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Sartre’s Ethics of the 1960s

Alfred Betschart 


The Legend of Three Ethics

Sartre’s three ethics—the ethics of freedom from the 1940s, the ethics of equality from the 1960s, and the ethics of fraternity from 1980. As catchy and striking as this answer to the question of Sartre’s ethics is, it conceals more than it reveals. Not only does it hide the Nietzschean ethics of the early Sartre, but it also stages the publication of L’espoir maintenant (1980) as an ethics that it actually is not. L’espoir maintenant, the conversation between Sartre and Benny Lévy, is rather the conclusion of Sartre and Lévy’s project on Pouvoir et liberté, which addresses the question of whether freedom is possible in relationships characterized by power. Sartre’s answer to this question in an interview with Lotta Continua in 1977 was clear: libertà e potere non vanno in coppia—freedom and power do not go together. For Sartre, full freedom is only possible in an anarchist society in which people live together in fraternity/siblinghood in small groups based on similar designs—fraternity is a basic concept of his first and, moreover, anarchist political philosophy of the 1970s, not of his ethics.

As for the ethics of equality from the 1960s, for a long time only contributions by Elizabeth A. Bowman and Robert V. Stone were known, published between 1987 and 1992. The respective seminal texts were made available to the public only later. Morale et histoire, the notes on a series of lectures Sartre was to give at Cornell University in 1965, which he canceled because of the bombing of North Vietnam, were published in 2005. Les racines de l’éthique, which contains the notes to a lecture Sartre gave to a predominantly pro-communist auditorium at the Gramsci Institute in Rome in 1964, was not released in full until 2015.[2] Unfortunately, these two texts have received little attention even among Sartre scholars. This probably explains why certain publications still retain the idea of a normative ethics of equality, whereas the issue, as it will be addressed below, is in fact a metaethical one and above all a socio-ontological one.

There are also major problems with Sartre’s ethics of freedom, the contributions from the years between 1944 and 1949, especially L’existentialisme est un humanisme (1945/46) and Les cahiers pour une morale (1947/48, publ. 1983). Sartre refused to publish Les cahiers pour une morale during his lifetime, calling them “mystified”. And L’existentialisme est un humanisme is the only one of his works that he recanted, at least in part. The proponents of Sartre’s ethics of freedom of the 1940s—and most of what has been published on Sartre’s ethics in the last forty years is based on this—have an serious grounding problem.

From Nietzschean Morality to L’être et le néant

If we want to understand Sartre’s ethics better, we must examine its development more closely. We know an entry from his war diary of December 2, 1939, that as a student at the ENS he preached a Nietzschean morality of joy. In assessing this statement, it is important to know that the prevailing Nietzschean understanding in France was not the “brown,” racist one of Germany, but a progressive one. Nietzsche’s Übermensch with his “master morality” was understood as a representative of the working class and the bourgeoisie who opposed the traditional “slave morality” of the bourgeois state and the Christian religion. This understanding was held by socialists such as Lucien Herr, Henri Lichtenberger, Charles Andler, and even Jean Jaurès. Much of Sartre’s literary work, from La nausée (1938) to various short stories in the collection Le mur (1939) to the trilogy of novels Les chemins de la liberté (1945-49), bears witness to the pluralistic understanding of morality associated with it, in which Sartre repeatedly describes moral behavior in a value-free manner—particularly sexual behavior—that was considered deviant in his time. Even in the Cahiers pour une morale, Sartre turns against any deontological ethics and calls it a slave morality in the Nietzschean sense.

Sartre dealt philosophically with ethics for the first time in L’être et le néant (1943). According to L’être et le néant, the ethical values that an individual holds are an expression of his subjective project. In this fundamental choice, man is absolutely free. Sartre expresses this idea of absolute ontological freedom in his play Les mouches (1943), in which Orestes asserts his freedom—including the freedom to murder his mother and stepfather—to Jupiter: a free man feels no remorse for his actions. Accordingly, in the announcement of Les mouches in the magazine Verger, which was published in the French occupation zone in Germany in 1947, Sartre condemns the Germans’ self-denial on account of the Nazi era and calls on them instead to look to the future[3]. The connection to Sartre’s early Nietzschean morality is obvious. Walter Kaufmann, the philosopher so important for the reception of Sartre’s thought in the U.S., logically calls Orestes a representative of a Nietzschean morality in 1964.

