Suppose we divide theories of the meaning of human life into the exogenous and the endogenous. According to the exogenous theories, existential meaning derives from a source external to the agent, whereas on endogenous theories, meaning and purpose are posited or projected by the agent. Classical theism provides an example of an exogenous theory of meaning: because man was created by God for a purpose, namely, to serve and glorify him in this world and commune with him in the next, the purpose of human life is to live in accordance with the divine will so as to achieve one's higher destiny of unending bliss. Jean-Paul Sartre's theory as presented in the manifesto "Existentialism is a Humanism" is an example of an endogenous theory. Indeed, it is the polar opposite of a theistic theory of existential meaning: "Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position." (369, Kaufmann anthology) Herewith, some critical commentary on Sartre's theory as we find it in the essay mentioned.
There is no God
Essences or natures are divine concepts
There is no human nature.
Another argument Sartre may have in mind is this:
Man has a nature only if man is a divine artifact
There is no God and hence no divine artifacts
Man has no nature.
Neither argument is persuasive. As for the first, why must natures be divine concepts? As for the second, it is not clear why man must be a divine artifact to have a nature. (In Aristotle's system there are natures, but man is not a divine artifact.) Of course, if man is a divine artifact, then he has a nature. But what Sartre needs for the second argument to be sound is the converse of this proposition, namely, if man has a nature, then he is a divine artifact.
Perhaps one should not expect rigorous arguments from phenomenologists. I am not being sarcastic. Their approach to philosophy is descriptive rather than dialectical, or more the former than the latter. In the analytic 'camp' argument is often overrated even though anyone can see that argument, even tediously rigorous argument, has not gotten us very far. You cannot argue without premises and premises need grounding. Phenomenologists seek their grounding in the givennesses of ordinary experience. Zu den Sachen selbst! This, Husserl's battle cry, is in part a protest against philosophy that has lost touch with lived experience, as a good portion of analytic philosophy has. Think of all the rubbish that has been published under the rubric 'eliminative materialism.' This stuff is a prime example of how philosophy goes off the rails when it loses contact with what anyone can verify for himself in his lived experience, for example, that he has beliefs and desires. (If you think I'm just gassing off, read the contents of the Eliminative Materialism category.)
How does an existentialist like Sartre see our predicament? We find ourselves 'abandoned' in the world, 'thrown' into it. This is Heidegger's famous Geworfenheit. Our ultimate Whence and Whither are shrouded in darkness. (After the First World War, the traditional assurances about the Whence, Whither, and Wherefore struck the leading thinkers of Heidegger's generation as hollow and unconvincing.) And yet we exist, but not in the manner of a thing with properties, but in the manner of a project. Man as 'thrown project,' geworfenes Entwurf in Heidegger's lingo. "Man is indeed a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus, or a cauliflower." (349)
To appreciate what Sartre is saying, you must appreciate that he is referring to man as subject, man as a conscious and self-conscious being, not man as member of a zoological species. A good Cartesian, Sartre philosophizes from the first-person point of view. He is right to do so, because if you try to understand human reality in wholly objective, third-personal, terms, you will fail. You will fail because you will have left out the Main Thing: subjectivity.
Since Heidegger was a key influence on Sartre, we can put the point in Heideggerian jargon by saying that Sartre is talking about man as Dasein, not man as present-at-hand (vorhandenes) organism in nature. Sartre is saying that man as subject has no pre-defined nature or cookie-cutter essence, that he is 'nothing' until he makes himself something by his choices. "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." (349)
2. Towards an Evaluation. There is something to this, of course, quite a lot in fact. I experience myself as free to choose this or that. What I am not free to do is not choose. (363) Not to choose is to choose. Trying to evade hard choices and their consequences, I end up choosing evasion. If I drink myself blotto to avoid commitment, I freely choose to do so. Ditto if I lose myself in mundane distractions. There is no evasion of freedom. I do not succeeed in 'going on automatic pilot' as it were, even though there are times when I would like to. I cannot transform myself into a deterministic system short of blowing my brains out. I cannot avoid the "anguish" of having to choose and take responsibility for my choices. (This Sartrean anguish has in its lineage Heidegger's Angst and Kierkegaard's dread.) The anguish stems from my freedom, but also from the nonexistence of any exogenous guides to action.
