哲學功課﹕ Critique of Freedom and Responsibility





Critique of Freedom and Responsibility

In this essay, I will discuss Sartre’s idea on freedom and responsibility. I will first outline Sartre’s argument about freedom is a burden. Then I will criticize his thoughts based on his existentialism philosophy and show freedom is not necessary a burden.

Sartre said, “We are condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on our shoulder.” (E: P.251) We are entirely responsible for the world created by ourselves; we cannot blame it on others. Every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men (E: P.208). We cannot escape from our responsibility by claiming shelter from authority, whether it is in the form of the government or God. Sartre said it is our choice to follow other people’s orders; therefore we are responsible for the consequence of the orders we followed. We cannot escape from our responsibility by claiming we did not do it. Sartre said inaction is also a choice we choose; therefore we should be responsibility for our lack of action. We cannot escape from our responsibility by claiming we did not ask for it. Sartre said we always have an alternative to dessert or commit suicide, therefore we chose this world and we are responsible for it. In the end, Sartre thinks we have no excuses to escape from our responsibility. Once we realize that we are abandonment to choose freely and take up the responsibilities of our choice, we will feel anguish. Most of us will flee anguish in bad faith.

Sartre used the following example to illustrate the burden of freedom. If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war, it is in my image and I deserve it. (E: P.252) I must take the full responsibility of the war, because I choose to be part of it. It is my choice that I enlisted and fight the enemy, instead of getting out of it by deserting or committing suicide. I may find many excuses for not getting out of it, such as good opinion of my relatives, the honor of my family, etc. I am in fact choosing those values over the value of refusal to join the way. I keep choosing it again and again until the end of the war for not quitting the war half way. Therefore Sartre said, “In war there are no innocent victims”. During the years of war, I choose this life that makes me day after day. The war is mine because by the sole fact that it arises in a situation which I cause to be. (E: P.253) Choosing war does not mean that I can take a recess from my responsibility elsewhere, such as in marriage, family or professional life. I cannot blame anyone but myself if the time I served in the war going to be empty years. No matter what situation I am in, I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse. I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without anything or any other person being able to lighten it. (E: P.254) I cannot flee the anguish by assuming the role of merely being a soldier. This is bad faith according to Sartre. I am a conscious being-for-itself. I am cannot objectify myself into a role of soldier that is being-in-itself. It is my choice to become a soldier and participate in this war; therefore I have the war I deserve.

I think Sartre’s argument about freedom is a burden is based on a false premise. He misunderstands the meaning of responsibility. He takes the word “responsibility” in the sense as “consciousness of being the incontestable author of an event or of an object” (E: P.252). However, in ordinary sense, responsibility is a duty we are required to fulfill. Merely causing something to happen is not responsible for that thing in ordinary sense. Responsibility is about something we ought to do. Even we have a free choice to do otherwise; we should still do what is required out of our responsibility. We are only responsible for something if we are liable or accountably for that thing. For example, I can choose to have a vanilla ice-cream or chocolate ice-cream, but I am not responsible for the fact that I have vanilla ice-cream but not chocolate ice-cream since I don’t have any obligation on which favor of ice-cream I should choose. In traditional philosophy, the responsibility of man comes from morality, from God, from authority, or from deduced by our reason. In Sartre’s existentialism philosophy, he rejects any objective truth. He rejects the existence of God, he rejected the logics and reason and he rejects authority. Then we must ask ourselves, where our responsibility comes from if there is no one imposes any duty on us. Responsibility itself is a human value. It does not exist until we choose to create it. In this sense, an object or a being-in-itself is responsible for causing something to happen because it is what happened in the world, it has no choice. A subject or a being-for-itself is not responsible for anything unless he choose to accept the responsibility. There is a gap of nothingness exists between the world and the consciousness. Whatever happen to the world has no relationship to our consciousness unless we choose to allow it affect our consciousness. In short, if we have absolute freedom as Sartre suggested, then we should have the freedom to choose not accepting any responsibility.