A first reflection on whether there is not an objective criterion for the moral correctness of an action beyond this absolute ontological freedom can already be found in L’être et le néant. In the face of war, occupation, and resistance, the ethical freedom of the individual was particularly challenged at the time—probably for this reason Sartre writes in La république du silence (1944) that they were never so free as under German occupation. “Man is condemned to be free.” In L'existentialisme est un humanisme, he understands man as a lawgiver who decides and is responsible not only for himself but for all humankind. These are unmistakable echoes of Kant’s ethics in this respect. But unlike Kant and his categorical imperative, there are no ethical rules that apply to all situations; rather, each ethical decision depends on the situation: Sartre’s normative ethics is situational ethics. The concentration camp prisoner does everything to survive, the resistance fighter remains silent under torture until death.

The Normative Ethics of the 1940s

Sartre promises a work on ethics at the end of L’être et le néant, where ethics otherwise appears primarily in the form of the demand for authenticity[4]. However, he does not publish anything during his lifetime, although he obviously carries this project with him to the end of his life. In contrast, Simone de Beauvoir is very active. With her publications Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), Idéalisme moral et réalisme politique (1945), Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (1946), and Œil pour œil (1946), she undoubtedly may claim the title of founder of existentialist ethics. The fact that her ethics is based on Sartre’s philosophy in L’être et le néant in no way diminishes this claim. The central points of Beauvoir’s work, many of which are also found in Sartre, include: Ethics as situational ethics; unity of ends and means; conflict between idealism and realism; responsibility for all humankind; the choice of evil as an equivalent alternative to the choice of good; description of various forms of inauthentic morality.

Even though Sartre’s expected work on ethics did not materialize, this does not mean that he did not deal with ethics. Between 1944 and 1951, he wrote several plays, most of which dealt with ethical issues: Huis clos (1944), Morts sans sépulture (1946), Les mains sales (1948), and Le diable et le bon dieu (1951), as well as the screenplay L’engrenage (1948) as a preliminary work to Les mains sales. Huis clos, made famous by Sartre’s phrase “Hell is other people,” is not the centerpiece of a misanthropic philosophy, but the second part of Sartre’s ethics. If in Les mouches Sartre argues that the subject is free to choose his values, in Huis clos he emphasizes that man must answer for this choice before the others—the concrete ones (in the plural) and not the abstract-universal One (in the singular) as in Kant: responsibility is understood in the sense of giving a justifying answer to the questions posed by the others. What makes the world a “hell” is not least that the subject cannot freely choose its judges.

The special significance of L’engrenage, Les mains sales, and Le diable et le bon dieu, in turn, lies in the theme of the relationship between means and ends, a theme that Beauvoir had already dealt with in Les bouches inutiles (1945) and that Sartre also addressed in his two essays Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1947) and La responsabilité de l’écrivain (1947). It was a topic that Camus also addressed—in Lettres à un ami allemand (1943-45), Ni victimes, ni bourreaux (1946), Les justes (1949), and L’homme révolté (1951)—and that led to the 1952 rupture between Sartre and Camus in the dispute over the relationship between history and ethics.

In 1947/48, Sartre worked intensively on writing the promised work on ethics. In the end, however, what remained were notes that were only published posthumously in their entirety as Cahiers pour une morale in 1983. These are notes dealing with various aspects of ethics. Some of them were familiar: the relationship between ends and means, criticizing above all the communists who follow a pure ethics of ends and justify the use of any means to achieve an end, particularly a proletarian revolution; ethics as situational ethics; man as the source of all good and evil. What is new are his thoughts on the structure of appeals and, above all, his call for a universal conversion of human beings in order to save the world and make freedom the basis of the world. It was probably these thoughts on conversion that made Sartre speak of the completely mystified morality of the Cahiers in the 1970s.

