In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does not always provide arguments for his contentions. Much of the lecture is delivered in rhetorical and exaggerated terms. He does not for example defend but merely states his belief in the extent of human freedom. But, perhaps more damagingly, it is questionable whether he actually achieves his most important stated aim, namely to rebut the criticism that if there is no God then anything is permitted – or to put it in other words, he never demonstrates that his philosophy genuinely is a humanism, that it does not encourage the moral anarchy that some of his contemporaries believed it did.

Sartre would argue that the fact that existentialists actually increase the scope of responsibility beyond its usual domain, making each of us responsible for a whole image of humankind, puts it beyond criticism in this respect. However, his move from individual morality to responsibility for the whole species is at least contentious. This is how he puts it:

“To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better.” (p.29)

What he means here is that the fact that we choose any one course is evidence that we think it the best course of action, that that is the way that we show what we sincerely value in life. He goes on:

“…and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all” (p.29)

This is unclear. Why, because something is better for us should it be better for all? This seems to go against most people’s experience and the diversity of human taste. It is also self-contradictory because it assumes the human nature that elsewhere he is at such pains to say does not exist. On the basis of this unelaborated stipulation he continues:

If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image if valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. (p.29)

This is surely a sleight of hand. In one swift movement Sartre has moved from the individual choosing for him or herself to the whole of humankind in an entire epoch.This at least needs some kind of argument to support it. Particularly in view of the pivotal role it plays in his lecture. But even if we are to give Sartre the benefit of the doubt on this, does his universalisability manoeuvre really protect him from the charge that his philosophy would justify any behaviour whatsoever no matter how heinous?

Take the example of Adolf Hitler. Here was a man who believed wholeheartedly that what he was doing was not just right for him, but for humanity: his eugenics programme and his entire philosophy of racial superiority, hideous as it was, was no doubt delivered in good faith. Had Hitler been an existentialist he could have declared that his choices had been made in a world without pre-existing values and that they were not just binding on him but on the whole of humanity for the entire epoch. What is to stop existentialism justifying Hitler’s actions as examples of wilful self-creation of the type advocated by Sartre?

In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does argue that someone who genuinely chooses to be free (i.e. an existentialist) “cannot not will the freedom of others” (p.52). Quite clearly Hitler did not respect the freedom of people who disagreed with him or happened to be of the wrong race, so perhaps Sartre could answer the objection that his existential ethics could be used to justify the most horrendous crimes. But Sartre’s argument for the principle of respecting others’ freedom is sketchy. If we accept the principle, then existentialist ethics escapes the criticism. However there is no obvious reason why someone who believes that there are no preestablished values or guidelines should be prepared to accept such a principle: it seems to contradict the existentialist’s basic assertion that for human beings existence precedes essence.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws and obscurities, Existentialism and Humanism has tremendous appeal as impassioned rhetoric. It addresses the kind of questions that most of us hoped philosophy would answer and which contemporary analytic philosophy largely ignores. Perhaps its greatest strength is its concentration on freedom: most of us deceive ourselves most of the time about the extent to which our actions are constrained by factors beyond our control. Even though Sartre’s extreme position on freedom and responsibility is ultimately untenable, it serves to remind us that we can exert far greater control over our lives than we generally admit, and that most of our excuses are simply rationalisations.


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