I'm quite confused about Sartre and his relationship to morality. He talks a lot about responsibility. When I think of responsibility, punishment and law come to my mind. But I suppose Sartre's responsibility means that we have to accept that we have by our free decisions contributed to how things have evolved. Do I understand it correctly? But can we derive from this existentialist responsibility a reason why we should not, for example, kill someone? Is the fear of being put in jail the only thing that will prevent us from doing so?

  • 1
    We can not derive a reason for not killing someone from any kind of morality. It may be God's command, but then why should we obey God, it may be the law, but that's only a reason not to get caught. Moral commands are not derivable from reasons. Accepting responsibility for our actions should instead move us in a certain way, and it presumably moves us to view unmotivated killing as a pointless waste of our own and somebody else's existence. Not out of fear, or something else superficial.
    – Conifold
    Apr 2, 2020 at 11:19
  • I'm reluctant to propose an answer to the question, but does it make sense to think that there may not be an "existentialist" responsibility to not kill people so much as that existentialism proposes that the individual finds (or not) a responsibility to not kill people that carries, for them, moral force? I would be very hesitant to ascribe to Sartre a perspective that seeks to definitively affirm conventional moral truths of any sort (or even the contrary of such truths) beyond the phenomenology of the individual human.
    – Paul Ross
    Apr 2, 2020 at 17:01
  • plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/#Eth
    – user37859
    Apr 9, 2020 at 17:20
  • also plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/#FreVal
    – user37859
    Apr 9, 2020 at 17:22

2 Answers 2


Existentialism (along with absurdism, phenomenology, and a few other schools) is a descendent of Nietzsche's worldview. It carries over Nietzsche's lionization of the individual, and his radical distrust of socially derived value structures. To that end, Sartre, like Nietzsche, locates morality as a feature of the 'authentic' self. For Sartre in particular, we can only achieve a proper moral understanding when we have disabused ourselves of all of the social, cultural, and political understandings that we have been indoctrinated or subjugated into (including, interestingly, the concept that there is a transcendental ego underpinning the self).

This is where the notion of 'responsibility' comes into play. We have a natural tendency to flee our authentic self in favor of the socially-determined self presented to us by our environment. We must (for Sartre) take the responsibility of sticking to the existential paradigm and freeing ourselves from this false ego, and as we discard these external moral structure, we create an authentic moral context.

Sartre does not explicitly get into moral questions like whether we can kill others, except to suggest that the basic structure of authentic morality is the pursuit of freedom, and so we cannot 'authentically' restrict the freedom of another (through enslavement or murder). If I were to extend Sartre somewhat, I might suggest that the moral quandary of whether to kill another only arises for the false, socially-derived ego. In other words, our social environment conditions us to be a certain kind of person, act in certain ways, desire certain things and despise other things; part of that conditioning is a reflexive violence against difference, non-conformity, and actual authenticity. When we dispose of the conditioning, we dispose of the reflexive violence as well, so we would never feel an authentic urge to kill or harm another. But again, I'm reading that into Sartre (and probably importing a little Buddhist philosophy to boot), so don't take that as a verified existentialist position.


"But I suppose Sartre's responsibility means that we have to accept that we have by our free decisions contributed to how things have evolved. Do I understand it correctly? "

Yes. This is only one implication of the main idea which is:

We are only responsible ( = have to give a response ) to ourselves. Other implications are:

If you agree with yourself then others' judgement are irrelevant. If there is someone you can blame, then it is you. If there is someone you can be proud of, then it is you.

For example, if someone wants to kill you because it makes them happy, do not waste your time blaming them as they are only responsible to themselves, not to you. You can blame yourself for not having done the necessary to protect yourself, or be proud of yourself because you have actually done the necessary...and so on and so forth..

As you can see, this is clearly not what a priest will tell you about morality !!

I hope this helps.

You must log in to answer this question.

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