Towards the Ethics of the 1960s

According to Beauvoir, Sartre stops working on his ethics of the 1940s in 1949. The extent of the break can be seen in two subsequent works by Beauvoir and Sartre: The former published a work on Sade, Faut-il brûler Sade?, in 1951 and the latter a work on Genet, Saint Genet, in 1952. Both Sade and Genet radically preferred evil to good. Both are antitypes of the morality which Beauvoir and Sartre promoted in the second half of the 1940s. The break with the ideas espoused in the years between 1944 and 1949 is overtly clear. It is a return to the anti-humanist[5], Nietzschean, pluralist morality of before 1940.

Sartre spent the next ten years primarily defining his philosophical position vis-à-vis Marxism as the philosophy not only of communists but also of socialists and social democrats. Marxism was the socially and politically most influential philosophy at the time, given the decline of Kantianism and Hegelianism and the irrelevance of analytical philosophy in France. In Questions de méthode (1957), Sartre criticizes the communist/Marxist approach, claiming that it can only explain man; only the existentialist method allows us to understand man. In Critique de la raison dialectique (1960), which deals primarily with the critique of Soviet communism and its ideology, he asks himself questions such as: What is a real revolution—as opposed to the October Revolution—and who is its agent? How did the Stalinist terror come about? What explains the degeneration of Soviet communism into a bureaucracy? The answers he gives to these questions—group in fusion, terror-fraternity, development of the group into an institution—are given within the framework of a social ontology of collectives that extends from the series to the institution.

Even if Sartre no longer dealt with ethics in detail around 1960, his interest in it had not disappeared. In the mid-1960s, he took up ethics again. The written result is his notes, published posthumously under the titles Les racines de l’éthique and Morale et histoire. If Sartre was concerned with normative ethics in the 1940s, now metaethical, socio-ontological aspects take center stage. This reflects the shift from the for-itself, consciousness, and psychology in L’être et le néant to the in-itself and social ontology in Critique, a shift not in the sense of a replacement but of an additional perspective. This shift occurs entirely in the spirit of the regressive-progressive method developed in Questions de méthode. At the center of Sartre’s ethics are now the following two questions: What constitutes ethical behavior? And: What is the role of ethics in society?

Pure Ethics and the Normative

Characteristic of Sartre’s ethics of the 1960s is the contrast between pure ethics and history with real ethics/ethos as an attempt to bridge this gap. The question of the specificity of ethical behavior is a question of pure ethics. According to Sartre, the object of ethics is the unconditional possible in contrast to history, which is the realm of the conditioned. In this context, Sartre frequently cites the phrase “You must, therefore you can,” a shortened version of a sentence from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. The decisive point here is that ought is unconditional, independent of being. Already in his philosophy of the 1940s, Sartre argued that the unconditional character of the normative has its origin in the consciousness of the subject, more precisely, in the project, the fundamental choice. This, as an unconditional act, constitutes an acte gratuit, an arbitrary act.

Connected with this is the thesis of absolute ontological freedom. Absolute ontological freedom does not mean that every human action is absolutely arbitrary. As long as there is no break or change in the preceding original choice, the action is essentially determined by the individual’s project. Accordingly, in L’être et le néant, Sartre rejects the notion of free will; for him, this notion is too close to the view that every action is an acte gratuit. For Sartre, human actions are determined, but from within, i.e., by the human’s project. What Sartre radically rejects is determination from without. Accordingly, Sartre opposes the Marxist, positivist, and structuralist views prevalent in his time, according to which the normative is determined by external forces, by a superstructure, needs, or history that determine the world and the future. Rather, for Sartre, the future is indeterminate because the normative is unconditional.

Absolute ontological freedom has to be contrasted with very limited practical freedom. Already in L’existentialisme est un humanisme and Liberté cartésienne (1946) Sartre states that being free does not mean being able to do what one wants but wanting what one is able to do. Those who deny facticity, the fact that their practical freedom is limited, suffer from mauvaise foi just as much as those who deny their ontological freedom. Not only in L’être et le néant, but also in Critique, the slave too possesses absolute ontological freedom. Probably every slave will consider the idea of escape in his life—and almost all of them decide against it, not because they lack absolute ontological freedom, but because their practical freedom is so limited.[6]

The Kinds of Normatives

Although normatives can regulate relations with the unborn and the dead, as well as with animals and things—examples include norms concerning meat, waste, and climate—the main object of ethics is the norms that regulate interpersonal behavior. Norms are essentially social norms. Already in his war diary Sartre wrote that it is irrelevant for morality whether God exists, morality is a matter between people. Justification of behavior always occurs toward other people.

