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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Grand Strategy Annex

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Existential Due Diligence

17 October 2011


A series of protests emerging throughout the industrialized nation-states of the world and tagging themselves with the label “Occupy …” (insert a local place name for the ellipsis), have been the focus of much media coverage and political comment. Some in the US have opined that this occupation movement represents a left-of-center groundswell that is the mirror imagine of the right-of-center “Tea Party” movement. Both are thoroughly populist movements that have emerged outside the mainstream of the (moribund) two party system, and they share much in the condemnation of political and financial elites. Some outside the US have compared the “Occupy” protesters to the “Arab Spring” protest movements that continue to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. These latter are also genuinely populist movements, and so there is some superficial similarity.

In populist political movements, ideology takes a back seat. It would be very difficult to discern the precise ideology of the Arab Spring protesters. Probably the movement has been too large and too diverse to possess any unified ideology. In fact, the only distinctive ideological fact about these protest movements has been their opposition to the official ideologies proclaimed by retrograde authoritarian regimes.

With the populist “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements in the US there is a more coherent ideological basis to the protests, but the fundamental fact is emotional and social rather than ideological. In the early days of the “Tea Party” movement many commentators outside the US claimed that the movement was narrowly focused on tax protest, but anyone in the US knew that there was a great deal of emotional if not reactionary right wing sentiment involved, rallied by a Democratic president whom the protesters wanted to replace, and anyone who knows this knows that the emotionally-driven right wing in the US is deeply concerned with the right wing social agenda.

The populist “Occupy” movement we now see also began as a relatively narrowly focused protest against perceived excesses of the financial sector, but anyone who knows US politics knows that the emotionally-driven left, like the emotionally-driven right, cannot stay focused on one issue, but the movement blossoms into a ployglot protest that becomes a catch-all for discontent of all kinds. Everyone who was unhappy with the current state of the US but who could not in good conscience march with the Tea Party movement, can now march (or sit in) with the “Occupy” movement.

Because of the unfocused, sprawling, and emotional character of populist movements like the “Tea Party” and the “Occupy” protesters, they lack the first the most important element that any successful campaign must possess: an objective. It is with good reason that “objective” is the first named of the principles of war. Social protest is a kind of informal war (it is a point along the Clausewitzean continuum, being the pursuit of politics by other means), and if that war is going to be successful, it must have an objective, and then it must take offensive action to secure its objective.

Here lies the fundamental difference between these populist protest movements in the US (and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe) and the Arab Spring protesters: the latter have, in each case, an objective. Not only do they have an objective, they have a clear, simple, and obvious objective that can be understood by anyone. In Egypt, the objective was to be rid of Mubarak. In Libya, the objective was to be rid of Gaddafi. In Syria, the objective is to be rid of Assad. In Yemen, the objective is to be rid of Saleh.

In two of the four examples of Arab Spring protests I have just mentioned, the protesters have been successful and have attained their aim. This aim has been somewhat anti-climactic, since the protesters discovered that when they woke up the next morning that they were rid of their autocrats, but the society created by the autocrats was still largely in place. Egypt is not now a bastion of democracy, but is rather run by the military, who allowed the protesters to protest against Mubarak, but quickly cleaned them out of El Tahrir once Mubarak was out. Thus we see how tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail.

Many of these same structural forces are present in the advanced industrialized nation-states as well, but in a more subtle form. When a Ronald Reagan or a Barack Obama comes into office as president, people imagine that something will fundamentally change in society, and that things will be different from here on out. Well, something does fundamentally change in the executive branch of the US government, but very little else changes, and society as a whole changes almost not at all.

The difficulty of catalyzing fundamental change in a robust and mature political system like those of Western Europe or North America, despite their historically unprecedented inclusion of the vox populi in governance, gives these most privileged and entitled populations a feeling of apathy and anomie despite their privilege and entitlement. Even when they elect “their man” who comes into office with “red meat” speeches, still nothing changes.

Even in a system as different as that of Iran, we saw the moderate Khatami ejected from office in favor of Ahmadi-Nejad because there was very little that Khatami could do to change the established regime in Tehran. So the Persians went from a reformer to a reactionary. From the point of view of an ideal rational actor, this makes no sense at all, but from the point of view of emotionally-driven populism, it makes perfect sense. People seek change by one way, and when they fail be to satisfied, they seek change in another way.

Why do people seek change? Because the lives they have made for themselves within the accepted standards of society have proved to be dissatisfying. Populist movements consist of people who followed the rules of society, or believed that they were following the rules of society, but the rewards that were believed to follow from following the rules either failed to materialize or, upon attaining these rewards, they were felt to be inadequate compensation for the trouble incurred in their attainment.

There should be no mystery or misunderstanding as to the nature of such discontent, as it figures prominently in American literature. The character of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof delivers himself to this choice piece of inauthenticity:

“Big Daddy wanted me to become a lawyer. I did. He said get married. I did. He said have kids. I did. He said live in Memphis. I did. Whatever he said to do, I did.”

This is the perennial complaint of the privileged and the entitled, left and right alike: I did everything the way I was supposed to, so why am I still so unhappy with my life? Why do I have so little to show for my efforts?

This is precisely why Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and this is precisely why Francis Bacon said, “Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.”

If you fail in the most basic existential due diligence in life, no matter whatever else you do with your life, it’s always going to come up short.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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