Existential Ethics

creating an individual moral code

Discussing the topic of ethics within the context of existentialism sometimes results in a judgmental response: Existentialists are amoral atheists, dedicated to anarchy or nihilism. These are philosophers with no morality, according to the popular myth. Increasingly it seems students have been left to think along the lines “Existentialists are people who think because God is dead, Hell is other people — so kill an Arab if you want.” The confusion I hear in discussions is comical and disheartening.

Existentialists are not generally atheists, though Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed he was. In fact, most writers and philosophers embracing existentialism hold to at least some form of faith. Holding to a faith dictates following, if one is to be authentic, the ethical system of the religion accepted. Likewise, accepting a political theory demands accepting that theory’s ethical constructs. Existentialists did not develop ethical systems or constructs in a vacuum — philosophy is an evolution of theories.

Different writers who united in stressing the importance of these themes nevertheless developed very different ethical and metaphysical systems as a consequence.
- Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy; Blackburn (ed), p. 130

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Notebooks for an Ethic contain the following passage:

A classification of values must lead to freedom: Classification in such an order as to make freedom more and more apparent. At the top: generosity

This passage indicates Sartre did consider values and ethics important to freedom: we must respect each other if we, as individuals, want to be as free as possible within a social order. In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre explains that existentialists can judge others, based on truth and honesty:

We can judge, nevertheless, for, as I have said, one chooses in view of others, and in view of others one chooses himself. One can judge, first… that in certain cases choice is founded upon an error, and in others upon the truth. We can judge a man by saying he deceives himself.
- Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre; Existentialism is a Humanism; Kaufmann (ed), p. 365

Sartre reminds us that actions and statements, most choices, are made within the view of others — and others will determine if we are liars or being authentic. For Sartre, It is wrong to ignore facts and it is wrong to deceive yourself.

The existentialists do not always agree among themselves either as to the precise nature or as to the relative ranking of the values which they say accompany a deliberate espousal of anguish and suffering. […] Generally speaking, however, freedom of choice, individual dignity, personal love, and creative effort are the existentialist values, and, generally speaking, the most important among these are freedom of choice and individual dignity.
- An Introduction to Existentialism; Olson, pp. 17-8

Before discussing Existential ethics, it is important to understand the difference between ethics and morality. In existential works, ethics generally refers to a system, much like computer programming logic — a formalized method of determining “right” and “wrong” in any situation based upon set formulas. Morals are practices dictated by probability, producing a conformity of behavior among a community. In other words, what might be moral in a situation is not necessarily ethical behavior in the view of an existentialist. The use of these terms interchangeably in normal discourse presents a problem. According to some existential works, what is moral might not be ethical, while most people would argue what is not ethical is not moral. Since the individual is the primary concern of existentialists, personal morality and ethics supersede social morality and popular ethics.

How can something be ethical, yet not moral? Ethics are defined systems, while morality is often based on a personal belief. If a lawyer is legally compelled to represent a confessed killer, the lawyer is bound by legal ethics to offer the best representation possible. The morality of representing a confessed killer is not part of the question — a lawyer has chosen to adhere to an established ethical system.

Ethical systems are enforced and codified for the “public good.” Laws are based on the ethical system of a society. Because laws change slowly, the morality of a society can and often does conflict with the codified ethics of the society. Moral systems begin with the individual, based on a sense of “good” and “evil” in some cases. Religious morality often conflicts with social ethics, especially when a religion’s morality conflicts with existing laws and greater social ethics.

(1) The study and philosophy of human conduct with emphasis on the determination of right and wrong. (2) Set guidelines in a profession or social group; legal ethics, business ethics. (3) A system of morals, accepted by a culture.
(1) Based on probability; generalized human behavior. (2) Conforming to group standards of conduct in religion or philosophy. (3) What is “good” to an individual.
(1) The rendering of what is due or merited. (2) Being impartial. (3) Honest or equitable.
(1) Conformity to requirements. (2) Faith in a statement’s logic. (3) Conforming to a system of rules.

