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Choose life

7 September, 2007

“The most fundamental doctrine of existentialism is the claim that—for human beings at least—existence precedes essence. As an atheism, Sartre demands that we completely abandon the traditional notion of human beings as the carefully designed artifacts of a divine creator. There is no abstract nature that one is destined to fill. Instead, each of us simply is in the world; what we will be is then entirely up to us. Being human just means having the capacity to create one’s own essence in time.

But my exercise of this capacity inevitably makes me totally responsible for the life I choose. Since I could always have chosen some other path in life, the one I follow is my own. Since nothing has been imposed on me from outside, there are no excuses for what I am. Since the choices I make are ones I deem best, they constitute my proposal for what any human being ought to be. On Sartre’s view, the inescapable condition of human life is the requirement of choosing something and accepting the responsibility for the consequences.

But accepting such total responsibility entails a profound alteration of my attitude towards life. Sharing in the awesome business of determining the future development of humanity generally through the particular decisions I make for myself produces an overwhelming sense of anguish. Moreover, since there is no external authority to which I can turn in an effort to escape my duty in this regard, I am bound to feel abandonment as well. Finally, since I repeatedly experience evidence that my own powers are inadequate to the task, I am driven to despair. There can be no relief, no help, no hope. Human life demands total commitment to a path whose significance will always remain open to doubt.

Although this account of human life is thoroughly subjective, that does not reduce the importance of moral judgment. Indeed, Sartre maintained that only this account does justice to the fundamental dignity and value of human life. Since all of us share in the same situation, we must embrace our awesome freedom, deliberately rejecting any (false) promise of authoritative moral determination. Even when we choose to seek or accept advice about what to do, we remain ourselves responsible for choosing which advice to accept.

This doesn’t mean that I can do whatever I want, since free choice is never exercised capriciously. Making a moral decision is an act of creation, like the creation of a work of art; nothing about it is predetermined, so its value lies wholly within itself. Nor does this mean that it is impossible to make mistakes. Although there can be no objective failure to meet external standards, an individual human being can choose badly. When that happens, it is not that I have betrayed my abstract essence, but rather that I have failed to keep faith with myself.


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