I'd say Sartre discusses two essential philosophical issues here. The main one is the free-will versus determinism argument. That's an old business that has been keeping philosophy lecturers exercised for a long time. Do we really make free choices or are we merely part of a causal chain of events? Sartre outlines his position in the first paragraph. He is definitely not a determinist.
The other issue he raises, as a digression in the second and third paragraphs, is whether there are moral truths or not. He thinks not. When I first read about moral truths I had never heard that term before and wasn't sure what was meant by it. It took a while but I got it eventually. It is basically the idea that there are certain universally fixed truths about what is right and wrong. People tend to believe that there are such fixed entities, as if moral beliefs around right and wrong have a solid reality. Not that they are just rules invented for people by people (like the legal system) but that they have a bigger identity that exists above and beyond ordinary jurisdiction. The appropriate word would be "transcendent". Morality is felt to have a transcendent quality that goes beyond what humans think and do (Bible, Koran, Torah et al). This is the religious point of view: that morality is not to be argued with, is given by God in tablets of stone and the likes. Tony Blair o+en gave his justification for going into Iraq that “it was the right thing to do” as if that was reason enough. He was able to do this being a God-believer. By this account moral truths exist and they are not invented by humans but given by the high authority. They are the fundament upon which behaviour should be judged and controlled.
The humanists and secular society don't hold with this. Morality is made by humans for humans. It changes from generation to generation, age to age to suit the requirements of the time. Sartre of course was one such humanist. He further notes that morality seen like this works similarly to art - there is no fundamental truth about what makes a work of art good. It is a choice. Great artists are the ones that get chosen. Morality behaves the same way. It is a choice. Nietzsche thought something the same. For him it was about power. Whoever has the power to set the moral tone, or influence the artistic mood, holds sway over the choices.
So that is Sartre's lesser point and I agree with him. I don't agree with him on the other issue - free will versus determinism. I think free will is a kind of illusion, a form of metaphysics to use the jargon. This is an uncomfortable notion. Who wants to think they don't control their lives? But if you accept that every effect has a cause (most think that) then why should your choices be any different? Why are they given some special status above cause and effect? Answer: because we want free will to be precisely this special status thing that somehow defies the normal rules. It is felt as a thing apart. It is metaphysical, it is transcendent, it is outside the world...... just like the moral truths that Sartre denies. In the same way and for the same reasons that he denounces moral truths I would say that free will should be treated similarly i.e. as a religious belief and an inheritance from the conditioning of religious ideas.
I think free will can be explained and understood differently than the religious way. I'd say that our sense of free will arises from an awareness of choices or possibilities. It is a product of developed consciousness. There may be five things on the menu and I say I “choose” one because there is one I end up eating. But it doesn't follow from that, that the choice was freely taken. It feels like it was. But it only feels that way. It probably wasn't. I ended up eating the one I did because of an infinitely complex chain of events that I couldn't even begin to know all having an effect on my mental and physical processes. Absolutely everything in life is like that. Nothing is free in the strict sense of the word. Everything is determined by something else. Free will is no more than a manner of speaking. It's the way we formulate talk about choices. The choices are there and we take them but not necessarily freely. That would be a matter of faith.
If I was going to make an argument about that passage of Sartre's I'd make it around the idea that he is inconsistent. He gets real with the moral truth matter but becomes mystical with the free will case. I'd point out how he even resorts to insults - self deceivers, cowards and scum - against determinists like me. I'd say that diminishes his case and makes it more of a polemic, more political than philosophical. And that's the thing: Existentialism and Humanism is not a great work of philosophy. It is a political text from a Marxist perspective that denounces religion and calls to freedom as the guiding principle in human affairs.
written to help a friend with her essay discussing
a chapter from "Existentialism & Humanism"
philosophy • 06.10.07