The Paradox Exists

None of the preceding is sufficient, I admit, to dismiss a basic challenge to existential ethics: if the individual defines a personal morality, how can an ethical system be developed? Was Sartre not merely trying to fit his own “mainstream” ethics into existentialism? Nietzsche is far more radical when rejecting societal ethics. Maybe we do try to rationalize our impulses, our instinctive morality. Scientists are finding some evidence for evolutionary ethics. If existential ethics, at least as presented by Sartre, are nothing more than an attempt to fit beliefs into a “logical” framework, then what does this say of free will?

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide in insolation. The Existential Primer is a living academic project, unlike a static text. I revise these pages often because the scholarship never ends. Consult the citations within these pages. Read the works of many scholars! I implore you to read the original works of the thinkers profiled.

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page

Morality and Existentialism

Scopes of Morality

One of the problems posed by morality in existentialism is that morality must be understood in relation to the realm of a decision. The scope of a moral decision refers to the number and types of individuals affected by the decision. There are four primary scopes ranging from the individual to the world’s population. Because morality is defined by generalizations within a social group, morality changes as the scope increases to include more individuals. Sometimes the additional people expand what is acceptable, while the opposite can also be true.

  1. Personal morality: How true are you to your values?
  2. Regional or group morality: How true are you to the morals of your region or social group?
  3. National morality: How true are you to the morals of your nation?
  4. International morality: How true are you to the morals of this planet?

Personal Morality

Personal morality has no external guidelines. Personal morality and authenticity form the core of existentialism. A person is alone in determining what he or she would do without any external influences. The test of personal morality is what one might do if no others would know.

The focus on personal morality is not unique to existentialism, but it does separate it from most moral traditions. National and “Universal” morality pose a problem for existentialists, since nations and even smaller social groups make poor decisions. Personal freedom and choice determine a course of action.

What do you do alone? What do you do when certain you will not be detected?

Regional or Group Morality

Social regions and groups decide the bounds of regional or group morality. Regions develop moralities based upon dominant religions, resources, and lifestyles within these geographical areas. Between the region and the individual morality exists various group moralities. These moralities tend to embrace most of the regional system, but with conditions — frequently relating to loyalty to the group.

During the American Civil War, the U.S. South had a different morality than the North. This was a regional morality until the South formed the Confederate States. At that moment, one could argue two national moralities were in conflict. It can and should be argued the issue of survival was also considered, as the South was economically threatened by industrialization in the North.

National Morality

Legal systems often illustrate national morality. When wondering what a nation considers moral, consider the form of government and the legal system of the nation. What constitutes a criminal act within a nation exemplifies the morality of the population, assuming the country is not an unpopular dictatorship.

International Morality

International morality shifts constantly, making it difficult to document. Every nation and religion differs on what constitutes moral acts. The United Nations and the World Court are attempts to define international morality.

Existential Values

Are there underlying values common to existentialists? Is there an ethical system, or at least a common foundation for the various values expressed by existentialists? These are the questions posed frequently by students searching for the unifying themes in existential works. Accepting life is a series of choices always resulting in anxiety or despair, the existentialists appear to have no reason for moral behavior as determined by society.

The existentialists for their part have very little to say about the methods whereby value judgments may properly be established, and at times one has the impression that they, too, are dubious about the possibility of establishing value judgments as objective or universal truths. Heidegger and Sartre have gone so far as to say that they make no value judgments, even though such terms as “authenticity” and “inauthenticity” constantly recur in their writings. These terms, they say, are being used descriptively, not evaluatively. No one, however, has been deceived. Almost to a man, interpreters of Sartre and Heidegger have pointed to these declarations as instances of bad faith.
- An Introduction to Existentialism; Olson, p. 26

Existentialism does have an ethical foundation, however; the difficulty lies in recognizing it. To recognize the foundations of existential ethics, one must recognize the “truths” behind the philosophy. The basis for most philosophical schools is a set of “universal truths” agreed upon by the proponents of the philosophy. The school can be simple, having just one rule: “There are no universal truths.” Of course, that rule is then a universal truth and a paradox. Existentialism’s basis is a simple set of truths relating to sentient life, as discussed in the opening paragraphs of this document:

  • First, sentient beings exist, then they spend a lifetime defining an individual essence;
  • All sentient life forms, namely humans, have free will;
  • Every action, expression, or thought is the result of a decision;
  • Decision making is a stressful, solitary act, even when part of a group; and
  • Any decision can and usually does have negative aspects.

