Barnes’ Existentialist Ethics

Making back up copies of my Facebook notes. Here’s one on the Existentialist Ethics by Hazel E. Barnes:

This book cover photo was grabbed from eBay.

“What characterizes many, if not most, people is precisely a lack of commitment and consistency. They do not have a coherent life plan either as ideal or reality. One cannot truthfully say even that they have chosen to respond to spontaneously to each new situation as it occurs, for their responses are frequently not genuine but what they feel is expected.

Although the nature and context of the religion we may choose are immeasurably varied, there remains always the distinct alternative of choosing not to be religious. Prior to embracing any particular ethics, there is the necessary choice of whether or not to be ethical. And here if anywhere we must recognize the truth of Sartre’s claim that not to choose is already to have chosen. The refusal to choose the ethical is inevitably a choice for the nonethical.

When we look at a specific ethics, we see easily that any seemingly categorical imperative is contingent on our accepting the system as a whole. Take fundamentalist Christianity as an example. Before I am obliged to accept obedience to God’s will as an absolute command, I must do more than accept the reality of an omnipotent Father, Creator of the Universe, and Prime Mover in History, the Revealer of Sacred Write, and Judge of each man’s eternal future. Even granting my literal belief in all of this, I will regard obedience to the divine will as an imperative only if my personal value judgments agree with those of traditional Christianity. Satan unrepentant is not the evident negative proof of the validity of the categorical imperative. He is the eternal challenge. If I do not find God’s goodness to be the highest good, if I question His judgments, if I do not want His eternal bliss, then others may call me wicked, stupid, and misguided. They will neither coerce me nor persuade me. God’s commands are absolutes only when I accept the hypothesis that for His will to be done and for me to be in accord with it and to be happy in this accord are my ultimate value criteria. It is simple to demonstrate a parallel situation with regard to Platonic Ethics or Kantian or whatever other ethics one wishes to mention. All are ultimately hypothetical. Furthermore, all rest finally on the choice of the ethical itself as value. If the original choice is for the nonethical life, then no system is compelling, no matter how logically consistent its structure or how apparently evident its values.”

“Usually the idea of ethics is associated with the notion of obligations, the necessity of recognizing that acts have consequences, and the idea that consideration of more remote aims may act as a check on immediate impulses. Ethics is thus an inner control which the individual exercises over himself. Or again, a sytem of ethics serves as a set of reference points, by which to adjudicate conflicts of interests–this conflict is within a single person or in personal relations with others. While acknowledging the validity of both these claims, I believe that in the choice to be ethical there is something still more basic. This is the recognition of the need to justify one’s life.To put it another way, the decision to be ethical is a choice of a particular value: the sense of satisfaction derived from knowing that one may judge his own life as he would judge another’s and find it good. To justify one’s life involves the belief that one’s conduct is harmonious with the image which he has selected as the ideal pattern of a life he can admire or deem to be in itself a positive value.”

The person is the complex of his personality traits, the product of his past, and cannot shed his weight any more than a snowball might strip itself of accumulated snow.

Sartre says of man that because [man] has consciousness, he is the being who is not what he is and is what he is not. Consciousness is not entity but a process of attention, as William James put it, or of intention, to use the phenomenological term as Sartre does. Apart from its objects, consciousness is nothing at all. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. What prevents it from being one with its object is precisely nothing, and this nothing is that nothingness or psychic withdrawal which is the act of consciousness. Since consciousness is thus only a constant relating, the assuming of a point of view, there is nothing in consciousness, certainly no unconscious and no reservoir of determining traits or tendencies.

If we leave the level of abstraction and attempt to see what Sartre means in terms of ordinary human experience, we find a radical affirmation of human freedom and a view of Self as a value to be pursued rather than either a determining nucleus of possibilities or a hidden nugget to be uncovered. We are in our innermost being, a power of choosing again at each moment the relation which we wish to establish with the world around us and with our own past and future experiences in that world. As a consciousness, each one is individualized by the accumulation of individual acts of consciousness apropos of specific objects just as he is particularized by the constant presence of a definite body as instrument and center of reference.

Sartre says that as a being-for-itself, man is, in the manner of an event. Nobody exists except in a given situation, located in time and space.

Man exists in a situation, but he internalizes that situation and bestows on it a particular meaning and significance. He lives it by transcending it.

In denying that there is an Unconscious, Sartre naturally does not claim that at every moment we are aware of the full significance of our present act as related to all of our past experiences. What he denies is that there are buried experiences or parts of our psyche, on principle out of reach, which are actively participating in our immediate choices while a conscious Ego acts in ignorance of its own motives. Sartre allows that we may will to ignore certain of our own past acts. We may refuse to reflect upon our present motives or even lie to ourselves about them. This is a procedure of a consciousness in bad faith. Sartre differs from Freud in insisting that a consciousness is never totally the dupe of its own lie.

When Sartre discusses the Self, he speaks of it as that which is forever pursued but never attained. This is because man is a self-making process and because the consciousness which man isalways stands at a distance from what it has experienced. Consciousness is freedom. Yet it is consciousness which by its own intention establishes the unity of life as it relates its own past, present, and future acts in a meaningful pattern.

[Consciousness] exists as an awareness of the things in the world, an awareness of its own relation to them, and an awareness of its relation to its own past and future intentions.


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