Jean-Paul Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher and was one of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy. His major philosophical work, “Being and Nothingness” and his famous talk, “Existentialism is a Humanism”, is where he emphasised the statement “Man is condemned to be free”. The statement appears to be a juxtaposition of language because ‘freedom’ often has positive connotations while ‘condemned’ provides the opposite feeling. Sartre used the term ‘condemned’ as he believed we have no choice in the matter of being free, and being free (even if against our will) means we are responsible for all our actions. Being responsible for our actions – without having a choice about being free to choose – is a form of condemnation. Us having to accept full responsibility for our actions includes us not being able to blame those around us – such as family, teachers and the government – for our situation.
In summary, man is condemned because “he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (Kaufmann). In the face of this responsibility, many humans turn to religion. This allows us to feel answerable to a higher being. However, Sartre was not a believer in God; this could be because of the atrocities he witnessed first-hand during the Second World War while serving in the French army. His experiences taught him that “God is silent in the face of absurdity and horror. Because of this we are condemned to face life alone and with this comes absolute freedom and the chilling responsibility that comes with it.” If God truly doesn’t exist then our actions aren’t really limited by His prophecies, commandments and morals; God cannot legitimise our behaviour, or justify it, or cause it. We are ultimately responsible for our actions with no one to answer because we have chosen them on our own, out of our freedom.
Traditionally, freedom is seen as ‘good’. Sartre on the other hand describes freedom to be a kind of burden because as God does not exist we are “without excuse” and we “can’t find anything to depend on”. Sartre illustrates his belief using the example of the paper cutter. When considering a paper cutter, we would assume that the creator had a plan (an essence) for it. Due to there being no creator of humans, we have no essence. This means that our actions and behaviour cannot be explained by referencing human nature, instead we are necessarily fully responsible for our actions. The essence or nature of a paper cutter is to cut paper; this is the purpose the maker of it had in mind. However, there was no maker or creator of human beings so we can’t refer to what we are meant to do. There is only what we choose to do. “We are left alone, without excuse.”
To decide whether we are or are not “condemned to be free” it makes sense to decide whether our actions are truly free or if they may in fact be determined. Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud believe our early years have an impact on our future actions. Freud claimed that our moral actions are often caused by repressed or subconscious memories or feelings stemming from childhood. Also, B.F. Skinner said that we cannot be held morally responsible for behaviour determined by our psychological makeup because we could not have chosen to behave differently. Other thinkers, including Thomas Sowell, argue that our actions are in line with our social conditioning. We then follow a sociologically determined path set by our upbringing, education and social groups etc. Libertarianism has the major flaw of not taking into account our experiences when making decisions and when forming our morality.
For instance, it is arguable that Sartre believed what he did because of the experiences he had during the war, not because of his freedom. Another valid argument is that genetics determine physical and behavioural aspects of humanity. All of these viewpoints state that humans are not free to choose and our lives and personalities are already determined (by our past experiences, psychological makeup, socialisation and genetics). There is truth in these theories and so they take credit away from Sartre’s belief that “man is condemned to be free” because they show that there are aspects of our lives where we aren’t free to choose. This means, in addition, that our responsibility is lessened somewhat as some of our actions are already determined for us. On the other hand, Sartre’s ideas are potentially credible. We have all had experiences where the need to choose between multiple actions has caused us emotional turmoil. It is unlikely that in these situations we can avoid having to come to a decision.
Although we are free to make this choice, we are in a way forced to make it. So, Sartre’s claim of humans being condemned or damned to be free does not appear so ludicrous. Even when we ask someone for assistance with an ethical dilemma it is not their answer that determines our solution and consequent action. It is our choice to ask them in the first place and usually we already know what they are going to say; we then decide whether to follow their advice. This again shows the extent of our freedom of choice and the lack of determining factors to suppress this ‘condemning’ freedom. In conclusion, Sartre examined the daunting nature of decision making and unlimited freedom. The moral responsibility we have in the case of absolute freedom is crippling and causes great despair. However, this approach could be incorrect because there are aspects of our lives and makeup that influence our behaviour. If an action is determined by factors outside our control, we may not have the moral responsibility for it. From this viewpoint we are not condemned to freedom but it instead allows us some input into our behaviour and therefore our lives.