possibilities to act become either outside of oneself or mere obstacles to be overcome by another. Individuals require both facticity and transcendence working together to create one’s notion of themselves. The facts of an individual’s existence ground the individual, however, through transcendence the individual sees oneself as more than the facts of their existence; the individual judges themselves. Freedom is when the individual takes their facticity and through transcendence defines their own identity and gives their own existence meaning. An individual restricts their own freedom, and lives in bad faith, by succumbing to the judgments of others; by taking the judgments of others as representing who they are and as defining their existence.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir asserts to exist is to exist in ambiguity. Individual consciousness is thrown into an existence in which it is constantly aware that its existence is finite (Beauvoir, 7). The awareness of finitude drives the individual toward freedom. Ambiguity is the condition of a rational individual consciousness aware of itself as an individual striving for its own freedom yet coming into conflict with the world in which it exists restricting its individuality and freedom through objectification and aggregation (ibid.). Beauvoir states “at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men” (Beauvoir, 9). Individuals exist on a multitude of conflicting dual relations: encompassing at the same time life and death, as an individual yet as a part of an aggregate, in freedom as well as in servitude, and insignificant yet important. When individuals deny themselves any of these conflicting dual relations, they are living in bad faith.

Beauvoir asserts “To exist is to make oneself a lack of being; it is to cast oneself into the world” (Beauvoir, 42). Existence entails a negation of being because one can only exist within the confines of the world. Such a negation, while a part of existence, leads some to live in bad faith. “Sub-men” attempt to flee out of fear from the throwness of existence, but as they cannot help but exist in the world, they define their existence by mere facticity (Beauvoir, 42-43). The sub-man flees into “ready-made values” and “labels” to define themselves, thus, gives up their freedom by being easily controlled by the creators of those values and labels (Beauvoir, 44-45). The same fear of the ambiguous throwness of existence and the freedom it entails gives rise to the “serious man” (Beauvoir, 45). The serious man seeks to annihilate the freedom of their subjectivity by subjugating it to absolute, unconditional, values (Beauvoir, 45-46).

The serious man fails to recognize that their freedom is what establishes such absolute values, and as such, the serious man subjugates themselves to those values; forgetting freedom is the beginning and the end of human existence (Beauvoir, 48-49). The “military man” is an aspect of the serious man, who, besides subjugating themselves to absolute values, also attaches value to objects which represent those values (Beauvoir, 49). Such objects become more valuable than humanity and freedom (Beauvoir, 49). The serious man and the military man are dependent upon such values and objects for their existence, and as such, their existence fails to have meaning when such values or objects are removed (Beauvoir, 51). Due to not recognizing that their freedom gave rise to such attachments, the serious man and the military man become disillusioned by the removal of the values and objects they see as absolute; the values and objects become “arbitrary and useless” and their existence becomes meaningless (Beauvoir, 52).

The “nihilist” arises from “disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself” (Beauvoir, 52). The nihilist is the disillusioned serious man who escapes the anxiety of the freedom found in the realization of the subjectivity of the world by rejecting, or in extreme cases, annihilating, themselves and the world (Beauvoir, 53). The nihilist reduces themselves, others and the world to nothing which becomes a problem when such denial refuses freedom (Beauvoir, 55).

The “adventurer” can be born out of nihilism or a continuation of childhood, but regardless they fully engage themselves in the adventure or conquest without attachment to the end goal (Beauvoir, 58). The adventurer rejects seriousness, but is indifferent to the fact that their assertion of freedom occurs within the interconnectedness of humanity; the adventurer doesn’t recognize that freedom requires the freedom of others, and through asserting their freedom, the adventurer impinges on the freedom of others (Beauvoir, 60-61).

The “passionate man” desires the object of their attention as existing wholly within their subjectivity; as existing never truly known (Beauvoir, 64). The passionate man obstinately commits themselves to pursuing the object that cannot but continually exist for them at a distance, which makes the passionate man dependent upon such an object (Beauvoir, 65). The passionate man relegates their existence to a solitary lack of being; an unfulfilling solitary subjectivity which encompasses their existence and denies them freedom (Beauvoir, 65).

