On 'Existentialism Is Humanism' by Sartre

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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In his essay Existentialism is Humanism Sartre develops an atheistic moral system. In this paper, I will examine the moral system that Sartre presents. I will attempt to provide the most plausible interpretation of this morality and determine if this moral system can work in a society. I will conclude that there are several problems with Sartre’s account of morality that make it inadequate. And I will try to provide a possible solution to these problems.

In order to understand Sartre’s account of morality we should first examine the basis upon which it is developed. Sartre develops his account of morality from a perspective of what he calls a “consistently atheistic” existentialism. The “consistently atheistic” existentialism maintains that God does not exist. This means that there can be no universal moral values, but it also means, and this is very important for Sartre’s account that man’s existence comes before man’s essence.

If God does not exist then there can be no universal moral values because such values, at least in the European morality, come from the “commandments of God”. We use these commandments to define good and evil, and upon these two opposing concepts we base our morality. Furthermore if God does not exist then man was not created according to a divine plan, his essence was not defined a priori, and therefore there is no such a thing as “Human nature”.

Sartre defines his phrase “existence precedes essence” as applied to man in the following way: “…man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards”(EH pp. 349). By this Sartre means that man’s character (essence) is not defined when he enters the world, he is pure potentiality, and he defines himself through his actions (he himself defines his essence). Therefore, man is defined only insofar as he acts, only his…...

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