Let us use Sartre’s example as an illustration. In his example, say I am mobilized in a war and this is my war and I am responsible for it. I may think I have obligation as a citizen to join the army and defense my country. I may also think I have family responsibility prevent me from joining the army, stay home and take care of my family. However in existentialism, if I reflect on what is my responsibility, I find any ground instruct me to war or not to war. Since I am not obligate to anything, I am free to choose one way or another. Choosing to war does not imply I have to take the responsibility, since the responsibility is not there to begin with. In order to take the responsibility of the war, I must first choose to create it out of nothingness in my consciousness. Since I am absolutely free, I have the choice of not creating the responsibility in the first place. Since I have no responsibility whatsoever to begin with, I no longer have the problem of feeling anguish for continuously choosing to war. Choosing to war or not to war is just like choosing between vanilla ice-cream and chocolate ice-cream. Although I may not like the outcome of the world, I have no duty to dessert or to suicide. Just like it is not my responsibility to war, it is also not my responsibility not to war. Yes, I still have no excuses to escape from my responsibility. However I don’t need any excuses, since I never choose to take on any responsibility. I am innocent in the beginning and I can choose to keep it this way. The problem of Sartre is that he is not aware that he chose to take the responsibilities. He chooses to think he has a duty to his family and he also has a duty to his country. When the two duties are mutually exclusive, it is logically impossible to go to war and not go to war at the same time. He feels the burden of freedom because of contradicting responsibilities. In order to flee the anguish; he has to find a way to escape from the monster named responsibility. Yet he does not release this monster is his own creation. Freedom is only a burden if you choose it to be a burden.

Sartre may argue that making a choice of not taking any responsibility is still a bad faith in disguise in order to flee anguish. According to Sartre, anguish is the realization that there is no necessity in my life. My life is a system of values sustained in being only by my choice of sustaining it. I am the one who give values to everything around me in order to determine my reaction to those things. Once I have the consciousness of my freedom, I will have the sensation of groundlessness and experience the anguish of being the source of my own values. Then Sartre further explains most people flee anguish in bad faith. Bad faith is a form of self-deception, trying to tell lies to myself. However it is impossible because I cannot hide it from myself if I already process it. In the example above, Sartre may say I deny my responsibility of war is a bad faith because I objectify myself as a thing with no responsibility. My response to Sartre is that there is no necessity in my life including anguish. Anguish is not a necessity of my life, it is merely a choice. If my freedom reveals my value is groundlessness, what is the big deal? I am not acting in bad faith either. In order to be in bad faith, first of all you must know it and then lie about it to yourself. What if I don’t even care about the truthfulness of it? I simply create it out of nothingness that fits whatever purpose I desire it to be. There is no true or false in the subject of matters, so no lies involve. I cannot lie about something that I do not know about. Therefore I cannot be in bad faith if I don’t know whether or not the war is my responsibility. Contrary to Sartre’s view, it is in fact a bad faith to take up the responsibility of going to war. By taking up the responsibility, I am role-playing the role of man and unavoidability take up the responsibility of being a man. If I have absolute freedom, I should be free not to be a man. I am free to be just myself with no responsibility or anguish which attached to the role of man. I am what I am.

In conclusion, Sartre underestimated the true meaning of freedom. He did not question what is anguish? What is bad faith? What is responsibility? He thinks he all the guardrails of his system of value collapse, there is no necessity in this system. He forgot that he is still bounded by his system of existentialism, so he is not truly free. In the state of absolute freedom, man can choose not to accept anguish, not to accept any responsibility, not to know about anything that may lead to bad faith. Freedom is not a burden, because man is free to choose not having any burden.

2 comments to 哲學功課﹕ Critique of Freedom and Responsibility

  • trishama

    Did I tell you that I read a literature from Sartre?

    ‘No Exit’ (Huis Clos) – it is a story about 4 characters, which consists of a room having 3 of them torturing one another psychologically under the physical ‘constraint’.

    This story is so interesting because they desire to get out of one another to make them feel better about what they did before coming into this room.

    There is a quote from this story, “Hell — is about others.” (L’enfer, c’est les autres)

    However, it is also because they desire what they cannot have, they have decided to stay in this room without an end — in essence, they will be gladly IMPRISONED in this room (physical torture) enjoying the games (psychological torture) from one another. As a result, there is no exit as all the characters have chosen.

    As you question — what is anguish? What is bad faith? What is responsibility? These questions aren’t within the concerns of Sartre at all — because he writes about is all for self, with self, and in self.

    One thing that I admire about Sartre is the emphasis of self to express freedom of choice and accept the consequences of one’s act, in isolation from the human conditions of the universe.

    I adhere strong Christian values, thus it is interesting to study this philosopher who explores much about ‘self’, explained by rational terms of existentialism. If ‘self’ doesn’t earn enough chips to define one self to exist in this world, one is nothing — the more you gain, the more defined you are. It is a good value system to teach people, especially for those who cannot seem to find a place to define themselves and their actions. There are many people who are unmotivated in the society for work and study, due to psychological and physical conditions — ie. ‘Hidden young people’ (many existing invisibly in the society of Japan). Perhaps this is where a good place to start reviving… starting with the re-education of ‘self’, and freeing them from their own created ‘No Exit.’

    All the best! — your honest, faithful reader

  • I read the short story “No Exit” too. It’s in my textbook.

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