Sunday, November 16, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Thirteen: The Challenge from Sartre's Bad Faith

Another perspective by which we can gain a better view of the supreme question comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, who defined existentialism in opposition to theism. Sartre thought of Christian faith as a form of “bad faith.” To understand that view, a short primer is needed.

By “bad faith” Sartre meant thinking in a way that allows us to lie to ourselves, most especially to obscure our responsibility.1 But since a lie is an intentional act, the deception integral to any lie, it seems, is impossible when the liar and the person who is lied to are one and the same.

Sartre resolves this incongruity by tracing bad faith to fundamental ambiguities at the core nature of human nature.2 These ambiguities make it possible for us become our own dupe—when doing so expresses our fundamental wish. As you shall see, the ambiguities create subterfuge, which we enlist to obscure the fact that we are lying to ourselves; a subterfuge that we can ignore because it is so deeply ingrained in human nature.

To make sense of this, we need to understand how Sartre thought that the ambiguities at the core of our being are enlisted to create the needed subterfuge. The primary ambiguity is tied to our very beings as human beings. On one hand, we can be described and explained in much the same way as can any ordinary object. For our pasts are determined, making us fixed objects in that sense.3 But on the other hand we are free with respect to our futures, since as human beings our futures await our determination.4 A simple example will show how this primary ambiguity at the core of human nature can be used to obscure our responsibility as free beings.

Consider a man who beats his wife. If he cites a cruel and depraved upbringing by way of exonerating himself while insisting that we take into account that he loves his wife and intends to be a good husband in the future, he employs both aspects of the ambiguity. For in his appeal this man incorporates both his personal history, which is fixed, and his resolve to be a better person in the future, with respect to which he is free. Both serve as means to deflect his responsibility for his moral failure. Sartre calls this strategy of playing on our core double nature in this way a “nihilating ambiguity” with respect to human responsibility.5 It engenders the most basic form of bad faith.

Sartre describes a second core ambiguity in our natures as a “perpetually disintegrating synthesis.”6 This ambiguity plays off of our dual responsibility for ourselves and for other persons: “The equal dignity of being, possessed by my being-for-others and by my being-for-myself permits…a perpetual game of escape from the for-itself to the for-others and from the for-others to the for-itself.”7 Again, a simple example will help. Say that for health reasons I ought to quit smoking, but I don’t want to face that responsibility to myself. I can escape it by finding a responsibility to others to displace it. I thus make use of the “perpetually disintegrating synthesis” as follows: I reason that I ought to put off quitting in order to socialize over dinner with some friends who smoke—after all, it would be selfish to call attention to myself in a way that could spoil the friendly gathering.

Such cases do not really succeed in fooling us, Sartre would say. On some level we understand that we are lying to ourselves in order to avoid responsibility for making decisions that we ought to make but want to avoid.8 Yet the subterfuge succeeds in taking the focus off our responsibility. In Sartre’s words, “The goal of bad faith…is to put oneself out of reach; it is an escape.”9 And since Sartre sees human reality as defined by the choices that we freely make, it is most centrally responsibility for our free choices that bad faith provides an escape from.

By contrast Sartre advocated living with an awareness of one’s responsibility for one’s own life, beginning with the “projects” that give our lives meaning and so inform our values.10 For us the striking thing will be the analogy Sartre sets up between being an authentic human being and striving to be God. A human being is responsible for creating his life’s meaning as God is responsible for creating the world. In Sartre’s words, “To be man means to reach toward being God.”11 In other words, to be fully authentic means to engage the world as fully as is possible as a free agent. Armed with that view, a fully “authentic” human being would have no need for God. Indeed, in Sartre’s words, “[atheistic existentialism] declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”12 For from that perspective, one cannot both be authentically human and relinquish one’s freedom to God.

Certainly Sartre’s contention that “To be man means to reach toward being God” puts the story of the fall into a dramatically different light.13 In that light the Serpent was right to claim that by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve would become like God: they did become more godlike by expanding the scope of their freedom and responsibility. We must examine that view more closely.