All of the examples of bad faith Beauvoir offers demonstrate how individuals restrict their freedom by trying to dissolve the ambiguity of the individual conflicting dual relations. Sub-men, serious man, and military man all restrict their freedom by making it subservient to others or values or objects. The adventurer and the passionate man deny their existence as interconnected with other human relations. The nihilist reduces themselves, humanity and the world to insignificance. Beauvoir states “no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself. It appeals to the existence of others” (Beauvoir, 67). Any individual must exist within the world and the world consists of the interconnectedness of human relations (Beauvoir, 69). Individuals are born free, and must direct themselves toward freedom as the end (Beauvoir, 70). Every human act is valid only if it directs itself toward the end of freedom as it arises only out of freedom (ibid.). The end of freedom can only be achieved through being because being originates in freedom (ibid.). But, being in a world of interconnected human relations necessarily entails others who reciprocate being (Beauvoir, 70-71). In a world where individuals exist together, one cannot be, thus be free, unless they engage with others in free reciprocal relations (Beauvoir, 71). Every individual action is subjective, but by being a definitive act it seeks justification beyond subjectivity; justification which can only arise from reciprocal human relations of freedom (Beauvoir, 72).

For Beauvoir, humans exist together in interconnected relations that give rise to individual conflicting dual relations. These relations define the individual existence as both and at the same time free and subservient, as an individual and as part of the aggregate, important yet insignificant. Such an existence is ambiguous, yet it is the only way individuals can exist. If the individual tries to dissolve this ambiguity by dissolving any of these conflicting dual relations, then they fall into bad faith. Therefore, individuals must embrace and preserve this ambiguity in order to live freely and ethically. For Sartre, individual consciousness asserts itself and its possibilities as a negation of others and others’ possibilities. The individual consciousness is grounded by the facts of their existence; their facticity. However, the individual consciousness transcends such facticity in order to reflect upon itself and its facticity. Facticity and transcendence are both required for the individual to know themselves, and as such, require working in a synthesis or unity. If facticity or transcendence becomes transposed with the other, then the individual falls into bad faith. Therefore, freedom is the individual transcending their facticity in order to define and give meaning to themselves.

Sartre and Beauvoir both conceive of individuals existing in relation to others. Sartre has the individual in relation to others via negation as well as via facticity. Individual consciousness asserts itself and begins to know itself because of its relations to others. The individual exists in relations with others through which they conceive of themselves as negations and a facticity. Beauvoir has the individual in relation to others via the conflicting dual relations of freedom vs. servitude, individual vs. aggregate and important vs. insignificant. Individuals necessarily exist in a world of others and thus are shaped by and require the relations they have with others.

However, while Sartre and Beauvoir both conceive of individuals as existing in relation to others, Sartre conceives of individual freedom as transcending these relations whereas Beauvoir conceives of freedom as embracing these relations. For Sartre, the individual achieves freedom only by taking the facticity given to them by others and transcending it to give themselves meaning, without locking themselves into a set meaning for themselves. For Beauvoir, the individual achieves freedom by directing themselves toward the end of freedom in conjunction with the freedom of others, while not assigning absolute value to any particular goal. Sartre places the individual existence as the primary focus for the pursuit of freedom whereas Beauvoir places the individual in conjunction with the aggregate as the primary focus for the pursuit of freedom.

Ethical egoism normatively asserts the individual is rational and justified to do what is in their own best interest to do. Conversely, ethical altruism normatively asserts individuals are morally obligated to promote what is best for others. Ethical egoism places the individual at the center of consideration regarding normative action. Ethical altruism places others at the center of consideration regarding normative action. If it is correct to assert that Sartre places primary focus on the individual transcending relations in order to achieve freedom and Beauvoir places primary focus on the conjunction of the individual with the aggregate in pursuing freedom, then it seems Sartre could be promoting a version of ethical egoism whereas Beauvoir could be promoting a version of ethical altruism. While such a claim requires a much more thorough analysis of each thinker’s whole corpus of work, the distinction between Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s conceptions of freedom does raise interesting questions to be further considered in regard to normative ethics.

  Sartre and Beauvoir both address the issue of individual freedom by exploring examples of individuals practicing bad faith. It is evident through their examples that individuals exist in relation to others. However, freedom for Sartre requires individuals transcend these relations whereas freedom for Beauvoir requires individuals embrace these relations. Such a distinction raises interesting questions to be further investigated as to if Sartre could be read as supporting ethical egoism whereas Beauvoir could be read as supporting ethical altruism.