Is There an Existentialist Ethics?

I recently finished Hazel Barnes’s book An Existentialist Ethics (). Barnes wrestles with the question of whether an ethics can be derived from humanistic, atheistic existentialism or whether instead such an existentialism is ethically agnostic or nihilistic, as its critics have often claimed. She argues that there is an existentialist ethics that can be derived from the commandment not to be “in bad faith” combined with some of the philisophical assumptions or conclusions of the existentialist worldview.

Along the way, she compares and contrasts existentialism with a variety of other attempts to cope with the modern condition or come up with new guidelines for living, such as: Ayn Rand’s objectivism, the New Left and so-called American Existentialists of the Norman Mailer school, Eastern religion and Zen in particular, and New Theologians and the later Being-centered work of Heidegger.

She also comes down to earth from time to time and tries to show how one might apply existentialist principles to particular ethical problems or conundrums, such as: how to reform the education system, what to think of the sexual revolution, whether anything matters in the face of our own deaths or of the inevitable death of our universe, and what steps society might reasonably and ethically take to ward off the problems of overpopulation.

I found the book to be thought-provoking throughout, but strongest when Barnes is explaining existentialism and how to derive ethics from it and weakest when she is working through then-hot topics or matching up existentialism against other contenders. Part of this is just the passage of time (I don’t really care what Norman Mailer was on about, and the vital issues of the sexual revolution circa seem pretty passé today). But part also is that Barnes knows Sartrean existentialism extremely well (and it is Sartre’s existentialism that she means, chiefly, when she writes of existentialism), as it’s the philosophy she lives by, but she only has a tourist’s familiarity with things like Zen or objectivism, so her comparisons reflect this as much as they do the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the respective worldviews.

I like existentialism. It seems to be a strikingly sober and practical point of view, least prone to making stuff up or wishing stuff away. That it has an ethical component doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial, but it was still nice to have someone as methodical and clever as Barnes walk through the steps.

Barnes did seem to have a disturbingly fundamentalist tendency to dismiss challenges to conscious free will. That we have free will is one of the difficult-to-justify leaps of faith existentialism is willing to take, and I don’t have a problem with that. But I think that there are a lot of caveats that you have to attach to the idea of free will to take it seriously today: the various subconscious choices we make and the ways such choices can be manipulated, as demonstrated again and again not just in the anecdotes in the Freudian line but in a multitude of experiments that seem to clearly demonstrate that our conscious, intended, explicit intentions do not tell the whole story of how our choices are made.

Barnes seems afraid to consider this, as though to accept it would be to unravel the whole existentialist project. Existentialism, to her, denies “subconscious choices” and says that the only alternative to choices that are explicit, intended, and conscious are those that are done in willful ignorance, or “bad faith.”

I think she must have backed off from this a bit in later years. In a commencement address (poignantly flavored throughout with defensiveness against the sad po-mo trends of the time), she set out free will as the first of her guiding principles, and put it this way:

[D]espite all the claims of geneticists and deterministic psychologists, I am convinced that at the core of each individual there is a significant degree of responsible freedom. In the very face of Postmodernist claims that what we fondly call a self is nothing but the reflection of the language of others, I stubbornly maintain that — except perhaps where there has been severe brain damage — we are ultimately free agents. We are not just, as some Marxists say, the product of our product. We are our own product. I do not deny the pressure of all that twists and distorts our life worlds. But in spite of everything, I hold that we make ourselves. This is both the agony and the glory of our existence.

“A significant degree” seems to me to be easier to defend than the absolutism in An Existentialist Ethics, and I don’t think it does any real damage to the existentialist project (the way a complete denial of free will would). An absolutist free will already confronts all sorts of limitations, frustrations, and vicissitudes that make it madly difficult to steer a course — why not add sociobiological nudges and subconscious back-seat drivers to the mix? You still end up having to figure out what to do with the freedom that remains.