These “truths” form the foundation of existentialism. Existential values are those values recognizing the importance of free will, the anxiety experienced by others, and the potential consequences of decisions upon other beings, sentient and not. The foundations of any ethical system employed by existentialists can be reduced to the following statements:

  1. Existentialism requires constant thought, expression, and action — the active development of one’s essence.
  2. All decisions are individual, with each being responsible for his or her choices.
  3. The most important decisions are those affecting the free will of other individuals, other matters are less important.
  4. Some may be affected negatively, their choices reduced by a decision, so decisions must promote freedom among the greatest number of beings.
  5. Limiting the number of options available to an individual in any situation reduces that being’s freedom to express a free will.
  6. There is no such thing as a demand, since one can always accept death as a choice.

Notice the emphasis is upon freedom and free will. How existentialists understand freedom varies, so the implementation of these principles also varies. For example, Sartre viewed Soviet Communism as allowing men to be free from the basic pursuit of needs, such as food and shelter. Anarchists or democrats would argue the freedom to make mistakes and suffer is more important than a freedom from suffering. The implementation of existential ethics therefore depends upon one’s understanding of freedom, yet all existentialists have the same goal: beings must be free or they lack the essence of being.

1. Think, Express, & Act

Existentialism is an active philosophy, based upon the quest for individual authenticity. As in most religions, perfect authenticity is not attainable, but it is the goal of existentialists. It is the pursuit of authenticity that matters most. One establishes authentic beliefs via discourse and debate. Then, one affirms beliefs through expressions and actions. If one has an opinion or thought, it is to be expressed. If the thought requires action, then action must be taken.

Faith offers an excellent example of existential action. If one has faith, they must act accordingly. Kierkegaard and Sartre both promoted this ideal, despite their differences in faith. Sartre believed if one claimed to be an atheist, a Catholic, or a Jew, then that individual was obligated to practice the teachings of that faith. Kierkegaard’s beliefs were the basis for his critiques of the church. An existentialists is not a passive believer or non-believer; action is required.

The individual worthy of respect is active, defining an essence through his or her actions. A coward, a passive being, is least worthy of respect. It might be stated an existentialist debates even the most minor of issues. Because every thought contributes to defining one’s essence, every opinion is part of the greater essence. Camus and Sartre even debated how to best be active pacifists — though World War II illustrated neither man was a pacifist.

2. Personal Responsibility

Taking action requires accepting the consequences of that act. Personal responsibility is a basic principle in existentialism. An individual’s decisions belong exclusively to that being — no matter the external circumstances. It is not ethical to avoid consequences. Existentialists accept risks, knowing some actions can result in personal suffering.

What would a captured member of the French resistance say when interrogated? If truth is all important and personal responsibility a mandate of existentialism, how would a captured Sartre or Camus handle questions? By stating, “I am a member of the resistance. I will not compromise others.” There is no lie, responsibility is accepted, and others are not harmed. Of course, an existentialist might not make a very good spy — deception is not part of the general philosophy.

War offers extremes for philosophical debate, so one must consider “every day” life when discussing existentialism. Children quickly learn to avoid responsibility and blame; they learn to lie to protect the self. Existentialism requires one accept negative as well as positive consequences, which does not appear to be a natural tendency among humans. Even minor matters, such as trying to avoid a traffic ticket, run counter to existential ethics.

Accepting a ticket, however, if far different from obeying the law. An existentialists is free to disregard a law, as long as the consequences are accepted. Many existentialists practiced civil disobedience, especially during the 1960s. Recall that action is to be respected, while passivity is rejected by existentialists as cowardly.

3. Importance, Scope

If it were possible to live alone on an island, with no contact with other beings, your decisions would have less value, according to some existentialists. Such a situation would be known as minimal scope — the scope of any decision is limited to one being. The importance of a decision is directly proportional to the number of beings affected. Using this measure, some existentialists feel it is acceptable to avoid some debates while actively participating in other conflicts with a greater scope. This does not mean existentialists do not express opinions on almost every matter — but it is impossible to be actively engaged in every conflict affecting personal freedom.

