I am reading "Existenstialism is a humanism", the text of the famous conference by Sartre in which he explains his own version of existentialism. I think is full of logical inconsistencies, but maybe it's just because I don't understand it or I don't know enough about existentialism. Anyway, my question is about a specific passage. After having "demonstrated" that there is no way one can derive an ethics outside of Man (God does not exist and reason is insufficient), he asks himself according to what principle a person should behave and he says:

"For I declare that freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values. That does not mean that he wills it in the abstract: it simply means that the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such."

So it seems Sartre says that when deciding a course of action, people will always choose "freedom," (and also, elsewhere, that "freedom" is always a good thing). That is for him the only principle, the only moral that governs or should (because we can do wrong judgments about what is freedom) govern our action.

My questions are:

1) do I understand correctly Sartre's thinking?

2) He says: a) freedom is absolute; b) the values that man chooses are also absolute because no God or reason can tell him what to do, c) therefore man will choose freedom. Is there any logic in this statement? If I replace freedom with X where X is "pleasure" or "justice" or "pain" or "zero temperature", wouldn't I "demonstrate" by this logic that man will choose X?

3) assuming what I said makes any sense, how can existentialism ever find a rule of moral conduct? and if it does, what is it and how can be demonstrated? and if it cannot, why is or has been important at all as a philosophy?


  • 1
    I am not up to answering the rest of it but 3 is easy. Kant goes to pretty much exactly the same place from a totally different angle and creates a very productive version of ethics based entirely on 'autonomy', another word for 'freedom'. So does Libertarianism. So do various forms of rule-utilitarianism focussed on intention rather than outcome. If anything, it leaves too many ethical options by being too vague.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 16:32
  • Thanks very much. Are you saying that for Kant or the other schools that you mention, freedom or autonomy is the highest moral principle? And how can they demonstrate (or at least support) this statement?
    – luca a.
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 16:44
  • 2
    Its worth pointing out that the essay is polemical so it will be 'full of logical inconsistencies'; he justifies his position elsewhere. Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 16:52
  • 1
    That is a totally different question, which you should ask or search if you really want an answer, and would require a long answer in each case. The point is that Sartre is not original in this, he has several predecessors who have hung their whole ethics on the notion of mutual autonomy or other interpretations of 'freedom'. He is just trying to get there without the same shortcuts.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 17:16
  • Part of the reason to choose freedom is that you are choosing, and you want it to be ethical for you to choose to be ethical. It has a sort of 'cogito ergo sum' quality to it. If you choose a basis other than freedom of choice for an ethical criterion, then there is a lot more work to prove you should have bothered to choose anything at all. And for most of us, we do subjectively feel like we are choosing, when we make an ethical determination, and not being guided or creating something new.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 17:35

3 Answers 3


You did not understand Sartre correctly. When he says people will choose freedom (of actions) he means in that passage that they are better to appreciate/recognize the fact they are already free, instead of haunting their "bad faith" which conceals the fact of freedom in order to escape anxiety and responsibility. For, to Sartre man is condemned to be free. In honesty (authentity) or in bad faith (self-deception) - no matter, a man remains free; he cannot exist otherwise but free.

So, "the quest of freedom as such" is simply the project to be honest and get along with that (only) human nature, the freedom. It is logical and practical sane call, in Sartre's view. We don't choose freedom, he says, so let's appreciate that we are free.

Somebody who in their lives had occasional insights that, for example, their lover or a friend or a pet is worthy only thanks to them (the subjects) and through them, will understand Sartre saying "values depend upon himself".

Sartre's existentialism always has had problems with ethics. Positive morals are not easy to derive from basically a "nihilistic" philosophy. Sartre called up to respect everyone's not only my freedom. He also held that a man should be acting, re-doing his self.

Somebody very keen has proclamed the moral maxima of any phenomenologic-based existential system as "act such as if you were not", because for Sartre and his philosophical peers a man has no access to his own being since he's free.