For Sartre, there is no God and no substitute for God; thus no objective values "inscribed in an intelligible heaven," in a Platonic topos ouranos. Sartre appears to subscribe to the Heideggerian notion that the axiology of the late 19th and early 20th century is a sort of stop-gap measure that results when one fails to draw all the consequences of God's nonexistence. Values are, to put it in the Gallic manner, a sort of ineffectual band-aid placed over the gaping wound which is the death of God. The existentialist, Sartre tells us,
. . . finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that 'the good' exists, that one must be honest or not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Doestoevsky once wrote, "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted"; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or without himself. He discovers forthwith that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one's action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism — man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man in condemned to be free. Condemned because he be cause he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything that he does. (353)
Part of what our man is saying here is that human beings do not have a nature that prescribes a set of norms for their behavior in the manner of an Aristotelian proper function or ergon. (For Aristotle, man has by nature a specific function which prescribes how he ought to behave if he is achieve his potential and achieve eudaimonia.) Nor can we derive norms from divine commands since there are no divine commands. And even if there were divine commands, one could never know (i) whether it was God or an ambassador of God who was commanding (as opposed to a malevolent entity) and (ii) whether the addressee of the command was indeed oneself as opposed to some other person. (Abraham to God: You talking to me?? Cf. 351)
Objective values cannot provide guidance either since they cannot 'float free' in ideal space but must be anchored in an intellect, and only the divine intellect is capacious enough for such anchorage — an intellect which doesn't exist. We are thus without objective guidance. We cannot justify our behavior by appeal to anything exogenous such as the will of God. Thus we are thrown back upon ourselves as the only source of moral justification.
What is curious, though, is that Sartre conflates having a justification with making an excuse. He thinks there is something shabby about justifying one's moral choices by appeal to exogenous factors. We are told that everthing is permitted and man is without excuse. But surely if I justify my behavior by appeal to some objective factor, that is not the same as making an excuse, or failing to take responsibility. For example, suppose I am in a situation in which I am tempted to behave cruelly but instead act with kindness and forebearance. And suppose that, in explanation and justification of my behavior, I claim to intuit that kindness is a value and that cruelty is a disvalue. That is, I lay claim to a sort of moral perception whereby I 'see' by a visio intellectualis that kindness is an objective value, cruelty an objective disvalue, and thus that these types of behavior are objectively not morally neutral, and thus that it is not the case that "everything is permitted." Sartre's idea is that in a situation like this I am 'in flight' from a full recognition of my (abysmal) freedom, that I am submitting to a sort of determinism — the determinism involved in the perception, the passive reception, of something external to my consciousness — and that I am insofar forth deceiving myself by failing to own up fully to my responsibility as value-creator and am to that extent in self-deception.
The problem with all this is that Sartre, denying God, puts man in God's place: he ascribes to man a type of freedom and a type of responsibility that he cannot possibly possess, that only God can possess. He fails to see that human freedom is in no way diminished by an individual's free acceptance of an objective constraint on his behavior. This is because human freedom is finite freedom; only an infinite freedom, a divine freedom, would be diminished by objective constraints.
Note also there there is no man, there are only men. God is one, but man is many. So Sartre's deification of man amounts to a deification of men: each is a god unto himself. This leads to a radical subjectivism about value contrary to Sartre's intentions: he wants values to be intersubjectively valid. Thus he wants somethign impossible. He wants the source of all values to be human subjectivity, which is in each case an individual's subejctivity; but he also wants these values to be intersubjective.
I will develop this line of critique in the next post in this series.