Thursday, December 4, 2008

Home-wrecking is happiness

So, Dev’s post on the “scarier implications” of existentialism suggests that ultimate freedom undermines the value of meaningful relationships. I, too, have apprehensions that stem from this notion of absolute freedom, however my fears take on a different form. In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre states that values are not so serious because you are given the freedom to choose them for yourself. He argues that your values should be reflected in your actions, and should ultimately aim to make yourself happy. Period.

Although I am obviously in favor of happiness and enjoying life, choosing values on the basis of benefiting yourself seems like a selfish aspect of existentialism. Shouldn’t everyone have some set of morals to keep from acting completely out of line? What about caring for others and not just yourself…and the golden rule? I feel like existentialism focuses too much on the satisfaction of the individual, and because everyone cannot be happy all the time, focusing on the greater happiness for the greater good may be more beneficial.

Sartre illustrates this principle of using freedom to attain happiness, even if it hurts others in the process, through his Maggie Tulliver example. Maggie is in love with Stephen, who is engaged to another woman. Maggie forfeits her own happiness and decides not to intervene, letting Stephen and the other woman follow through on their plans to get married. However, Sartre mentions Maggie’s alternative option, to disregard Stephen’s fiancée and pursue a relationship with him to make herself happy, and claims that this is an equivalent choice to the one she actually makes. The only thing that matters to Sartre is that she made a choice (home wrecker or not).

Again, I understand that happiness is the aim of life, but I just can’t get on board with something that denies any sense of morality altogether. If everyone was operating to benefit themselves, the world would be a chaotic and mistrustful place.
Ultimately, I like that existentialism gives individuals the freedom to decide their own fate, but considering the flaws of the human condition, I find this freedom simultaneously scary.

10 comments:

Emily Sellers said...

I don't think existentialism denies morality. People don't follow universal morals as is, it is not like existentialism turns everything on its head. Obviously, even those who believe in God do very bad things. He says “man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 29). This ability to chose does not change if we as a people say we ascribe to a moral code. People still could always violate it. The only way it might change is if it were possible to instill enough fear into the people that God would smite them if they failed to follow the golden rule.

I think your argument is exactly what Sartre is trying to respond to in "Existentialism is a Humanism." He in fact says “one should always ask oneself, ‘What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?’ The only way to evade that disturbing thought is through some kind of bad faith. Someone who lies to himself and excuses himself by saying ‘Everyone does not act that way’ is struggling with a bad conscience” (Sartre 25). I think this is like the golden rule. Anyone can do whatever they want, but they also are responsible for their actions. Could you live with yourself after doing "x"? Some people probably could live with doing a bad thing, but only if they tried to justify it in bad faith like Sartre says.

Shannon said...

Jesse, I understand where you’re coming from in regards to your fear of the seemingly selfish nature of existentialism, but I think Sartre would disagree. In “The Transcendence of the Ego,” he argues that consciousness results from confrontation with the world, and that the self does not reside in consciousness, but out there “in the world, like the self of another.” In other words, the self is an ongoing project facilitated by action and external contact; it is not simply self-awareness or self-consciousness like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” According to Solomon’s portrayal of Sartre, “the long-standing suspicion that all our actions are basically selfish makes no sense; we cannot be selfish if there is no inner self to be served” (Solomon 175).

JonSchwartz said...

I will agree with you that Sartre does not care that you do something which is moral or not, but the mere fact that you are choosing shows who you are. So when Maggie does not try and stop the marriage even though she would become happier it shows two things. First, that she places more value on not being with him than being with him, because if she had a higher value to be with him she would have choosen to be a home wrecker. Second, by not interfering with the marriage, her actions give us evidence that shows that she values the happiness that Stephen gains from his marriage and that to her a marriage is important, something that should not be broken.

Furthermore, if we as humans are essentially humans and we assume that people shall choose to do what "feels good" then we will end in chaos. I do not think this will occur because if I want to kill a man, then his family will want to avenge his death thus a balance. If I rob a bank, someone will rob me. I believe that even if we can choose a balance shall occur between extreme actions and extreme counter-actions. In the end the balance will allow for more freedom and fewer laws - thus more happiness for me at least.

Dev Varma said...

All qualms and debates with this post aside, I feel this post (and mine to some extent) show just how stuck humanity really is. We could choose to believe in a Categorical Imperative in which we constrict ourselves to following duty "whatever that duty may be". But we could also choose to believe in Existentialism, which leaves us lost in a room without any chairs wanting to find a way to sit down. But I guess existentialism has an answer to this as well (who would have thought it?!): we are allowed by the very fact that we are freedoms to choose not only our actions but also our motivations in a sense. Sartre uses the example of the man who failed out of school and decided to take it as a sign from God to become a Jesuit (Sartre 34). The man really had two choices to make: he had to decide what to do after flunking out (of which the possible choices seem close to, if not exactly, infinite) and also had to choose the reason for his choice (of which the possible choices are also near, if not exactly, infinite). So really Jesse, Existentialism allows you not only to choose to be moral or immoral, but it also allows you to choose why. So you can choose to follow the Categorical Imperative if you feel the inclination, or you can choose to do every action in accordance with your self-interest.

Colin said...

Existentialism is not the denying of any morality. In fact, instead of being scary, it should be liberating. Existentialism is the ability to completely define your own moral system, within yourself. Unlike Kantian ethics, there is no one universal ethical system that everyone will discover within themselves; rather, we can derive our own ethical system from our own experience and ideas. It is a truly liberating philosophy.

Joy Henary said...

It does sound like a truly liberating philosophy doesn't it? I mean, being able to choose your own lifestyle- definitely appealing. It does seem a great annoyance when a certain figure tries to force his ethical system on others, condemning them for their certain choices in life. However liberating it seems, I still tend to agree with the initial argument that this existentialism is a somewhat "scary" idea. Although I do agree that people have the right to make their own choices, etc. This buffet style system of morality is somewhat insane. I believe it would result in utter chaos. I don't like the idea of some people who are ignorant or psychotic to have their own ethical system in which they think whatever act they inflict upon society is ethical.

Joy Henary said...

Another thought... I just think that this idea of existentialism is allowing for the irrational in that everything that is actually irrational is allowed to be considered ethical under this guise.

Dev Varma said...

Buffet-style? If anything, Existentialism gives you nothing but a kitchen and expects you to make your own buffet. That was the whole reason for my blog. Yes, I will agree that Existentialism frees you to make your own grilled cheese. But what am I supposed to do if I have neither the grill nor the cheese?

Octo-hobo said...

Funny grilled cheese comment. Yes, I agree with Dev to some extent in that the freedom afforded is mitigated by the lack of direction since it is a free-for-all with more intensity than any Super Smash Bros. match could afford.

However, like Colin, I much prefer it over Kantian ethics, where if I break out of his stringent moral code even once I am clearly all kinds of screwed. Like the parrhesiates post, there needs to be a middle ground somewhere in there, or at least mitigating circumstances. I know I'm responsible for my own grilled cheese but at least give me the damn bread. From there, my moral compass can point the way to find my grill and cheese. Or just give me pancakes. I can work with that too.

MVP said...

I must reiterate what other members have said already: existentialism is liberation from that which has bogged down humanity: its toying with morality. It is man's blank canvas state, the painter painting himself, that liberates man from himself and from history. And in the end, isn't it always what we make of things that is supposed to matter anyway?