  • I have read both of the answers you have given on Sartre, and they are good answers! However, as you probably know, Sartre changed his views later on this topic of man's freedom. At least in my opinion, it was a real change, a real break as Sartre began to see the idea of man's (complete) ontological freedom as simply naive. This gives some information on this topic. iep.utm.edu/sartre-p/#H3
    – Gordon
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 12:36
  • Thank you much for your comment and the link. However, I don't think that Sartre ever quit his basic postulates. Despite yes, he, by late 40s, turned to see man as very constrained by real circumstancies. In his second large book, on dialectical reasoning, many things were reformulated terminologically, but the pivot remained recognizable as it were in Being and Nothingness.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 13:14
  • On your second comment about unremovable different constraints in people. Actually, it is unfair to demand from a philosopher to account for differences so that the system suits everyone equally easy. Similar unfair claims had been done against Heidegger, for example; which didn't devalue his system.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 13:20
  • After all, an antropologic-oriented philosophy is always an intimate experience of its author sole. It is our individual choice to borrow it to believe and live and use, or not to.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 13:23
  • Additionally - would stress this obvious fact - Sartre's "absolute freedom" never meant "effective caprice". The freedom always occurs here-and-now in concrete circumstances and vis-a-vis these. The word "absolute" means not I do what I fancy but that the circumstances are processed by mind in the manner that while they are taken in full they are here just not to meddle (in strict causality sense) in the decision made. The freedom is not psychological or subjective freedom, it is philosophical ontologic one.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 13:35

I guess I am answering the rest of it anyway... (Inauthentic of me...)

1) No. I don't think you properly understand Sartre's position.

People don't always choose freedom. Inauthenticity is also an option. So one can choose against freedom, but only hypocritically. From a certain point of view, we generally do so. Evasive rationalization is very natural in a complex society with a lot of determining forces like government, the opinions of others, the possibility of violent disagreement...

We often justify our actions and pretend we have not chosen, because we don't like the result and would rather disown it.

Freedom is not always good. I can be pointless: we can need to decide when it won't affect any relevant outcome. It can be horrifying: we can be asked to make decisions no one should make knowing that we cannot make them well. It always presents the risk of choosing wrong, which can be as bad as possible.

But it is literally inescapable, if one is truthful. Truthfulness is not always good, it can have all the same problems. But habitual lack of truthfulness is a widespread disease.

Lying is not necessarily bad, but it makes things more complex and degrades the sense of meaning in one's actions. We can choose to lie to ourselves about our freedom. That can even be good. It just has a price. Too many people are not aware of the price because they are so used to choosing to be inauthentic that they do not know what a sense of meaning is, anymore; and that is a widespread form of mild insanity.

2) That is not really a fair way to put it. It puts a syllogism in his mouth that has an undistributed middle. Point a implies c: freedom is absolute, you will choose freedom because absolute freedom does not permit any other option.

What it comes down to is that whether and how to choose is one thing in life, perhaps the central thing, over which one ultimately has no choice. You will do it, and you will choose freedom. You can do so consciously or subconsciously. You might as well be honest with yourself.

Yes that contradicts everything I said in 1), but this is to some degree a theory about lying and not lying, aimed at a herd of people steeped in lies. It is not hard to see that the contradictions themselves are superficial, but inescapable -- that there are two senses of 'choice' at play, but that they can't really be separated.

3) As pointed out in the comments Kant purposely takes autonomy as the only value, and builds from there. So clearly Kant is an option for an Existentialist ethics. That is, as long as one realizes that it is an option, and that Kant's own choice to claim he is basically coerced into it by logic is dishonest and evasive. So the whole remainder of Kant's philosophy is not an option, and you need a different way to look at your motivation to frame things in this way.

Cynicism is another system based entirely on freedom as a goal. It adds contrarianism as a subgoal, with the added insight that we can all create more consciousness of our options by subverting patterns of assumptions that are too popular.

Within a Nietzschean worldview power and freedom form a direct feedback loop. So within an ethic of power, freedom is a value equal to the primary value, giving yet another option for ways of choosing ethical priorities.

Existentialism can be used to sew all of this together and prune it for efficiency.


More or less right, but not quite.

in that state of forsakenness

We are not all in that state! Or rather, we do not always experience it.

For Sartre, self-deception and bad faith are the same, and, in what 1 call the weak sense of these terms, we can say that we cannot escape self-deception, or bad faith, because we go from one self-deception to another.

William Leon McBride -- Existentialist Ethics, p119.

Think, all humans are inauthentic, but some are more inauthentic than others. Anyway, you're surely right that we can't

ever find a rule of moral conduct.

To claim that we can find a moral conduct for one and all would be to condemn them to inauthentic choices, which is surely self refuting, and so itself an example of self deceit in us too.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .