Sartre wrote this in 1946 in L’existentialism est un humanisme.

Choisir d’être ceci ou cela, c’est affirmer en même temps la valeur de ce que nous choisissons, car nous ne pouvons jamais choisir le mal; ce que nous choisissons, c’est toujours le bien, et rien ne peut être bon pour nous sans l’être pour tous.

I have also read a translation in my mother tongue and it boils down to the same thing. He is saying that when we choose something, we affirm the value of what we choice, and we can never choose the ‘bad’. When we choose, we always choose the good, and nothing is good for us that is not good for all of us.

I’m not sure how to interpret this or what he is trying to say exactly. Either he is saying that every choice we make is a choice that others would agree on if they were in our shoes, which I can kind of understand. Because if someone would be exactly in our situation, with the same history and the same current state of life, and the same idea of the future, it makes sense.

However, it can’t be that he means that every choice an individual makes is the ‘good choice’ in a larger sense. I doubt that if you decide to inflict harm upon someone instead of verbally resolving your conflict, this is ‘good’ for everyone. Clearly that would be a bad choice for the person upon whom you inflicted harm.

As to avoid this question being opinion-based, I won’t ask what you personally thought of this, rather, what did Sartre mean?

2 Answers 2


According to this article in Philosophy Now, Sartre wrote this as a piece of polemic and apologia for athiestic humanism; which is possibly one reason why he later regretted its publication.

Polemic doesn't tend to argue discursively, backing up each claim credibly; it tends to go for greater rhetorical effect - and this means argumentation and reasoning is dropped; it also plays to Satres strength as a specifically literary kind of philosopher - how many philosophers have written plays and novels?

So, in one sense it's not surprising that you've exposed a hole in Sartres thinking.

In this essay, Sartre is defending his conception of existentialism against a number of charges brought against it:

  1. too focused on the individual, without thinking on the relation between the individual and society, and of human solidarity - a charge made alike by Christians and Marxists.

  2. too pessimistic and dystopic; focusing on the ignominious condition of man; in Being & Nothingness he calls man a 'useless passion' and that all forms of sexual love were doomed to masochism or sadism - Hegels master-slave dialectic in the context of the personal

Sartre takes freedom - the individual free will - as an 'absolute', meaning he begins with that; what 'we choose is always for the better' says as you say, that the individual choosing his actions is evidence that he is choosing for the best.

His next move to the universal, is in a sense a lyrical and oracular move, he veils himself in the voice of all, and speaks for all - note the use of 'we'; so this is not man, the individual whose fate he's concerned with here, and nor men in their plurality and variety, but man as a species, and therefore as an essence (these are terms in Aristotles categories, that are used in a different way in Aristotelianism; and a term that he reverses in his abandonment of God: existence before essence, not after; for Sartre, a man defines his essence by his acts acting in freedom).

This is where his literariness, his poetics come in; it works only if one accepts this as a kind of assertion of destiny; as a kind of prophesying.

Discursively, though it's questionable exactly on the basis that you've made; and it's the same critique the article levels at him.

His claim doesn't stand up within the text; but this ignores the nature of the essay as a polemic and defence; the question is whether he provides a defence of this position elsewhere in his works.

The article suggests not, and that he's unable to demonstrate that his ethics, in the terms he's framed them, doesn't lead to moral anarchy.

A closer reading, however may show that he's taken on something of the legislative burden of the Kantian moral code - to only act, as though you're acting for all; and then it would be a question how he's used the scaffolding from Kant to buttress his own position - I'm not enough of an expert to answer this; but hopefully this might prompt someone to offer a better answer.


Some hints ...

Basic "axiom" of L'existentialisme est un humanisme (1946) :

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

For Sartre's slogan, see at least : “Existence Precedes Essence” and Jean-Paul Sartre :

the immense popularity of his scandalous public lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” delivered to an enthusiastic Parisian crowd October 28, 1945. Though taken as a quasi manifesto for the Existentialist movement, the transcript of this lecture was the only publication that Sartre openly regretted seeing in print. And yet it continues to be the major introduction to his philosophy for the general public. One of the reasons both for its popularity and for his discomfort is the clarity with which it exhibits the major tenets of existentialist thought [...].

The basis of Sartrean freedom is ontological: we are free because we are not a self (an in-itself) but a presence-to-self (the transcendence or “nihilation” of our self). [...] To that freedom [what Sartre calls “freedom as the definition of man” ]corresponds a coextensive responsibility. We are responsible for our “world” as the horizon of meaning in which we operate and thus for everything in it insofar as their meaning and value are assigned by virtue of our life-orienting fundamental “choice.”

Sartre sometimes talks as if any choice could be authentic so long as it is lived with a clear awareness of its contingency and responsibility. But his considered opinion excludes choices that oppress or consciously exploit others. In other words, authenticity is not entirely style; there is a general content and that content is freedom. Thus the “authentic Nazi” is explicitly disqualified as being oxymoronic. Sartre's thesis is that freedom is the implicit object of any choice, a claim he makes but does not adequately defend in his Humanism lecture. He seems to assume that “freedom” is the aspect under which any choice is made, its “formal object,” to revive an ancient term. But a stronger argument than that would be required to disqualify an “authentic” Nazi.

And see also Sartre's concept of Authenticity.

  • Thank you for the wealth of information you provided, the links are much appreciated! Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 9:05

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