Sartre distinguishes three types of social norms: 1. institutions, i.e., the imperatives typically associated with them; 2. mores; and 3. customary law, which arises from the conjunction of mores and institutions. Among the important forms of institutions are the state, including the courts, the military, and the police; schools; businesses; and, last but not least, religious institutions. All institutions establish ethical imperatives, i.e., unconditional commands and prohibitions in the form of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” Depending on the nature of the institution, these imperatives may take the form of laws, religious precepts, or regulations. Most often, though not always, these imperatives are accompanied by the threat of sanctions. Although sanctioned imperatives are primarily associated with institutions, imperatives are not limited to institutions. Sartre distinguishes between different types of social collectives: series, milieus, groups in fusion, the simple group, the pledged group, the organized group, and the institutionalized group/institution. Ethical imperatives and sanctions already begin to exist with the appearance of power and authority, which first occurs with the pledged group.

Unlike imperatives, mores are usually not accompanied by threats of sanctions or only diffusely. Violations of mores primarily cause only a social scandal, but not a sanction. Law as an institution is usually based on mores, but is more focused: Lying normally violates mores, but only in a few cases, such as perjury or defamation, is lying of legal relevance. In the case of mores, Sartre distinguishes between those that have values, goods, exemplary personalities, and ideals as their object. Examples of values are sincerity, tolerance, and freedom. Values do not specify what one must or must not do. They rather challenge people to invent how they want to implement them: There are a thousand ways of telling the truth. Ethical goods differ from values in that they are means to achieve values. Examples of ethical goods are health and human dignity. However, the distinction between values and goods is not always clear-cut, since the same object may be a value at one time and a good at another. Clearly distinct from these two categories is that of exemplary personality, an area in which the press in particular plays an important role by frequently reporting on exemplary persons, their lives, and deeds. Ideals differ from exemplary personalities in that they are their generalized, abstract equivalents and do not refer to a singular, concrete person as in the case of exemplary personalities.

Ethics, Praxis, Practico-Inert, and Hexis

As far as the separation of being and ought is concerned, Sartre largely agrees with Hume. In L’être et le néant, being, the in-itself, is opposed to the for-itself, consciousness, in which the ought has its origin. Consciousness as central concept is replaced in the Critique de la raison dialectique by praxis, which encompasses those types of social action Max Weber called value-rational and instrumental. This is to be understood against the background of Jaspers’s distinction between explaining causal processes and understanding human action: Praxis comprises those purposive actions of human beings that are grounded in the individual project and can only be understood, not causally explained. Actions of praxis are to be distinguished from those of hexis, but also from purely physical reactions (via the autonomic nervous system).

Just as in L’être et le néant the various activities of consciousness may contain an ethical dimension—but also an aesthetic and emotional one—so can praxis. Therefore, Sartre criticizes Marxists who see ethics as merely a phenomenon of superstructure. Ethics is rather the basis of all praxis.

In praxis, the individual is both subject and object. As an acting subject, the individual must decide in every situation and in every action which values to apply. Even if society provides him with a wide range of values to choose from, the ethical decision is always an innovative one. Although the individual does not usually invent a new value but applies an existing one, he must choose one out of the many existing values. Sartre’s ethics, from this point of view, too, is a situational ethics. This situationality also refers to the decision regarding fundamental choice and the values connected with it: This decision is not taken once and for all, but to be confirmed or modified with every action.

From a socio-ontological point of view, it is of importance that the subject always has to justify his ethical decisions before his concrete others, the neighbors. Unlike in Kant’s ethics and the ethics influenced by it, the other is not an abstract, universal Other, but a concrete one. For Sartre, having to take responsibility for one’s ethical choices quite literally means that man must respond to the questions of others, as his drama Huis clos shows. In this sense, Sartre’s ethics is a discourse ethics, too.