Though many existentialists reject the idea of politically superior individuals, it is obvious leaders in a society or even within a company affect more individuals with decisions than do others. As one rises in a social structure, their actions take on more importance. Even fame, desired or not, results in a greater influence upon others. Existentialists believe decisions must be considered in relation to this influence. Some existentialists turn from influence, arguing the core of existentialism is personal responsibility. Others use influence to expand discussion and debate.

Modern communication technologies, such as the Internet and World Wide Web, have made it much easier for individuals to express opinions to millions of others. Along with such power comes the obligation to serve as many people as possible, according to existentialism. One is no longer limited to a small community; influence is global. This makes the decision how to utilize technology increasingly important.

4. Good (Freedom) of the Many

Existentialists actively promote the freedom of individuals. Freedom, the right to exercise free will, is a universal truth in existential philosophy. An existentialist hopes to express ideas and engage in actions likely to promote or protect the freedom of others. The problem confronting existentialists is the realization most decisions have a negative effect upon some individuals. Affecting any negative effect runs counter to the goals of existentialists, but it is inescapable.

Since a decision’s importance relates to the number of individuals affected, the measure of “right” or “wrong” depends upon the number of people adversely affected. Existentialists do not generally view decisions as “right” — a good decision merely minimizes any impingement upon the freedom of others. Because there is only a relative goodness to any decision, no “black and white” situations exist. An existentialist is likely to consider a situation in depth, possibly analyzing the situation too much.

The question one must ask before making a decision is how many individuals might experience reduced freedom as a result? The alternative selected must protect the greatest number of people. Remember the last principle explored: a decision’s importance relates to the number of individuals affected. Importance does not refer to a greater potential for good.

5. Few Restrictions

Social structures, by nature, limit personal freedoms. Existentialists prefer situations that allow the greatest amount of personal choice, but they recognize some compromises are necessary. In terms of ethical standards, this is reflected by existentialists fighting laws and moral edicts they view as restrictive. Also, existentialists seek to allow as much freedom to individuals as possible, without leading to the downfall of society.

Restrictions of freedom are not tolerated by existentialists — they are obliged to speak and act against such limits. To be an authentic existentialist one must actively fight for freedom. Existentialism is marked by the desire for greater freedom, though one might not wish to exercise these freedoms. As a result, an existentialist tends to defend the rights of others, even when not personally affected.

6. The Ultimate Free Will

According to existentialism, the ultimate choice is death. Usually death is an absurd choice, existentialism recognizes, but sometimes it might be the only ethical choice. An existentialist would be willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice” if doing so would protect the existence and freedom of many others.

Faith & Existentialism

Existentialism is not a singular school of thought, devoid of any and all forms of faith. It helps to understand that many of those influencing existentialism were religious. Blaise Pascal, whose writings influenced existentialism, and Kierkegaard were dedicated Christians. Pascal was a Catholic who died in a monastery. Kierkegaard a radical Protestant, a supporter of Martin Luther’s teachings.

Nietzsche, despite the famous “God is dead” quote, also appears to have been a believer in a Creator, though he despised organized religion as a manipulative tool to control the masses. He often insulted the Church merely to cause a stir. Some, notably Walter Kaufmann, call Nietzsche the “anti-Christian” existentialist, because he believed the organized Christian churches were the most destructive influences of his time. For clarification, Nietzsche did write that the Creator had no influence on humanity… kind of like a parent who has let His children go their own way. Nietzsche did not worry about Heaven, Hell, or human souls.

Dostoevsky was Russian-Orthodox, to the point of being fanatical. He was as religious as any ordained writer, though his own moral failings are near-legendary. (If we believe some biographers, that is.) Kafka was Jewish, so he cannot be considered secular, either. His family was not as religious as Kafka himself might have liked, but when you take into consideration that his family died in concentration camps, it is obvious why his father might not have been very public with his faith. Hegel, the German idealist from whose theories many existentialists drew, was very religious — writing that all authority must be derived from the Creator. Hegel’s entire system of ethics was based upon the existence of a Supreme Creator and this Creator’s will. In fact, Hegel believed no ruler obtained power without the consent of this Creator.

