Sartrean Ethics and Testing Moral Values

We all come into the world the same way. There is a woman and a man and they mate. The woman gets pregnant and Voila! A baby is born. This baby is born with no previous knowledge except those genetic markers that make us uniquely part of a family. Some of these DNA markers can go horribly wrong. In another, a genius is born. Life is a crap shoot.

Yet, societies are born and some grow to believe in their own wisdom above that of others. They believe they see patterns that we do not. They also claim to see spirits that we do not. Such people then set themselves up as arbiters, judges, counselors, or wise men or women. Those who “know.” The rest of us, as this society grows, learns to become dependent upon such people, even if our accrued experience and wisdom teach us otherwise. This is the beginning of self doubt. We don’t have any when we are born. We take our food and take what we need to get along in the world, we learn by trial and error what constitutes bad behavior in the society we are born into, and we try to conform. We are told the stories of our people and those who have gone before us. Some even tell us stories about other people and cultures and try to convince us that those others have a better way. We try to model our behavior and some succeed while others fail. Whose fault is it? The arbiters and boundary makers or the individual?

How do we know that our own lived experience isn’t as wise as others’ lived experiences? A group of people in one culture feels one thing is taboo. Another group in another culture practice that taboo as a way of life. There is heavy guilt in one and no guilt in the other. Sheer accident determined whether you will feel the guilt or not. The one thing I admired about Jean Paul Sartre was his revolutionary idea that we all come into this world with no a priori knowledge of the world. It must all be learned. There are no concepts of Gods inherent in our makeup (despite the assertions of some recent books to the contrary). We are not wired to do this or do that. We must feel our way and learn it through concepts. We form attachments by accident or we divorce ourselves from those same attachments due to horrible bonding interruptions. We did not choose it. In this respect all of our life is lived a posteriori, after the fact and we form our ideas after the experience. Sartre goes further and says that if this is so, then we have a huge responsibility to form ourselves as if all mankind were forming itself. I’m not sure I completely buy his argument, but let’s go with this. This is precisely where others get the idea that by forming ideas and norms they can form it for others. Kant was big on asking us to make one thing a universal and then see if it was wise. Someone has to do it, right? Or wouldn’t we then become a lawless society where everyone did as they pleased?

Isn’t this a slippery slope argument? That without those boundaries and rules society would degenerate into mass orgies of killing, rape, and mayhem? Yet again, some would have us believe that their experience is superior to our own. they have superior moral fortitude, whatever that is, and know what constitutes a stable society. Some then begin to tell us what is healthy or what they believe is detrimental to our physical or psychological health. They point fingers and write books and dampen the sheer joy of living life as it comes. They have little faith in humanity to choose life, love, and happiness over death, misery, and unhappiness. I know because I’ve been one of them. I have always had a miserable view of humanity because it has been my experience that happiness is short-lived and most of the times good things go to shit. But what if we looked at the opposite view? What of the relentlessly positive and hopeful attitude? What if what some see as “immorality” is really a quest for societal evolution? (And I’m not talking about murder or rape or abuse or anything that destroys or damages the inner psyche of another human being for arbitrary reasons). What if one person’s idea of morality was a life-crushing, psyche killing idea that worked to stifle whole groups of people because of accidents of DNA? This stifling is what religions, politics, and ideologies are made of.

I throw these ideas out there in an attempt to mess up the status quo of ideas that claim to be rightful ones. Sartre wrote of the conundrum of a single man acting for all men and what we can do to make our own decisions:

If values are vague, and if they are always too broad for the concrete and specific case that we are considering, the only thing left for us is to trust our instincts. ..But how is the value of a feeling determined?… The only way to determine the value of this affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and defines it.. We shall confine ourselves to reckoning only with what depends upon our will, or on the ensemble of probabilities which make our action possible. When we want something we always have to reckon with probabilities….[therefore] There is no reality except in action.. (“Existentialism” The Philosophical Library).

In other words, the rightness or wrongness of an action cannot be determined beforehand. It must be lived and evaluated by the consequences of all involved. Thereby begins another sticky wicket, but that is for another day…


4 thoughts on “Sartrean Ethics and Testing Moral Values

  1. “That without those boundaries and rules society would degenerate into mass orgies of killing, rape, and mayhem?”

    I’ve been reading a lot of Libertarian literature of late, so when I tell you there’s evidence that while ‘boundaries’ and ‘rules’ (call them practices or behaviors) are highly useful, they are most (if not only) so when they spontaneously develop. As if in confirmation of Sartre’s hypothesis on when the rightness/wrongness of an action is determined, here’s a short paper studying the appearance of those natural inclinations that promote individual’s quests for happiness:

  2. If I read this and the associated paper another 9 times, I may have something substantive to contribute to the discussion; stranger things have happened. Meanwhile, this post prompts me to wonder why i don’t come back here more often. Well I know why, I’ve been somewhat busy, but I should make the time. Thank you for keeping me awake as ever.


  3. Reg,

    And thank you for reminding me where my focus lies. There is no reality except in action and the rightness or wrongness of an action is in the consequences of it. Blessings on you for that.

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