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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

An Ethical Evaluation Of Anguish

Anguish represents the closest thing to a first principle present within Sartre’s existential ethic. While numerous philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger, have proposed different feelings of ‘dread’ or ‘angst’ brought about by the human condition, for this essay, I consider Sartre’s primarily ethical definition of anguish as the total responsibility to define man-kind and our actions.

To determine the strength of anguish, and whether it even is an ethical first principle, it is worth briefly considering what the purpose of ethics is. Jonathon Crowe approaches this question by arguing that, while many other academic fields and philosophical sub-disciplines, such as science and ontology, describe how the world is, ethics is fundamentally concerned with how the world ought to be. On an individual level, ethics describes how we ought to act. Therefore, to determine whether anguish is important in ethics, I consider how well it helps us to construct an ethical system to describe our normative duties. To contextualise the importance of anguish, I systematically compare it to other systems of morality predicated upon different first principles, most notably absolutist ethical systems such as deontology and consequentialism.

The first principle of angst, at least initially, seems to provide a stronger starting point for a system of ethics than other ethical schools of thought. By recognising that, as Nietzsche famously proclaimed, ‘God is dead’ and we no longer must be governed by absolute religious truths, as well as the idea that a universally deducible moral law such as Kant’s is unfeasible, anguish-based existentialist ethics does not need to base its normative stipulations on questionable first principles. Instead, it only needs to recognise the inherent absurdity of the human condition. This significantly elevates its credibility, as a duty of self-definition and the associated emotional burden appears to be the logical conclusion of us lacking a metaphysically ordained purpose. Put plainly, while other ethical systems struggle to justify their first principles from a lack of substantial evidence, anguish-based ethics is plausible, since it simply recognises the insufficiency of existing evidence for a predefined moral law.

Indeed, anguish has a strong flexibility that is missing from traditional ethical thought. While coming from a position of virtue rather than existentialism, Julias Annas correctly notes that moral life is not static. The moral landscape is ever-shifting and evolving, and any ethical precepts that do not adapt to its fluctuations tend towards dogma. This means that traditional moral schools, such as consequentialism and, particularly, deontology, often deal in inflexible platitudes. Pojman embodies this sentiment well when he suggests that deontology can achieve little more than a ‘negative, egoistic’ vision of morality.

By contrast, anguish-based ethics, by highlighting the importance of individual responsibility and decision-making, allows individuals to adapt their formulation of morality to changing continencies. As John Finnis and Charles Taylor note, at any given point, there will likely be several considerations that a moral agent must consider. These are often not of the same overarching ethical theory, and thus may be difficult to balance under a traditional moral system. Sartre exemplifies this dilemma through his example of a son considering going off to war. The son has incommensurable responsibilities of fidelity to his mother and duty to his country. Traditional, absolutist ethics would be insufficient to definitively adjudicate what is right or wrong in his situation. By recognising this inadequacy of such ethics and leaving the decision to the individual agent, anguish-based ethics offers a dynamism that gives it the potential to reach greater heights of morality than the rigidity of consequentialist and deontological ethics.

However, anguish has several limitations which limit the strength of any ethic including it.

Firstly, an anguish-based ethic provides a poor foundation for codes of law, which need unchanging, discrete value judgements. The reliance of angst-based ethics upon the individual agent to decide what is correct and its inability to reach absolute ethical truths (except for its respect for freedom) mean that it cannot conclusively reach such judgements, unlike deontology or, to a lesser extent, consequentialism, whose rigidity makes them more practical in a legal context.

An ethical system based on angst will necessarily require that individuals decide what is correct, often looking towards vague sources of authority such as emotions. While certain existentialists, particularly Nietzsche, would look favourably towards harnessing our emotions and individual judgement, the value of our personal judgement is highly questionable. Individuals are more prone to making irrational choices than collectives. Various scholars within the field of ‘neuroeconomics’, a fusion between neuroscience and behavioural economics, find that tiny stimuli can affect an individual’s actions and decisions. There is a gamut of widely known behavioural quirks, such as cognitive dissonance, which can inhibit individual rationality and consequently rational moral agency, especially in the ‘spur of the moment’. It seems to me that a system of ethics relying on collective premeditated thought and rigorous logical analysis, such as that of Kant or even some consequentialists such as R.M. Hare would be more able to eliminate mistakes of individual judgement.