However, the individual is not only a subject, but also an object of human praxis. According to Sartre, man is what he makes of what he has been made to. The personalization of the ego—a process that runs through the entire life but is particularly pronounced in latency and adolescence—is preceded by its social constitution, a socialization that takes place particularly intensely in the family and at school.

Two terms related to praxis are practico-inert and hexis. The practico-inert is Sartre’s term for the results of praxis. Sartre thus expresses, first, that the practico-inert is the result of human action, of praxis, and, second, that it is inert, that is, it tends to persist and claim validity even when the conditions of its genesis have changed. This is especially true of norms, be they state laws, religious precepts or other social norms. Norms are not given, they are created. Since praxis is always social action— and usually by acting in groups—norms always express the interests of the groups that set the norms. In a patriarchal, white, heteronormative society, the prevailing norms express primarily the interests of white, heterosexual men.

Because of its inertia—the fact that the practico-inert persists for a long time even when it conflicts with the current situation— the practico-inert tends to alienate. For Sartre, practico-inert morality stands for the hijacking of the future in favor of the repetition of the past. Similar to Emmanuel Levinas, Sartre tends to separate the notion of general ethics from concrete morals, so that adjectives such as practico-inert and alienated are mostly used in conjunction with the word “morality.” For Sartre, practico-inert morality contradicts the source of all ethics. This is seen by Sartre in needs (besoin). Needs are the root of human autonomy, and they constitute the basis of desire (désir). Even though needs are ultimately culturally mediated—man wrests himself from nature through culture by becoming an ethical animal—Sartre recognizes the origin of human needs in man’s animality. It is an animality whose justification cannot ultimately be questioned. For Sartre, alienation and reification are not the result of specific relations in production, as in Marx, but the result of a conflict between the needs of the individual and the prevailing normatives as part of the practico-inert.

The second notion related to praxis is hexis, which encompasses action that has lost its original intention. It is the kind of action that Weber called traditional. When the bourgeois of the 20th century speak of liberty, equality, fraternity, and Christians speak of “love thy neighbor as thyself,” these expressions have completely lost their original radical meaning. Speaking in this way is no longer praxis, but only hexis.

Ethos and Real Ethics

Sartre was interested not only in ideal ethics, in what constitutes the specificity of ethical behavior, but also in real ethics, ethics in history. Sartre calls this real ethics ethos. The task of ethics as ethos is to escape the traps of history that force the agent to realize his destiny. Real ethics is always confronted with the resistance of the world. Already in Saint Genet, Sartre wrote: "The moral 'problem' arises from the fact that morality is for us at once inevitable and impossible. In this climate of untransgressable impossibility, action must give itself its ethical norms." The main problem of any ethics, according to Sartre, is the antagonism between the unconditional norms that absolutely postulate a certain behavior and the conditioned history, the conditioned environment in which human beings must act. This antagonism means that ultimately man can never act perfectly morally, but must always enter into compromises of various kinds. Sartre's discussion in the 1960s of ethics as the unconditional possible in contrast to history, the realm of the conditioned, is only the more abstract form of the ends-means conflict to which Sartre devoted three literary works between 1948 and 1951.

When we speak of impossibility, it is not so much that human beings are fundamentally unable to do certain things. Even if norms have the character of “you must, therefore you can,” no norm will require that man flies without technical aids. Of greater ethical importance than the fundamental impossibility of doing something are three factors that Sartre mentions in Critique and that he already addressed in Le diable et le bon dieu (1951): scarcity, counterfinality, exigency. Here are three examples from Sartre’s activity as a political intellectual: for scarcity: Sartre always lacked suitable political partners; for counterfinality: Sartre wanted to support a revolution in Cuba that took place with popular approval, but in the end, he only helped to establish a dictatorship; for exigency: if he wanted to effectively advocate his progressive ideas, he had to ally himself with the Communists—at least at certain times.[7]

The implementation of an ideal ethic is also challenged by conflicts between norms within a morality. Is it permissible for a cancer patient to lie to his partner to protect him from psychological pressure? While Kant opposes this with a fundamental no, Sartre argues that the decision depends on the situation and has to be justified in a discourse. Another important critical moment is the fact that people belong to different groups: a nuclear family, a kinship, a work group, a church, recreational groups, and so on. Each of these groups has its own norms, norms that are not always compatible with each other. Who does not behave differently in the presence of his parents than in his family or at work or in his free time? Moreover, norms can contradict each other because they originate from different times. Contradictions between norms lurk everywhere, contradictions that, according to Sartre, can only be resolved depending on the situation.