We are then left with Camus and Sartre, and of these two only Sartre can be seen to consistently deny any and all belief in a divine force. Sartre was raised with exposure to religion, but World War II and the constant suffering of the world drove him away from faith, according to several biographers, including his lover, Simone de Beauvoir. Curiously, Sartre spent the last years of his life exploring issues of faith and dedication with an orthodox Jew. One can only guess as to their conversations, as Sartre did not see fit to record them.

There are specific existentialists known for their acceptance of faith and its role in philosophy. The Christian Existentialists are a specific group of men, primarily European-born, who lived from 1600 through the mid 1900s. These men tended to be Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, or Anglican. Most of these men had monastic experiences, or experienced similar religious indoctrination.

European religion, to this day, tends to be very traditional — were it still survives. (Fewer Europeans claim to be religious and attend religious ceremonies than Americans.) In the case of Pascal or Dostoevsky, their religious beliefs were truly fundamental, including a belief that the complete laws in Leviticus must be followed.

American Christianity is much more varied than Eastern Orthodox or the Catholicism of the 1600s. European history is dominated by the power of the Catholic Church and its siblings, the various Orthodox Churches, such as the Greek, Armenian, and Russian. In these churches, failure to receive rites is perceived as being refused salvation. Hence, excommunication has long been a political weapon — at least until this century.

Many Evangelicals do not view the Church and her siblings as Christian — making the use of the word problematic for some people. However, graduate students and professors of philosophy recognize this usage of the term.

For Christian existentialists, faith defends the individual and guides decisions with a rigorous set of rules. As a tenet of the faith, some Christians believe they will be persecuted for their beliefs during a period of tribulation and cite Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 as evidence of this. The Revelation to John, or Book of Revelations, is also cited by many Christians as phrophecy their faith will be tested.

For atheists, the irony is that no matter how much you do to improve yourself and others, you will still deteriorate and die. Many existentialists believe the greatest victory of the individual is to realize the absurdity of life and to accept it. In short, you live a miserable life, for which you may or may not be rewarded by a greater force. If this force exists, why do men suffer? If it does not exist, why not commit suicide and shorten your suffering? These questions only hint at the complexity of existential thought.

The Individual Versus Society

Existentialists tend to depict life as a series of struggles between the individual and everything. The individual is forced to make decisions; often any choice is a bad choice. In the writings of some existentialists, it seems that freedom and personal choice are the seeds of misery. The curse of free will was of particular interest to the theological and Christian existentialists. By giving man free will, the Creator was punishing mankind in the worst possible way.

Societal structures are the result of men and women attempting to limit their own choices. This theory works like a 12-step recovery program: society exerts needed peer pressure to ease the decision-making process. Accordingly, the more structured a society, the more functional it should be. Adoption of this anthropological theory might explain why the existentialists tended to favor authoritarian or rigid forms of government, such as communism, socialism, and fascism. This possibility is discussed in more detail in the section regarding the political existentialists. Having one political party, one strong leader, one source of direction makes it easy to function.

Existentialists would explain why some people are attracted to military careers based on the challenge of making decisions. Following orders is easy; it requires little emotional effort to do as one is told. If the order is not logical, it is not for the soldier to question. In this way, wars can be explained, mass genocides understood. People were only doing as they were told.

How can a philosophy that focuses upon the individual embrace such anti-individual social theories? In effect, Sartre and Heidegger both believed that men freed from basic decisions, such as how to obtain food, shelter, and security, could concentrate on more important decisions. Heidegger, a supporter of Hitler, and Sartre, a supporter of the Soviet Union, both saw in authoritarian governments the promise of greater individual freedom to pursue the arts, science, et cetera. When utopia was achieved and people were doing what they did best, the individual would benefit and the society as a whole would benefit.

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Written by C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 31-Dec-2015
Edited by S. D. Schnelbach