Kant and Existentialism

Discussion Paper, Existentialist Society. 2009

Existentialism and Kantian ethics.

Drawing parallels or distinctions between Kant and Sartre is nothing new. Lots of theorists have done this and anyone familiar with the work of Kant would find much that is familiar in the work of Sartre. Likewise anyone familiar with the work of Sartre will be aware of his criticisms of Kant.

While I don't want to suggest that there is an overall reduction that is possible such that the two theories amount to the same thing, nonetheless I do want to suggest that not only is there more common ground between the two theories (at least in respect to ethical theory) than Existentialists often acknowledge but that Sartre criticisms of Kant's moral philosophy manifest what Sorin Baiasu refers to as 'the anxiety of influence'. The anxiety of influence is a common tendency among philosophers (and writers more generally) to seek to distance themselves from their major formative influences by exaggerating the differences between their predecessors and themselves. Discussing Sartre's existentialist ethical theory is largely an exercise in construction since he wrote so little that could amount to moral theory. What he did write however is perhaps sufficient to speculate on some constructions. There are two well-known passages in Sartre's writing that suggest a position in relation to a moral theory but which unfortunately appear to contradict (or at least sit uneasily) each other.

The first of these is the example Sartre gives of a young man seeking advice on whether he should join the Free French and fight against the Nazis or stay with his elderly mother who is alone having lost her other son. Sartre's advice on this occasion is in effect to tell the young man, that there is no advice that can be given and that he must simply choose or 'invent' his own moral path. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do. The second passage that often quoted in this regard is from Existentialism as a Humanism (sometimes described as an anomaly in Sartre's theory) When we say that a man chooses himself, we do mean that everyone of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be.

Followers of Sartre have tended to give emphasis to one or other of these passages depending upon whether or not they are moral pessimists - tending toward nihilism - or moral optimists - tending toward socialism - human rights and so on. In the first instance I'm going to suggest that morally pessimistic approaches to the first passage are misguided. Sartre's suggestion that there are no rules of general morality that could tell his student what to do in the circumstances that he found himself should not be interpreted as 'there are no general principles of morality' nor 'that moral values are individually subjective' nor that there is no mechanism for choosing between different versions of the good. (This last claim will no doubt be contentious.) The student must choose between two competing obligations, a choice between incommensurate values, between his sympathy for his mother and his desire to avenge his brother and fight the Nazis. In these circumstances anyone might struggle to know the right thing to do since both choices exist within a more general legitimated moral framework - that is, in other circumstances we would see both choices as morally legitimate and potentially existing within the same moral framework. If we could meet both obligations we should. But if we cannot satisfy both, then (and only then) it is unclear which we course we should take.

Compare this with another example. Suppose the student needed to make a choice between joining the fight against the Nazis or staying in France to profit from being a black marketeer. It is highly unlikely that Sartre would advise that the student should simply invent his moral values in this case, because there is no incommensurate values at stake in this instance. One value clearly has greater weight than the other (and this will be true even under an Existentialist ethic). For instance, it would not be too difficult to make the case that black marketeer-ing is an instance of bad faith. In any case, nothing that Sartre says suggests that he believes that we cannot critically evaluate a person's choice of values. On the contrary, since we are Existentially free we are also entirely responsible for our choices and being responsible we are also blameworthy. --- -----Sartre does at one point seem to suggest that any view of the good might become the truth for mankind if it is adopted - he says some men might decide to establish Fascism, and if others let them then Fascism will then be the truth for man, and so much the worse for us. --- but this is an evaluation of the values - view of the good - of Fascism - otherwise we would have no mechanism for choosing between Fascism and not Fascism for instance.

The second aspect of Sartre's student example is the issue of Subjectivism. - Specifically, it is sometimes suggested that since we must all choose our own values, that moral values in the absence of objective moral rules are inherently subjective relative to the individual. (Call this naive subjectivism) Sartre clear that is not what he means. Rather 'subjective' in relation to Existentialist ethics refers to values relative to the individual qua human being - man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity - Not, one cannot pass beyond one's own subjectivity. Indeed if were to understand moral value as naively subjective under Existentialism then we would neither be able to critique a person's choices nor hold anyone blameworthy for their actions.

Finally, there is the issue of general moral rules. Here it is not entirely clear what Sartre means by 'moral rules'. If he means there are no rules that will tell us what to do in the case of incommensurate values then he is correct. But it does not follow that there are no moral principles that an existentialist might generally appeal to. This is where Kant finally enters the discussion.

Sartre's most sustained objection to alternative theories of ethical value is directed at Kantian Ethics. In the first instance. the issue revolves around the relationship between existential freedom and human nature. If we have freewill (that is, if our behaviour is not determined) but there is no God, then we seem free to choose any value we want. (any version of the good we want) Sartre's claim that existence precedes essence - seeks to capture this relationship. It entails the view that we are free to choose our own nature, that there is no universal or objective human nature. Thus (in the absence of God) there is no place objective values to gain purchase. Hence Sartre's discussion of Dostoevsky's claim (if God did not exist, everything would be permitted). Human values are always historically and concretely situated and arise from choice manifest through action.

