How can I explain existentialism to others

Jean-Paul Sartre: Drafts for a Moral Philosophy

On the one hand, why does it happen so late? After all, the drafts for a moral philosophy are the voluminous fragment of an originally planned second volume of Sartre's major work Das Sein und das Nothing. In this book Sartre develops his famous existentialism, which explains to the individual that he is fundamentally free - even under Nazi-German occupation, or that he can rebel against oppression in any situation. Sartre writes at the end of Being and Nothing:

"Can freedom (..) In particular escape any situation? (..) Or will it situate itself the more precisely and individually, the more it (..) Takes on its responsibility? (..) These questions (...) ) can only be answered in the area of ​​morals. We will dedicate our next book to them. " "

On the other hand, one could be just as surprised that the drafts for a moral philosophy are still published in German at all. Because Sartre has not only become silent in the last 20 years. In the fifties and sixties he also turned away from his existentialism of the forties and increasingly to Marxism. In Marxism and Existentialism of 1957 he states:

"Marxism is far from exhausted, it is still very young, it is almost still in its infancy: it has hardly begun to develop. So it remains the philosophy of our epoch (..). All of our thinking can only change itself form on this breeding ground; it must remain within this framework or lose itself in the void or become retrograde. " "

This raises the question all the more persistently: Why should one translate over 1000 pages of an existentialist fragment on moral philosophy, especially since Sartre did not go down in the history of philosophy as an ethicist? In Being and Nothingness, he has already certified that every person is fully responsible for their entire life and actions, and as one of the first of what is probably the most important ethical discussion of the 20th century, that of the ethics of responsibility, he showed the way: If you If you can no longer agree on the highest common moral norms because everyone follows a different worldview or believes in a different God, then one must above all pay attention to the consequences when acting. Sartre writes in Being and Nothing:

"I am thrown into the world (..) In the sense that I suddenly find myself alone and without help, committed to a world for which I am fully responsible, without, whatever I do, evade this responsibility to be able to, even for a moment, for even for my need to flee responsibilities I am responsible. "

But neither the moral philosophers nor Sartre himself recognized his decisive contribution to the ethics of responsibility. Basically, Sartre asked about ethical norms, but those that adapt to the respective situation and that tell the individual what to do or not to do in the abstract, regardless of his situation. The program of his drafts for a moral philosophy is called:

"There is no abstract morality. There is only one morality in a situation, that is, a concrete morality. Because abstract morality is that of a good conscience. It presupposes that one can be moral in a fundamentally amoral situation. ) Morality is the idea (..) That you can 'have your conscience to yourself'. "

There is no question that concrete morality remains committed to responsibility, so it must pay attention to the real effects of action and not just uphold principles. For example, one cannot simply invoke the principle of the protection of life as the highest ethical norm and with a clear conscience refuse to actively participate in counseling for pregnant women. If in the other case one might have prevented one or the other abortion, one must not wash one's hands in innocence. Sartre writes:

"’ I have my conscience. ’That means turning away from action in order to take refuge in the subjective. What is important is the actualization of the deed."

Sartre writes Das sein und das Nothing under Nazi-German occupation, a situation in which there was no longer any moral authority. The Resistance developed slowly and remained an underground army until liberation, which one could but did not have to join. This is how Sartre designs the philosophy of individual decision-making and responsibility. When he was working on the drafts for a moral philosophy in 1948, this experience was still virulent. The world is currently in a state of upheaval, so it is important to shape it. Sartre wants to bring the norm ethics conceived by Immanuel Kant back into the concrete life situation. In doing so, however, he has to turn against this mainstream of ethics. One can no longer orientate oneself exclusively to general principles that read, for example: You should not commit adultery!

"Ethics is the theory of action. But action is abstract if it is not work and struggle. Example: saving a drowning child. (..) The specific problems: was Luther allowed to abandon the peasants during the peasant war?"

In his drafts for a moral philosophy, Sartre follows the trace of the ethics of responsibility as a slowly consolidating counter-model to traditional ethics of norms. Primarily two other topics pervade the more than 1000 pages, once the question of history, a problem that was obvious at the time, when Marxism still believed in automatic progress towards communism. Sartre counters this with his famous motto from Being and Nothing, namely that the existence of the essence precedes it. Man finds himself thrown into the world, he exists without a god having predetermined his nature for him. Rather, he has to create his essence, the meaning of his life, for himself. In the same way, he has to actively shape the story:

"In the HISTORY, too, the existence of the essence precedes. (..) The HISTORY is what it is made of."

