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Existentialist Ethics

Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence,

freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life,
and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It
focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no
purpose or explanation at the core of existence.

Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must
take personal responsibility for themselves (although with this responsibility
comes angst, a profound anguish or dread). It therefore emphasizes action,
freedom and decision as fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above
the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering
and inevitable death) is by exercising our personal freedom and choice (a
complete rejection of Determinism).

Existentialism originated with the 19th Century philosophers Søren

Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although neither used the term in their
work. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre,
Albert Camus (1913 - 1960), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986) wrote
scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes, such as dread,
boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment and nothingness.

Who are the major thinkers?

Friedrich Nietzsche Albert Camus Simone de Beauvoir


The three main philosophers behind this school are:

 Soren Kierkegaard
 Martin Heidegger
 Jean-Paul Sartre

Soren Kierkegaard

 people must move beyond judging their actions

according to reason or the standards of society and
become responsible only to the judgments of God.
 that it is through their choices people to come to
know who they really are and what they value.
 that works of art are not real; they are
meaningless and lack purpose.

Martin Heidegger

 built on Kierkegaard’s ideas but rejected his

religious beliefs and focus.
 believed that your ‘being’ is always in question; it
doesn’t come ready-made.
 authenticity (being true to one’s self when making
moral choices) is the only virtue worth striving for in
existentialist theory

Jean-Paul Sartre

 people can never be certain that they have

made the right choices.
 people are free and alone. They are alone
because God does not exist.

 human nature can by summed up in this three word sentence - Existence

precedes essence.

Very few philosophers other than Jean-Paul Sartre have emphasized as much
that we are entirely responsible for not only what we are but also what we will be.

What "existence precedes essence" means.

o Existence: the fact of being, the presence of something, the "thisness,"

"that it is."
o Essence: Having awareness of yourself and things around you, the reality
of something, "what it is."

a. Sartre wants to maintain that man intrinsically has no nature. That is, he is
thrown into this world, not of his own making, and is condemned to
determine what he will be. In other words, our "existence precedes our
essence." We exist first and determine our essence by means of choice.
b. Contrast this view with mainstream Christianity. Man's nature comes first.
Consequently, here, essence precedes existence, since man is entirely
subject to God's plan or blueprint.
c. Contrast Sartre's view with the construction of a table. The carpenter has in
mind the nature of the table and works from a plan. From sawing, sanding,
nailing, and so on, the table comes into existence. Hence, in this case,
"essence precedes existence."

 We create our own human nature through these free choices.

 We also create our values through these choices.

In what sense is humanity "condemned to be free"?

a. The following are not excuses for how we act: from passion, "That's the
way I am," "I couldn't help myself," "See what you made me do," and "I
just had to do it." These all entail choices we have made.
b. We are condemned to be free because we read the signs as we choose.
We are condemned to establish our own values.

Why is forlornness a result of the human condition?

a. Sometimes this point is put following Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: "If God
did not exist, everything would be permitted." The inauthentic rejoinder, in
Sartre's view would be, "If God did not exist it would be necessary to
invent Him." We must take responsibility for our own choices.

Why existentialists believe that "in choosing myself, I choose man."

a. Through our choices, we determine or create what we will be. In those

choices, we choose according to what we believe we ought to be.

b. Consequently, we are creating ourselves according to what we think a

person ought to be. This image is, then, what we think man ought to be. You
are responsible for what you are and, as well, you are responsible for
everyone since you choose for mankind.

Existentialism takes into consideration the following underlying concepts:

 Human free will

 Human nature is chosen through life choices
 A person is best when struggling against their individual nature, fighting for
 Decisions are not without stress and consequences
 There are things that are not rational

 Personal responsibility and discipline is crucial

 Society is unnatural and its traditional religious and secular rules are
 Worldly desire is futile
 No matter what choices one makes in life, the ultimate outcome is the
same (death).


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