Existentialism Versus Coexistentialism


Existentialism Versus Coexistentialism

Edip Yuksel


(Quotations are from Paul Moser’s book, Contemporary Approaches to Philosophy, which reprints from Existentialism and Human Emotions, trans. Bernard Frechtman, pp. 12-40. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957.)

Jean-Paul Sartre version of atheistic existentialism which can be summarized with his own words as “existence precedes essence” may appeal many.  Here when we refer to existentialism we will be referring to this version. Sartre explains this starting point clearly:

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence (327).

Sartre’s Atheistic Existentialism is a reaction against atheistic or religious absolutism. Atheistic Existentialism as an answer for the basic problems of morality has serious flaws and shortcomings which we can list under seven titles:

  1. It is built on two presuppositions, or “IF”s. IF there is no God, AND IF we have free will . . .
  2. The combination of the two “IF” statements are a very difficult position to defend. Non existence of God, does not necessarily bring the freedom for man. Indeed, defending free will becomes more difficult without the master paradox-solver, i.e., God.
  3. “Being condemned to be free” is a paradoxical statement.
  4. The principle, “Existence precedes essence” is self-contradictory or meaningless.
  5. If we have genetic and statistical information about the material conditions we can usually predict the behavior of an individual. The same prediction can be made for a certain population. Thus, even if we have freedom it is restricted.
  6. Moral values are not created by free individuals, but by mutual and complicated interaction among interdependent individuals.
  7. Atheistic Existentialism promotes arrogance which may deprive individuals from enormous useful experiences of previous generations.

I will briefly discuss the first five points and then focus on number six followed by a closing argument on number seven.

1. Presuppositions

Sartre assumes that God does not exist: “. . . if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we, have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses” (330). Sartre also takes the freedom of man for granted and establishes his philosophy on it. He expresses this assumption with a picturesque statement: “. . . man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (330).

Atheistic existentialism can be questioned without arguing existentialism at all. One can dismiss it by arguing the probability of God’s existence, and/or the impossibility of having free will in a deterministic material universe. Atheistic existentialism, therefore, is built on two controversial foundations. Nevertheless, still there will be some who are already convinced that they can hurl God into the realm of nonexistence with their free will. In sum, Sartre’s philosophy appeals to those atheists who believe in free will. (Did Sartre ever provide substantial arguments for free will in his books? Do you know Marga? If he did, then I have to change the title of this section to “preconditions”)

2. The difficult combination

It is easy to accept “free will” after believing the existence of immaterial mind or the Master Paradox Solver, that is, God. Without believing in God or in metaphysical self, our brain, the candidate for “free will” miracle, comes across great difficulties in accepting of its free will. Recent finding of quantum mechanics that challenges our deterministic commonsense is open to speculations and is far away to put period for the debate on free will.

Even if we are convinced that we have free will, still it does not mean that we are entirely free. Sartre appears to believe that every individual is absolutely free to create himself by creating his history and choosing his future.

3. The paradox of “being condemned to be free”

Our three-pound brain stumbles on Sartre’s elegant assertion that is “man is condemned to be free.” Our brain will wonder: “How can I have free will? Did I decide that I will have free will with my free will? Or am I condemned (in other words, determined) to have free will without ‘my’ free will? If I did not create myself, and if there is no the Master Paradox Solver Creator, then, I could not possibly have chosen whether to have free will or not having it. If I am born with free will, then, can I reject this forcibly imposed freedom  by my free will? If I can’t, then I don’t have free will in absolute sense. If I can then every moment I insist in rejecting to have free will I will be using my free will. Therefore, I don’t think I have free will at all, because I am condemned to be free as long as I live.”

4. Existence without essence?!

“Existence precedes essence” means that the original seed of existence does not have any essence. How can it be? We assume that Sartre is using the conventional language. Essence means “the true nature or constitution of anything, as opposed to what is accidental, phenomenal, illusory, etc.” If a newborn human baby does not have any essence then it is no different from a newborn monkey or snake or frog. If it is different than the new born must have an essence that will lead him/her to invent the probable combination of his/her future stages. Why a toad “is condemned every moment to invent” frog, but not man? Similarly, why a baby is condemned every moment to invent man, but not frog?