A possible solution to such conflicts lies in casuistic ethics. Killing is forbidden in principle but permitted in the case of self-defense. By applying the rules of casuistry, however, the unconditional of ethics is transformed into something conditioned. According to Sartre, casuistic ethics is always endangered to become inauthentic morality because it does not resolve moral contradictions but only separates the conflicting parts by casuistry.

Casuistry is not the only way out of the conflict between unconditional ethics and conditioned history. Another possible approach is the acceptance of guilt, another form of inauthentic morality. Sartre mentions the results of a survey that would probably yield the same findings today as it did then: 90% of the respondents admitted to lying at least occasionally, and at the same time 95% condemned lying as immoral. This attitude entails the abandonment of the normative as the possible unconditional in favor of a praxis as the conditioned possible. Given the frequency of contradictions between different normatives, it is not surprising that inauthentic forms of morality are very common according to Sartre.

In history—and this includes politics—people usually tend to resolve the conflict between the unconditional and the conditioned by finding a solution that meets the requirements of both, e.g. through casuistry or accepting guilt, as we have seen. However, there are situations—Sartre calls them “grandes circonstances”—in which ethical radicalism prevails. In these cases, trade-offs between various goals as well as discussions between the parties involved are impossible. Ethical radicalists are not willing to consider any concessions at the expense of their ethical values. Recent examples of such “grandes circonstances” are the war in Ukraine and the measures against the coronavirus. Such “grandes circonstances” stand in contrast to the “petites circonstances” that otherwise dominate private, public, and political everyday life and for which we are constantly looking for compromises.

The Role of Ethics in Society

Sartre is interested not only in ideal ethics and real ethics in the form of ethos, but generally in the role of ethics in society. Unlike the Marxists, positivists, and structuralists, Sartre asserts the independent importance of ethics in political discussion. Ethical values form an important part of Weltanschauungen and political ideologies. In his notes for the Cornell University lectures, there is a long chapter on J. F. Kennedy’s West Virginia campaign, in which Kennedy successfully used an ethical argument against his opponent Humphrey. Sartre also likes to refer to the thalidomide scandal, which centered around severe deformities in newborns caused by the intake of the tranquilizer Contergan. With this view of the importance of ethics, Sartre thus anticipated an important element of progressive politics in the 21st century, as he did with his advocacy of the rights of Jews, people of color, women, and queer people.

According to Sartre’s agonistic image of society, in every society there are, on the one hand, ruling groups, the elite, and, on the other hand, revolutionaries, both fighting for the majority of the population. Both the ruling groups and the revolutionaries have their own ethics. Faced with the ethical paradox that we only know the norm precisely, but not the future and the consequences of the realization of a norm in detail, the ruling groups are inclined to ethical pessimism; they tend to casuistry and to realpolitik, which often gives them the appearance of being corrupt and immoral. Sartre already pointed this out in La putain respectueuse, L’engrenage, and Les mains sales. In the fight against new ethical demands, the ruling groups regularly rely on the coercive power of the state. Only when denial and casuistry no longer help do they bow to the pressure of the historically given pluralism. A good example of this is the case of gay marriage: what was at first denied for a long time, then treated as the special case of registered partnership within the framework of casuistic morality, was finally granted as a right for homosexuals that heterosexuals have always had.

In contrast, revolutionaries tend toward ethical optimism and ethical radicalism; they believe in the possibility of realizing the implementation of their revolutionary goals. Ethical demands are for them an important means in their struggle for a better society. They refuse to trade off ends and means and are frequently inclined to violence—at least in words. A good example of this is the story of the revolution of the ‘68 generation. The revolutionaries’ struggle for a new ethics can take the form of both new ethical demands and negation of existing morality. An example of the latter is the struggle against the rigid sexual morality of pre-1968, as the discussion about me-too and pedophilia showed in recent years. For Sartre, from a historical perspective, both forms of ethical struggle are of equal importance. If man chooses evil as the opposite of the good as imposed by the prevailing norms, for Sartre and Beauvoir, unlike most philosophers, this is not an error of reason, but the consequence of the human being’s free choice: Humans are free to choose even evil, as the examples of Genet and Sade show.