Sartre would perhaps contend that such ‘mistakes’ are not actually errors since, due to the absurdity of the human condition; we simply cannot state that anything except the deprivation of freedom is wrong. However, to refuse to declare any action as immoral tends dangerously towards subjectivism which, as I illustrate later in this essay, must be rejected at all costs. Certain heinous acts, such as rape, cannot rightly be considered morally benign.

Anguish, in the sense that Sartre portrays it, is dependent on the premise that man has total freedom. This is highly questionable. It seems indisputable that some biological imperatives fundamentally affect the way humans act. We have a range of instincts and genetic tendencies which affect our behaviour. A person with an addictive gene is more likely to get hooked on alcohol than an individual without such a gene, yet their addictive tendencies hardly stem from free choice. While, in Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre dismisses the role of these imperatives out of hand, he fails to adequately justify (or justify at all) why they can be rejected.

More fundamentally, as Sam Harris outlines in ‘Determinism’, it seems clear that humans and the human mind, being fundamentally comprised of matter and biological impulses, are strongly affected by external stimuli. Harris argues that this effect is total yet, even if it were not, it would still call into question Sartre’s vision of comprehensive freedom. As is evident from Freudian psychology, certain societal factors, particularly the conditioning of our mother and father, fundamentally affect the way we think and act.

Since free will is constrained by the limitations outlined above, the extent to which Sartre’s definition can exist at all is severely limited, as a moral agent cannot legislate for himself if he cannot control his decisions.

Furthermore, as Crowe posits, the ability of Sartre to create an anguish-based existentialist ethic is limited dramatically by the ‘ought-is gap’. A fundamental component of anguish self-legislation is the normative stipulation that we must allow others the freedom to define themselves, and therefore mankind, as well. Otherwise, freedom and self-definition would no longer be a universal aspect of the human condition.

Without this stipulation, existentialism declines into subjectivism and completely fails to provide a picture of how the world ought to be and how we ought to act. It, using the definition I provided in the introduction to this essay, fails to be an ethical system at all.

Sartre’s justification that we must respect others’ freedom is based on the idea that freedom is self-evident, and thus inherently deserves to be respected. This argument is weak. A single person disputing the self-evidence of freedom illustrates that it is not self-evident requires defence. Since I dispute the value of freedom, being partial to a foray into paternalism, and that there is indeed extensive literature disputing freedom’s value, it is clear that the value of existential freedom is not self-evident. Sartre incorrectly assumes that, since everyone is free, everyone ought to be free, crossing the ‘ought-is’ gap.

Consequently, anguish fails to truly provide an ethical system, and instead leads into a slow recession into subjectivism that permits the most heinous moral tenets. Under a subjectivist system of ethics, rape is moral if I believe it is, and thus if I decide rape is good, I can rape all I want. This is ludicrous. As Pojman notes, subjectivism should be rejected, if nothing else, since it would lead to humanity’s decline into a Hobbesian state of war.

Thus, Sartre’s vision anguish provides a weak basis for any system of ethics. Anguish does have some limited strengths. It is not reliant upon a dubious first principle and gives ethics a certain flexibility. However, moral systems based on anguish are ultimately ineffective, due to their reliance on individual agents, who are prone to mistakes, and impractical, due to their inability to be used in a court of law. Anguish is predicated on total metaphysical freedom which, due to causal and biological determinism, does not exist. Indeed, it is dubious whether Sartre’s conception of anguish leaves room for any ethic at all, due to its sole normative stipulation of respecting freedom crossing the ‘ought-is’ gap, and since the value of freedom is not self-evident, contrary to Sartre’s claim. Without the normative stipulation of respecting freedom, ethics based on Sartre’s conception of anguish decline into total subjectivism, which ought to be rejected due to its sheer brutality. Thus, Sartre’s conception of anguish provides an incredibly weak first principle for any ethical system. It seems that the benefits of angst can be achieved by a system of virtue-based morality, which does not share the inherent weakness developed from a system of anguish.


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