Atheistic Existentialists should provide answer for another simple question. How can a being without any essence will be able to invent his/her future? Isn’t “to be able to invent certain things” is a great essence by itself? Furthermore, when does a “man” start inventing his/her future freely? In the first month, or first year, or teenage years, or later?

5. Genetic, social, economic, environmental conditions limit freedom

The above and similar questions suggest that, “Nothing can come out of nothing.” An “existence” deprived of essence is equal to non-existence. Sartre could not have possibly become “Sartre the philosopher” if he was born as a retarded child.

He could not have probably become the same man if he was born in Rwanda as the ninth son of illiterate parents struggling for survival. Why western men have more freedom to get patents for more than the 90% of all inventions?

6. The source of moral values

Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can’t start making excuses for himself (330).

I don’t agree with Sartre’s reasoning that if God does not exist there cannot be a priori values to abide by. I believe that there are certain a priori or universal values that transcends individual’s wishes and free will.

When he says “We are alone” does he mean as individuals, or as communities? It appears that he believes that the source of values is individuals and the average of the sum creates the values of mankind. Therefore, he claims that each of us contributes to the shape of mankind: “Therefore, I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man” (328).

But, the reality is the other way around. Moral values are not made up by individuals and their moral values do not create human values by jumbling and mixing with each other. Powerful individuals can create autocratic laws which I consider them to be different from the notion of “moral values.” Certain value, whether they are articulated by individuals such as secular philosophers and democratic rule makers, or are demanded by human societies, basically comes from one thing: human interaction and cooperation.

This is the main point that I disagree with Sartre: It is not independent individuals that make up values. Values are the essential rules that emerge or are discovered throughout human experience and forced on individuals. Individuals who prefer to live together with others adopt or discover those natural rules voluntarily or involuntarily, intentionally or unintentionally. Some individuals willingly adopt those values and assume them as a trade, as a compromise between their freedom and well-being of others. Some may feel obligation to do so for the sake of being accepted by the society.

For instance, the badness of “unjustified” killing, lying, stealing or the goodness of helping others, honesty, and trustworthiness are universal. They are essential values in every human society. The very nature of human society requires or creates those values. It is a contradiction to decide to co-operate and decide to cheat each other or kill each other. Interdependent lives of individuals label this contradiction as immoral.

Can you imagine an island inhabited by a community of free psychopath serial killers who don’t consider killing immoral? (In my aquarium I cannot have more than one fighting fish!) Can you imagine a community of thieves who continue stealing from each other? (Prisoner thieves punish stealing in their wards!) Can you imagine a community of professional liars who continuously lie to each other? (Congress members consider lying to each other immoral!) Therefore, universal moral values are logical consequence of human societies and in this regard are a priori principles.

Besides, even if an individual prefers to live alone in an island, still he will be forced to adopt certain values in order to survive. For instance, he cannot burn all the trees or cannot kill the limited number of animals for entertainment. He knows that he has to adopt certain values in order to be happy.

Therefore, intelligent individuals are not absolutely free; they know or discover the universal moral principles in order to avoid punishment and increase reward. An atheistic moral philosophy will be more realistic if it is based on the happiness of individuals; not on the limitless freedom of individuals.

Here, I would like to congratulate Sartre in his great question regarding the origin of religious moral principles: “If a voice addresses me, it is always for me to decide that this is the angel’s voice; if I consider that such an act is a good one, it is I who will choose to say that it is good rather than bad” (329). If you accept divine revelation as the source of moral values, and if you establish its authenticity by saying that “because it advocates goodness” then you have a circular reasoning. You are the ultimate decision maker on what is good and what is evil. However, the theist can respond Sartre in a different way: “I believe in divine revelation, not because I think it advocates what I consider to be good, but because it has a unique objective aspect which I think is distinguishable from human artifacts. As for moral values, the Supreme Creator blessed us with enough intelligence to distinguish badness from goodness. The divine revelation is only a reminder. It may also guide us to discover some complicated facts regarding goodness or badness in the interaction of things. Believing in God creates extra motivation to be in harmony with nature.”

