Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were key figures in the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism is defined as the philosophical theory that highlights individual existence, choice and freedom.
It is the idea that human beings determine their own meaning in life, and venture to make rational decisions in spite of living in an illogical and unreasonable universe. Essentially, this principle calls into question human existence and the notion that individuals do not have a purpose in life. Like her lover Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir had a lot to say about existential conditions and the ethical dilemmas that we are faced with as we journey from life to death. Another philosopher that had a lot to say about a particular system of thought was Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher. In his case, Nietzsche spoke about “natural” ethics. The Ethics of Ambiguity is the book that inaugurated Beauvoir’s philosophy on existentialism. This book is a response to the people who expressed an unfavorable opinion of this philosophical theory.
In just three chapters, Beauvoir examines some fundamental existential conditions and presents an ethics which she calls “ethics of ambiguity.” Beauvoir explains how individuals have this sense of ambiguity within themselves which makes them question the meaning of their lives. Philosophers have tried to mask this ambiguous dimension of existence by trying to reduce the mind to the body, for instance (Tuncel). However, to have an ethical life, this sense of ambiguity must be accepted. Beauvoir explains this with her description of the development of man. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, there are several direct and indirect references to Sartre considering he also delivered a famous lecture titled Existentialism is a Humanism as a defense against its critics: mostly communists who thought of existentialism as a form of bourgeois ideology and Christian critics who believed this theory ignores the Commandments of God (Tuncel). From Sartre’s own words: “existentialism is a doctrine that does render human life possible; a doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and every action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity” (p.
4). In her book, Beauvoir agrees that human nature does not exist and that individuals have a choice. In other words, we are what we do and human freedom is absolute. This means that the world is our doing and that there is no other force, supernatural or otherwise, that can claim responsibility for our actions (Tuncel). This is because existence precedes essence. Since God does not exist, there is nothing that can determine who a human being is at the outset.
Thus, we determine our destiny and the responsibility for our existence is placed entirely upon our shoulders. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir agree on several fundamental existential conditions. However, Beauvoir expresses little optimism in comparison to Sartre.
While Sartre believes that existentialism gives human beings a sense of hope considering they take their destinies into their own hands and choose their own freedom, Beauvoir notes that individuals live in a somewhat tragic situation because of the overwhelming resistance of the world. This summary is only a very general overview of Sartre and Beauvoir’s ethics considering both are very rich in content and one can only gain a greater insight by reading Existentialism is a Humanism and The Ethics of Ambiguity. In his work, Nietzsche spoke about what he called “natural” ethics. He embraces the human body and its functions as well as our nature and animality. He uses these natural and physical functions to explain and relate to our freedom. Nietzsche is very critical about the suppression of the human body. In general, he viewed culture as something that domesticated the body, submitting individuals to systems of social control.
For Nietzsche, civilizations have the power to divert bodily drives. They can either form powerful and healthy individuals or cause them to suppress feelings of guilt which then results in moral degeneration. However, an established structure that has its rules and rituals is also one of the greatest “tools” for the making of the self (Tuncel). In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche says: “Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves. It is to preserve the distance which separates us from other men. To grow more indifferent to hardship, to severity, to privation, and even to life itself.” In part six titled The Four Great Errors, Nietzsche explains how the concept of the free will is not only connected to the old metaphysics but it is also a part of a system that wants to judge and punish (Tuncel). In order to be able to do this, it seeks to find people guilty in accordance with a norm that has already been established.
In Nietzsche’s words: “the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wanted to impute guilt. The entire old psychology was conditioned by the fact that its originators wanted to create for themselves the right to punish.” This introduced the structure of power and how it plays a role in our lives. In the last section, Nietzsche proceeds to argue that there is no foundation that can judge our being. All morality has done, according to the German philosopher, is repress our instincts which is highly problematic. Part B: How would Freud OR Nietzsche OR Marx critique Utilitarianism (Mill)? In what ways would they disagree? Jeremy Bentham is recognized as the founder of the modern theory of Utilitarianism: the evaluation of actions based on their consequences.
While the principle of utilitarianism properly began with Bentham, there are several key proponents who have added to this theory seeing that this philosophy has a long tradition. One is John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher. In his book, Utilitarianism, Mill defended Bentham’s ideas while revising some of his main concepts. First, Mill disregards the criticism on utilitarianism by revealing that the pleasures that are discussed go beyond physical pleasures. He also establishes the foundation of a moral system and specifically denounces Kant’s idea on duty (class notes).
The reason is that Bentham and Mill evaluate the moral rightness of a decision based on its outcome while Kant’s moral philosophy analyzes the moral rightness of an action no matter the outcome. In other words, Kant believed our duty and rules should be the only two things to dictate our actions because the consequences ultimately do not matter. When analyzing the developments and varieties of utilitarianism, beyond Bentham and Mill, it is also interesting to consider how other philosophers besides Kant would criticize the modern theory of Utilitarianism, particularly Marx. Before analyzing how Marx might criticize the ethical theory of utilitarianism some elements must be made clear. In his book, Mill explains how there are both mental pleasures and bodily pleasures. Utilitarians tend to place higher value on mental pleasures which are those that appeal to the mind such as reading a book or watching a movie. According to Mill, one can also speak of pleasures in terms of quantity and quality.
While Bentham emphasized the quantity of pleasure, he did not consider the quality of pleasures. Mill argues that not all pleasures, mental or physical, are worthy of pursuing (Tuncel). We must assess the moral worth and decide which kind we choose to pursue. This is determined by experience, habits of self-consciousness and self-observation. Mill also made a notable distinction between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. In act-utilitarianism, the morally correct decision is established by assessing which of the available acts would maximize the general sum of good over bad; while in rule-utilitarianism the moral right is determined by assessing what applicable principle would maximize the sum of the general good (class notes). Another important concept is the principle of utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle which is considered the foundation of morality. If an action promotes happiness and well-being then the action is right.
By happiness one should clarify that Mill refers to the intended pleasure. He believes that no act should bring about injustice to another individual in order to be considered moral. Fundamentally, Mill thought that utilitarian ideals had the ability to address human selfishness and remove all grand sources of human suffering (class notes). Now let’s consider what Marx would think of this ethical theory.
As an economic, sociological and philosophical theory, Marxism has influenced multiple ideologies and it has been applied to a variety of different subjects throughout history. For Marx, capitalism is full of problems considering it is based on the exploitation of labor and it comes due to the ruling class who owns the means of production. Because the laborers and workers have no control over how much they produce, they become alienated. The ruling class–or the bourgeoisie–extract their wealth through the surplus product manufactured by the wage laborers. Due to these contradictions, class conflicts arise. Utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill did not necessarily criticize the relations of bourgeois society which Marx did. For instance, Bentham and Mill supported private property and the division of labor.
Furthermore, they reasoned that several aspects of bourgeois society were considered unchangeable; hence, they were not subject to criticism. For Marx, this only revealed the conservative nature of utilitarianism considering their tendency to maintain the status quo. Marx would likely call Mill a capitalist reformer. Meanwhile, Mill believed in libertarian capitalism.
Marx can be considered a realist seeing that he believes in the historic process. While he disagrees with some aspects of utilitarianism, he believes we’ll eventually overcome suffering which he considers inevitable for happiness. This notion approaches utilitarianism a bit but not fully.