In the meantime, however, word has got around that one can only recognize moments much later than historically. World and history cannot be directed and neither do they follow any law. It is not for nothing that hardly anyone is interested in the philosophy of history today. Therefore, the drafts for a moral philosophy would not necessarily have to be translated.

On the other hand, Sartre deals with the question of violence, precisely to what extent it is still settled in morality itself - a highly topical subject indeed, with which he anticipates the studies of power by Michel Foucault or Hannah Arendt. Because first of all, an immoral situation challenges morality, a situation that is dominated by violence:

"In truth, morality takes place in an atmosphere of failure. It must fail because it is always too late or too early for it."

Sartre was a man of war. When the Second World War ended, the Indochina War began, which in 1954 went almost seamlessly into the Algerian War, which was followed by the Vietnam War in 1963. How was Sartre supposed to be an opponent of violence? Are there pacifists among conservative philosophers? So Sartre also accepts violence in morality:

"Morality today must be revolutionary socialist."

For Sartre, the world cannot be changed without violence. But he does not follow a dogmatic Marxist position as propagated by Lenin:

"A revolutionary, said Lenin, has no morals because his goal is concrete and his obligations are indicated by the purpose he has set himself."

Sartre is well aware that violence is at the bottom of every morality, and that there is no such thing as the absolute good. He demonstrates this in his drafts for a moral philosophy using countless concrete examples. With this method he participates in the philosophical spirit of the time when, in the course of the 20th century, the great theory is no longer able to adequately grasp the world and one has to deal with real events instead.

In 1948, of course, he was still under the nightmare of resistance against Nazi Germany. This is exactly where Sartre's ethical reflection begins, in which morality and violence are indispensable:

"But what does it mean to do violence to a person? First of all, to recognize him as freedom. Since I demand of him, I recognize him as free. At the same time, however, it means to declare him to be pure determinism. (..) When he speaks, while I torture him, he acknowledges my superiority. His freedom has given way to mine. But since it is torture that makes him speak, he has lowered himself to the level of the determinate thing. "

Sartre, however, remains aware of the dangers of inevitable violence in morality. In contrast to conservative thought leaders like Leo Strauss, Sartre is concerned with a morality that does not simply resort to authoritarian violence to assert itself. If it withholds its own violence, then morality even threatens to slide into anti-Semitism, into the exclusion of a supposedly evil:

"Some people" want a hard moral, that is, one that comes to terms with war, death and oppression. Finally (..) They even decide that one must do EVIL to people in order to give them the opportunity to transcend it and create the GOOD. "

The drafts for a moral philosophy are divided into an extensive first, an apparently unfinished second volume as well as two short appendices on "The good and subjectivity" and a study on the oppression of blacks in the USA. The two issues are hardly structured internally. Loose subtitles relate to ethically relevant terms such as request, demand, appeal, consent, refusal and the latter followed by the revolt. Sartre examines these terms in their relation to violence. Because even if I ask another person, it puts pressure on me. Think of the seduction:

"This woman, who rejects me, is a petty bourgeois, married, family mother. She is subject to the constraints of her milieu; (..). She fears the judgment of her children. She fears that adultery could cause her husband to divorce, whatever would deprive her of her livelihood, she is also afraid of public opinion. And when she is finally a little physically excited, she finds the strength to resist the (..) desire for the immediate in consideration of her designs (.. I myself am a big industrialist from a social milieu that I consider equal to or superior to theirs, otherwise I consider myself free from the scruples and fears that captivate them. In a certain sense, she is an object for me and me consider their refusal to be unfounded. It contradicts a free and reasonable morality. "

But even such a reasonable morality is not only a form of coercion, it also involves violence. According to Sartre, you cannot always tell children the truth - if only because they do not understand it: Even in such didactic lies there is an element of violence, because it robs the child of freedom, thereby increasing the moral of the upbringing but inevitably turns into immorality: education so regularly makes use of violence. Sartre now even compares the request with rape:

"Let us note, however, that the request appears here at the same moment in which the violence could find a place. Basically, we are dealing with two equivalent means to achieve what a freedom definitely denies with no possible way out . (..) By violence one wanted to have a consenting freedom and only holds a tied body in which the freedom stiffened on the resistance. At the request one wanted to appropriate a freedom and arouse a confusion in it that would bind it , one wanted to be master. "

Sartre searches for a concrete moral in a variety of situations. Sartre was one of the first to introduce that philosophical approach into ethics, which then no longer merely endeavors to justify general norms, but rather operates with individual examples and concrete cases - an approach that is slowly spreading in philosophical ethics, although it has not yet established itself by a long way. In any case, the drafts for a moral philosophy show Sartre as a methodically advanced ethicist, who thereby arrives at surprising insights - think again of seduction:

"By asking, I submit to her decision from the start. By the way, I am consenting to something that I would have rejected at the beginning: that she would give in to my request by a simple and simple resolution. If she would have me when I tried to seduce her at the beginning , said: 'Fine, I'll help you. You leave me cold, but let's sleep together', I would have refused with horror. Now it's exactly what I ask of her (..). "

A central theme of the existentialist Sartre is the ambivalence of all human life. There are always decisions to be made. For Sartre, freedom does not mean freeing oneself from supposed paternalism. Freedom rather means to see that one is always one's own standard of good. You are thrown back on yourself, you have to decide for yourself, but you can also decide for yourself. In this sense, existentialism is a hedonism, if one does not understand it as a simple orientation towards one's own pleasure, but as an individual autonomy beyond social constraints: an individual decision-making competence about what one thinks is right and good. So the seduction story takes a hedonistic turn:

"In the eyes of this unconditional freedom I have more value than the husband or the child who impose their demands on her; she herself has to choose between this life in which her freedom is subordinate to categorical imperatives, that is, a GOOD that alienates her , and the decision to become the measure of GOOD yourself. "

Of course, Sartre does not only deal with the forms of violence in people's everyday relationships. He also focuses on the political, social and cultural dimensions. The slave is faced with the choice of either accepting his master's judgment and accepting his submission in order to remain on the side of the prevailing idea of ​​good. Or, if he revolts against it, if he discovers his own subjective ability to act independently, then he is not only on the side of the revolt, rather he embodies evil, the terrorist:

"Since the slave's violence (..) Is the discovery of subjectivity, the slave discovers his subjectivity and has to take it upon himself in the element of EVIL. He has to choose between self-awareness as absolute EVIL, ie as freedom that chooses EVIL and choose himself in the EVIL dimension, or grasping himself as an object in the gaze of the LORD, a thing or Lucifer. "

For Sartre, violence is only constituted through evil. But what does violence actually mean? Sartre distinguishes it from force: when I uncork a bottle of wine I use force, when I break the neck of the bottle I use force. But for Sartre, violence is not just destructive and physical. According to Sartre, violence arises rather from a moral context. Violence is violence as the evil that is done to me by others, be it through a lie, be it through an assault, whenever my freedom is concretely impaired. But of course there is no overarching, but only an individual point of view, not evil itself:

"VIOLENCE is absolutely EVIL from the point of view of the other (..). And it is only from this point of view that it constitutes itself as violence."

The same of course does not remain without consequences for the relationship between law and violence, in which for Sartre the rule of the strong is always formulated and precisely no justice that would enforce the law by means of force in the interests of all. The upper class simply has more rights than the lower class - says Sartre:

"The right is the demand of the stronger to be treated as a person by him whom he subjugates."

And shortly afterwards it says:

"The person who establishes the law is like the one (clown or child) who, after hitting his comrade, lifts his finger and says 'the game is over' when he in turn wants to hit him." "

With the drafts for a moral philosophy, Sartre joins the perspective of an individual ethic that runs from Kierkegaard via Nietzsche and Sartre to Lévinas. It outlines the moral of the individual, which is no longer simply subordinated to the community. It is to be hoped that this German first edition will intensify Sartre's reception in the ethical debate, on the one hand to finally do justice to Sartre's role, but also to enrich this debate with Sartre's innovative ethical thinking.

Jean-Paul Sartre:
"Drafts for a Moral Philosophy"
(Rowohlt Verlag)