In contrast, while Kant also holds that humans have freewill nonetheless there are features that are universal to humans. These features are known a priori (that is by reason rather than through experience) They include such things as humans have the capacity for reason, that cognitive capacities are limited by the constraints human subjectivity (for instance time and space) and that we are moral agents. His views do not include that humans are universally selfish, altruistic or moral or that they do or even should share the same version of the good. But the fact that there is such a universal human nature (in particular reason) does provide a basis for given ethical values. Interestingly, Sartre's Existentialism shows a very similar metaphysical structure despite his instance that there is no given in human nature.

If existence does indeed precede essence then it has the paradoxical consequence that there is at least one element of human nature that is known a prior and irrespective of historical circumstance, - namely that the essence of human nature is that it creates its own nature. We are free to choose our own nature except that aspect of our nature that enables us to choose. We cannot choose to be not free (as distinct from in bad faith) Not only is freedom forced on us, but that it is forced upon us is knowable not by experience but by reasoning.

Sartre does not arrive at his position (that humans are radically free) via the experience of action but via the contemplation of what is already known. (The capacity to project ourselves into the future) Contrary to Sartre's stated objections to Kant, his own version of Existentialism contains both a fixed and universal view of human nature (a limited one) and one which is known a priori.

For Kant, the universal nature of human free will - specifically its manifestation in the rational will gives rise to the central and probably best known ethical principle. Namely Kant's categorical imperative. Act only on that maxim that you could at the same time will to be a universal law. (Or various other versions of this maxim that Kant provides). This is the principle of universalization. It should be noted that this principle does not arise mysteriously out of the ether but directly from the constraints of reason. In effect it is an appeal of rational consistency. I cannot rationally hold both X and Not X at the same time. It's role in the ethical system is to provide a barrier to special pleading. (Special pleading is the tendency to make ourselves exceptions to any general rule that we would accept in relation to others) Hence, if I accept that it is morally wrong to X then I cannot consistently believe that it is not wrong to X merely because I happen to be the agent in question.

For Sartre there are two problems with this system. A) reputedly it does not take into account the historical circumstances of the individual, their particular subjectivity and so on and B) it is too abstract to function as an ethical system.

The first objection seems to be a misreading of Kant. Contrary to some popular opinion Kant's ethics do not provide a set of rules for each morally significant situation, rules that apply universally. In fact there is only one general rule, the Categorical Imperative. Kant's ethics exist in a two stage framework in which the Categorical Imperative acts as a filter (or test) that will either legitimize or disqualify any particular maxim of action. Maxims of action however, are subjectively adopted normative rules (self-given norms of moral behaviour) that may take into account the subjects inclinations and the specific details of their situation. In other words it is up to the individual to define the morally significant features of their situation and to formulate the specific rule of action. It is therefore not the case that Kantian ethics is incapable of being concretely situated. It is invariably historically and subjectively situated because it relies on the agent to formulate their own rules of action.

The second objection that Sartre raises against Kantian ethics, that they are too abstract and don't provide meaningful direction is raised in relation to the example of the student. In particular, Sartre argues that Kant's derived imperative of Never regard another as a means but always as an end (by the way this is an incorrect formulation of rule) cannot tell the student what they should do. On the one hand this objection seems in itself fair enough. Neither this rule nor the Categorical Imperative will provide guidance. There are two reasons for this but neither seems to advantage Existentialism.

Not being monist about value, Kantian ethics face the difficulty of incommensurate values. In other words, since there is more than one moral value, it is possible (even likely) that moral values will some times come into conflict. - We will have conflicting moral obligations. Kant offers no mechanism for dealing with this situation. However, its not clear that the Existentialist doesn't suffer from the same problem. An individual may authentically affirm multiple values (as Sartre's student seems to) in which case Existentialism can offer no advice other than to “invent” a solution. To simply choose. This advice might not be particularly helpful but neither is it is immediately obvious that it is inconsistent with Kant's position. (Since he has no advice to offer either)

However, if the objection of abstractness is intended to be directed against the uncertainty under which rules of moral conduct values in general are constructed, then I think that the objection is misguided. Kant's ethical theory is not intended to provide us with a list of rules - it requires us as moral agents to be active in the process of moral reasoning rather than the passive recipient of rules produced by others. There is an excellent passage from Kant's discussion of the Enlightenment which captures his general attitude to such matters.

Enlightenment is the human being's emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is the inability to make use of one own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Have courage to make use of your own understanding! ..It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all I need not think, if only I can pay, others with readily undertake the irksome business for me.

This is beginning to sound very much like Sartre's invocation to choose ourselves - to create ourselves and to take responsibility for our chooses.

This brings me back to the second example nominated as an illustration of Sartre's namely his version of the principle of universalization. When we choose ourselves, we also choose for all men. It seems to be that Sartre's debt to Kantian ethics is most clearly expressed here. When we choose values we do so within a context of what we believe to be right (full stop) not what is right for me.

© Catherine McDonald 2009