Of moral choices and existential choices

29 February 2012

Wednesday


Sartre’s lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” has had a significant influence on my thinking. I’ve read it many times, and I have thought about its themes throughout my adult life.

Here is a passage from the lecture that has struck me in particular, where Sartre has just told a story of how a student came to him to ask whether he should stay at home to be a comfort to his mother or if he should leave to join the resistance:

“…I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

It was saying things like this that gave Sartre in particular (and existentialism in general) a reputation for being amoral. Is that all there is to say — invent?

Thinking of this recently I realized that a rough distinction can be made between what I will call existential choices and moral choices. Of moral choices we can reasonably (and coherently) ask whether the choice an individual makes is right or wrong. I will define existential choices as those choices of which it is not as reasonable, or perhaps even incoherent, to ask whether the choice, once made, was right or wrong.

An existential choice might fail to have a right or wrong response because there are moral (and presumably equal) reasons on both sides of the question. This is obviously an instance of moral choice and existential choice overlapping. It is important that we recognize such a category of choices, because so much of life consists of choices regarding which there are moral claims on both sides of the question, and no one side or the other is obviously the side of greater good or lesser harm. I will call these choices impure existential choices.

The scenario that Sartre outlines in his lecture is, as I see it, an impure existential choice. There are valid moral reasons for the student to remain to support his mother, and there are valid moral reasons for the student to leave to join the resistance. Neither the reasons on one side of the other, however, seem to preponderate.

Pure existential choices, on the other hand, are when moral issues are not at stake (or, at least, not so clearly at stake). Those pure existential choices that involve life-altering events are obviously of most interest to us. When you choose to marry, if you do so choose, and whom you choose to marry, is an existential choice. There is no right or wrong answer, and it would be misleading in most cases to identify marriage as a moral choice. But it is a life-altering choice, and that makes it an existential choice of some moment. And we can see from the example of marriage that trying to transform an existential choice into a moral choice is probably a mistake. Imagine saying to yourself, “I ought to marry this person,” rather than, “I would love to marry this person.” It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a marriage contracted under moral duress, i.e., obligation, could be a happy or successful marriage.

If you consider the possibility of self-imposed exile or of staying in your country of origin, this is a pure existential choice, and if you do choose self-imposed exile, you must then also choose a destination for your exile, and this is another pure existential choice. You will have a profoundly different experience of life if go to India or if you go to Peru, thus the choice marks a bifurcation in life, and it is difficult (or misleading) to invoke moral reasons for the choice made.

A pure existential choice is a bifurcation in life. A small bifurcation constitutes what philosophers formerly called the “liberty of indifference,” such as whether you sleep on your right side or your left side. Such existential choices may leave the rest of one’s life intact and largely untouched.

A great bifurcation changes everything that follows. A pure existential choice in an important matter sets the course for the rest of your life; it also turns aside from unexercised options in life that pass into the twilight of unactualized possibilities: experiences we never had, people we never met, places we never went, meals we never ate, music we never listened to. This is the domain of sentiment, of yearning, and of regret.

Pure moral choices do not preclude the possibility of pure existential choices, and vice versa: pure existential choices do not preclude the possibility of pure moral choices.

Most of the choices we make is life are mixed — so mixed as to make them impossible to classify. What I want to do here is simply explicitly recognize the possibility of pure existential choice as a domain of human experience.

It is perhaps paradoxical to point out that theory choice is often an existential choice. This is significant, not least because theory choice has come to play a significant role in philosophy at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions. One of the controversial conclusions that Kuhn’s theory was taken to imply was that choice among theories was essentially irrational. But if theory choice in science is arbitrary, how can it maintained that science is a more-or-less accurate explanation of the world? I hope that the paradoxical character of the assertion that theory choice is an existential choice will become obvious in what follows.

If a theory is chosen on the basis not of its truth but on its presumed moral merits (with “moral” understood in the narrow sense of virtues specific to human beings), we know intuitively that such a theory lacks the minimum theoretical legitimacy one would require of a theory. A theory must be chosen for theoretical reasons, or it is no theory worthy of the term.

This is an important point, because it implicitly plays and has played a prominent role in the political debates of our time. Social, political, and economic theories have been advanced and advocated on the presumed benefits of their moral merits, and not on the basis of the merits of these theories as theories. This has almost always been the case with theories of utopian social organization that in practice become dystopian horrors. Favoring a theory for its presumed (and narrowly defined) moral consequences may not be necessarily bad for theory and bad for the moral condition of humanity, but I can’t think of a particular instance when such a choice was anything other than bad.

However, we can say that a good theory is a true theory (or an objective theory, or that it possesses some other theoretical virtue), in which case a theory chosen on the basis of its moral merit — i.e., on the basis of its specifically theoretical virtues — possesses the theoretical legitimacy to pass muster as a theory. In recognizing this (if, in fact, one does recognize this), we recognize that theory choice is an existential choice, not a moral choice.

If we consider, for example, various theories of justice — retributive, distributive, procedural, restorative, organizational (which I would prefer to call institutional), and transformational — each has its advantages and disadvantages (moral and otherwise). It is very difficult to say, on the whole, whether any one theory of justice is morally better than another. So we choose our theory of justice on the merits, as they say.

This makes a choice of a theory of justice an impure existential choice, with moral considerations weighing in on both sides of any theory of justice, but no clear preponderance of moral weight on one side of the question of the other. Lacking clear moral preponderance, the choice of a theory of justice to adopt, while freighted with moral concerns becomes a de facto existential choice in which it is incoherent to ask whether the choice was right or wrong.

To sharpen the counter-intuitive paradox this can be made even more personal by considering theories of ethics: each ethical theory has advantages and disadvantages. Also, we cannot coherently step outside ethics and ask which of these ethical theories is right or wrong, for to ask whether something is right or wrong is to presuppose an ethical theory, and if we have presupposed an ethical theory we can, in turn, inquire about the choice of this theory.

Thus ethical theory choice is a pure existential choice. In so far as you choose a particular ethical theory (and in so far as you organize your moral experience you have a moral theory, whether or not you know it), you make an existential choice in which it is logically impossible to invoke moral reasons for the choice without becoming involved in an infinite regress.

When we move on to less personally poignant classes of theories — physical theories, mathematical theories, metaphysical theories, and so on — our choice of theory is only rarely (if ever) a moral choice. Theory choice is primarily an existential choice, and that is as much as to say that it is a rigorously amoral choice.

Theories shape our world. Theories organize our knowledge and experience, and in so doing organize our lives. In so far as theories shape our world and organize our lives, it would be difficult to name any more profound decision an individual makes than the theories that they adopt, and yet these theoretical choices are mostly existential choices.

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