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.


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