For Sartre, anything placed in the way of our responsibility for our free choices constitutes bad faith. Accordingly, placing one’s faith in God, in the sense of trusting an authority that contracts the legitimate scope of human free will, expresses bad faith. So too relinquishing responsibility for my life choices to any external authority constitutes bad faith, whether one sacrifices one’s authority to one’s State, one’s political party, one’s cultural mores, one’s social clique, etc., the result is bad faith. The meaning of “To be man means to reach toward being God,” then, is that to be authentically human is to be the highest possible authority for constituting the values, meanings, and choices that define my life.14 In that sense, “…even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”15 Given Sartre’s guiding principle of authenticity, his view is correct.

Yet Sartre’s view is correct only as far as it goes, and it is incomplete. When completed his analysis returns us to the supreme question. Recall the ambiguities found at the core of human nature which we considered earlier: (1) our dual descriptions in terms of being free agents and determined objects, and (2) our equal moral responsibility to ourselves and others.

Recall also that it is our life projects that order our lives’ meanings and values. Thus, it is to the extent one chooses a coherent life project that Sartre’s view, in theory, can be implemented coherently in a person’s life. With respect to the first core ambiguity, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is theoretically coherent: He states, “…we will discover the individual person in the initial project which constitutes him.”16 With reference to this first core ambiguity, Sartre defines humanity by way of freedom. In that fundamental sense Sartre’s philosophy is clearly coherent, albeit entirely abstract.

Relative to the second core ambiguity, however, Sartre offers no clarifying perspective. That is ironic. For resolving the ambiguity following upon one’s dual and equal moral responsibility to oneself and others is essential to forming a coherent life project. That is precisely what the supreme question confronts humanity with—the chance to make the choice which resolves that core ambiguity.

Again, from the perspective of Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, the Serpent was correct: One becomes godlike by rejecting outside restrictions on one’s freedom (even if they purportedly originate with God). But from the perspective of Christian existentialism, one becomes godlike by submitting to the greater good of choosing love for others over self-interest as the “initial project which constitutes” the individual.17 Expressed by means of the Bible’s overarching theme, the choice is between the Serpent’s view from the fall or Jesus’ view from the cross, the exclusive alternatives of the supreme question.

One cannot avoid the supreme question by admonishing each person to be “a being which is compelled to decide the meaning of being…”18 Leaving the meaning of being in the abstract—that “…man is freedom”—fails to confront the fact that we do not live in the abstract.19 In the concrete reality of human life, the supreme question confronts us with a choice that decides one’s defining “initial project,” a necessary act of human freedom, if one is to avoid the conclusion that there is a core expression of bad faith entrenched in human being itself. For apart from making the decision inherent in the supreme question, one cannot establish a coherent core meaning for human life as the first act of human freedom, and Sartre’s atheistic existentialism becomes an exercise in the bad faith that it seeks to exorcise: It supplies a subterfuge in the form of an ambiguity between freedom as conceived in the abstract and freedom as put to use choosing one’s initial life project in the concrete dilemma posed by the supreme question. In Sartre’s words, “The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God.”20 By switching to the abstraction when the concrete is at hand, the same disintegrating synthesis found in application to this second of the core ambiguities that we looked at applies here. In fact, we leave our being in a state of disintegration relative to the second ambiguity precisely because we fail to choose between the two competing alternatives for our primary human project of becoming like God—that is, like God as defined by the Serpent’s view from the fall or by the message of the cross. And that confirms our theory.


1. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Bad Faith,” in Essays in Existentialism, Ed. Wade Baskin (The Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1965) p. 150.

2. Ibid, pp. 160-164.
3. Ibid, p. 164.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid, p. 165.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.8. Ibid, p. 151.
9. Ibid, p. 177.
10. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Desire to Be God,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 70.

11. Ibid, pp. 70-71.
12. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Humanism of Existentialism,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 62.

13. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Freedom and Responsibility,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 67.

14. Ibid.
15. “The Humanism of Existentialism,” p. 62.

16. “The Desire to Be God,” p. 70.

17. Ibid.
18. “Freedom and Responsibility,” p. 68.

19. “The Humanism of Existentialism,” p. 41.

20. “The Desire to Be God,” p. 70.

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