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Katherine Devine

Dr. Durmus

PL 265-52

27 October 2016

A Subjective View on the Subjectivity of Existentialism

Individual freedom and the ability to create oneself is the basis of which existentialism is

founded upon. While it maintains beliefs aimed at the betterment of an individual who seeks

meaning and value within their life, existentialism still remains the subject of criticism due to the

belief that its a philosophy of pessimism, inaction, and subjectivity. As a philosophy so focused

on free will, personal choice, and individual judgment, I recognize subjectivity as the most valid

criticism. While Sartre and Beauvoir pose thought-provoking objections to existentialisms

subjective nature, I argue that the criticism is valid because existentialism, by its very definition,

is subjective. A philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice, where

each individual arbitrarily defines their own meaning in life can be nothing but subjective.

This subjectivity critique is mainly grounded in the existentialist non-belief in a god. For

many people, the belief in a god instills values within them and provides the guidelines necessary

to lead a moral life on the path towards salvation. Eliminating the possibility of a god

consequently eliminates the moral, objective guidelines that drive many individuals daily

actions. The absence of an Almighty power and divine being to provide moral values supports

the critique that existentialism is subjective in its nature.

Sartre focuses largely on the concept of responsibility and the burden freedom bears on

an individual. He argues that responsibility is an inevitable byproduct of having total freedom

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and that one can experience anguish and anxiety through making the wrong decision. He does

not believe a God is necessary to guide ethical behavior as he argues carrying the burden of

responsibility is what drives people to make the right decision. Beauvoir holds a similar belief in

the power of responsibility to drive behavior by saying, He bears the responsibility for a world

which is not the work of a strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed, and his

victories, as well (Beauvoir 15). However, I would argue that these individuals experience

anguish because there is no measuring stick for them to base their actions. It becomes extremely

challenging to make a decision when one has no guidelines to refer to, resulting in the stress of

whether the right decision was made. Furthermore, having set principles eliminates anxiety

because these principles reaffirm that an individual is doing the right thing.

Sartres argument that the feeling of extreme responsibility forces individuals to deeply

consider their actions to ensure the best decision is made reveals a potential inconsistency within

his beliefs. If he is arguing that people ultimately do whats best, then that must mean theres

something born within us that drives these decisions. Before even knowing anything about right

or wrong, one would know innately that its wrong to harm or murder someone. This implies that

theres some sort of moral compass within our soul. If there are no absolute guidelines, how

could one ever know what is right if theyre not born with some innate knowledge? Eliminating

the possibility of an external source to set values, an individual must be acting upon innate

values, which directly contradicts Sartres belief that humans are born without an essence.

Shown in his comparison of art to ethics, he continually stresses the importance of creating

oneself, but how does an individual know whether what he/she is creating is productive or has
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any worth? Absent any measuring stick or established objectives, an individual is left to their

own subjective judgment to make that determination.

As both Sartre and Beauvoir focus on the notion free will, many objectors argue this

suggests one is able to do whatever they desire. However, both Sartre and Beauvoir counter this

notion by claiming that individuals are aware that their actions affect all of mankind. Sartre

states, and if I in any way assume responsibility for a choice which, in involving myself, also

involves mankind, this has nothing to do with caprice, even if no a priori value determines my

choice (Sartre 32). Ultimately, he believes that people realize their actions can affect others and

this understanding drives them to make good decisions. However, for him to say ones actions

have an impact on others assumes that he and the others have some shared means of determining

if actions have a positive or negative impact. This would be in conflict with Sartre and

Beauvoirs belief that there are no set principles in life that guide mankind.

I further my argument that existentialism is a philosophy of subjectivity by addressing its

relativity. Considering existentialism as a philosophy of relativism means there is no absolute

and that proper actions are relative to the situation. However, if theres no absolute, how can you

have anything but subjectivity? Under Sartre and Beauvoirs philosophy, any law or guideline

ever created must have been created by man and not a Supreme Being. Furthermore, at some

point, someone had to be subjective to come up with that given guideline. For example, if not

murdering is not an absolute truth, then someone had to be subjective to come up with that

guideline. If you dont believe there is an external source to create absolute truths, then all things

right and wrong had to be created subjectively by a man to determine what is truth or not. In
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saying this, better and worse judgments must be based on subjective views if you dont have

absolute truth. This further supports the criticism that philosophy is subjective in nature.

Sartre and Beauvoir strongly believe individuals are born as clean states and are free to

create themselves. With no Supreme Being to serve as a guide, there are no absolutes in life and

nothing is predetermined. However, it is difficult to have an argument if theres nothing to base

the argument on. It is evident that Sartre and Beauvoir make numerous different claims, but I

dont believe they are ever able to fully substantiate them and go around in circles contradicting

themselves, as a result. They both urge individuals to find their own value in life through

demonstrating free will, but the problem lies in not knowing what is truly right and of value

without any type of guideline to serve as affirmation. Absent a measuring stick, individuals are

left to resort to instinct and intuition, which are at the core of subjectivity.
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Works Cited

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Philosophical Library, Inc, 1948.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. Philosophical Library, Inc, 1957.