Accordingly, in history, the ruling groups cultivating realpolitik and the revolutionary groups cultivating an ethical radicalism have usually faced each other. In today’s society, neither group can claim hegemony in Gramsci’s sense. Accordingly, our society has a bipolar structure. The historically new progressive majority, based on selected ideals of the ‘68 revolution, has not yet been able to achieve absolute hegemony, but already finds itself challenged by new right-wing populist groups. Since both progressives and right-wing populists embrace an ethical radicalism, there is a lack of room for compromise.[8]

Sartre’s Ethics of the 1960s and the Year 2022

In the 1960s, Sartre was intensively concerned with the specificity of norms and the position of ethics in society. In pursuing this, he was careful neither to lapse into sociologism, which sees norms as only socially given, nor to remain in a philosophy of consciousness, which views norms only from the perspective of the individual. He succeeded in this by linking the universal with the conditioned, the individual with the social and with history. In this way, he created an ethics in the 1960s that is still relevant in 2022. Most significant here is Sartre's analysis of the conflict between the unconditional of ethics and the conditioned of history. The contrast between ethical radicalism and the overcoming of conflict through compromise plays a special role in this context. It is a thesis that can contribute much to the understanding of the bipolar structure of our society, a problem for which there is as yet no satisfactory explanation.



[1] This is an expanded version of a paper given in August 2022 at the International Social Ontology Society conference in Vienna entitled "The Nature of Social Norms in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Ethics of the 1960s."

[2] Excerpts from it were already published in 1964/66 (1968) under the title Determinazione e libertà (Determinism and Freedom), although the ethical content was somewhat minimized in the published text.

[3] For a long time, this short text formed the introduction to the German edition of Les mouches. With the new translation of 1991, however, this text disappeared. It obviously no longer matched the Zeitgeist.

[4] To avoid misunderstandings in this regard, it is worth pointing out that, in Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s view, a person chooses his identity himself ("existence precedes essence") and this is not determined by biological, historical, and other factors. The Jew born into an orthodox Jewish family cannot get rid of his Jewish past, but he is free to choose to be a gentile. Already in L’être et le néant (here with reference to the homosexual) and then again in Réflexions sur la question juive (1946), Sartre shows empathy toward those who reject forced outing.

[5] The term "humanism" can be understood in two ways. Once this is as the view that the individual human being stands at the center of philosophy. In this respect, existentialism remains a humanistic philosophy even after 1949. Humanism can also be understood in an ethical sense, strongly influenced by Kant. In its center is the dignity of man, his recognition, and the demand that man in moral terms may only be an end, never a means, whereby man is understood not in a pluralistic but in an idealized, universal sense. Sartre definitely said goodbye to this latter kind of humanism in 1949.

[6] In Itinerary of a thought (1969), Sartre wonders some years later how he could ever advocate such an extreme thesis of absolute ontological freedom. This is probably one of the acts of mauvaise foi frequently encountered with Sartre: He had the questionable tendency to conform his answers to the expectations of his readers and, in particular, his interviewers. On this, see my essay Die Dekonstruktion Sartres (in German).

[7] It is not surprising that the limits of practical freedom play a special role in the Critique, a work that is preoccupied with the deficiencies of Soviet communism. Sartre shows that practical freedom is limited already in Les mains sales: whoever engages in politics inevitably gets dirty hands.

[8] Sartre often supported exponents of ethical radicalism, such as the Gauche Prolétarienne in the first half of the 1970s. Theoretically, however, this position is difficult to maintain within Sartre’s philosophy. Since the representatives of ethical radicalism usually neglect the facticity of the in-itself, they are subject to the accusation of mauvaise foi. At least in the 1950s, Camus rather than Sartre stood for ethical radicalism, since Sartre and Beauvoir held against Camus that ends and means form a unity, but ethical radicalism usually posits ends as absolutes.