Sartre challenges Christian doctrine and the Kantian ethics regarding the dilemma of the young boy who cannot make his mind whether to remain with his dependent mother, or help the country. “Which does the greater good, the vague act of fighting in a group, or the concrete one of helping a particular human being to go on living? Who can decide a priori? Nobody” (331). Ironically, Sartre is accepting an a priori “greater good”: helping others. He does not question this value by suggesting a third option: choosing himself by betraying both his mother and country.

7. Re-inventing the wheel by promoting the rule of “no rule, no consultation”  

Sartre, regarding the young boy who found himself in a moral dilemma says: “Therefore, in coming to see me he knew the answer I was going to give him, and I had only one answer to give: “You’re free, choose, that is, invent” (332). Sartre, by abstaining from giving advice reminds me of Ariston, the Greek intuitionist, who rejected the usefulness of moral rules. Ariston rejected moral rules for several reasons. After reading the following summary you may ask: was Sartre a re-incarnated Ariston?

According to Ariston, rules are not limited and not exact. For instance, the rule “don’t tell lie” is not practical since it does not provide the exceptional cases. Detailing all the exceptional cases without any exception is not possible. Therefore, in order to act virtuously in all situations, understanding is necessary. A moral person knows the principles of morality and creates his own rules on particular occasions with understanding, and rules become limitless and exact. (Compare to Sartre’s challenge regarding the dilemma of young boy, in page 331.)

Ariston asserted that if you are not virtuous rules are useless, since they don’t give you the insight for “why” to do. If you are virtuous, again rules are futile, since the virtuous person is equipped with the formulation of final good, or the principles of philosophy which enables him how to act in particular situations. (Compare to Sartre’s hypothetical answer to that young boy in page 332.)

I would like to quote myself here. I had written a paper on Ariston’s anti-rule position. It seems that it is appropriate to quote two paragraphs from my criticism of Ariston as a response to Atheistic Existentialism:

Rediscovering rules is not reasonable. The principles of philosophy are universal. In fact, some rules have become universal throughout thousands-year long human experience, such as respecting parents, taking care of children, not stealing, etc. However, some rules can slightly vary according to the elements of societies. Therefore, a virtuous person who “prefers” to live in a certain society cannot find the appropriate rules without violating them or without learning them. It is very painful and time consuming to learn the rules by violating them one by one. Also it is not virtuous to expect the society to tolerate and bear with the wiseacre virtuous re-discoverers.

Violation of some rules may have some fatal consequences on society and on individuals as well. For instance, having unlimited sexual intercourse with multiple partners without protection can create many unwanted children and spread sexual diseases. A young pupil who wants to be virtuous should not be advised to find the appropriate rules based on his immature philosophy. Until he learns the nature he may destroy himself and others. Obviously, our reasoning commands us to find the appropriate rules through the best method. A method that eventually leads a person to eliminate some of the unreasonable and unnatural rules knowingly should be preferred to the one that jeopardizes the well-being of society and individuals. The former method is less risky and less regretful. Indeed, the collective reasoning of generations can be perfected in optimum way by natural selection, not by a default wholesale rejection of their moral rules.

The paradox of dignity!

Atheistic Existentialism ignores God and universal moral principles in order to provide humans with freedom and dignity. Sartre is certain that “this theory is the only one which gives man dignity, the only one which does not reduce him to an object” (335). Ironically, according the same theory, those who reject this theory also have the same amount of dignity and subjectivity. Some of those humans believe in certain universal moral principles and/or the existence of God with their free will. In other words, they have discovered or created God to invent themselves. They can claim that “we chose God, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all” (328).


PS: This paper was written in 1992 for Phil 111 taught by Prof. Marga Reimer at the University of Arizona