Sartre - Bad Faith and Fallenness (Existentialist Themes)

Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought

Themes and Ideas

Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of existentialist philosophy focused upon the radical freedom that faces every human being. In the absence of any fixed human nature or absolute, external standards, we must all become responsible for whatever choices we make. Sartre recognized, however, that such freedom was too much for people to always handle. A common response, he argued, was to use their freedom to deny the existence of freedom — a tactic he called Bad Faith (mauvaise foi).

When Sartre used the phrase “bad faith,” it was to refer to any self-deception which denied the existence of human freedom. According to Sartre, bad faith occurs when someone tries to rationalize our existence or actions through religion, science, or some other belief system which imposes meaning or coherence on human existence.

Bad faith in an attempt to avoid the angst which accompanies the realization that our existence has no coherence except for what we ourselves create. Thus, bad faith comes from within us and is itself a choice — a way that a person uses their freedom to avoid dealing with the consequences of that freedom because of the radial responsibility that those consequences entail.

To explain how bad faith operates Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness about a woman who is faced with the choice of whether to go out on a date with an amorous suitor. In considering this choice, the woman knows that she will face more choices later on because she is quite aware of the man’s intentions and desires.

The need for choices is then heightened when, later, the man puts his hand on hers and caresses it. She can leave her hand there and thereby encourage further advances, knowing full well where they might lead. On the other hand, she can take her hand away, discouraging his advances and perhaps discouraging him from ever asking her out again.

Both choices entail consequences which she must take responsibility for.

In some cases, however, a person will try to avoid taking responsibility by trying to avoid making conscious choices altogether. The woman might treat her hand as merely an object, rather than an extension of her will, and pretend that there is no choice in leaving it. Perhaps she cites uncontrollable passion on her part, perhaps she cites the presence of peer pressure that forces her to comply, or perhaps she merely pretends not to notice the man’s actions. Whatever the case, she acts as though she is not making any choices and hence has no responsibility for the consequences. That, according to Sartre, means acting and living in bad faith.

The Problem with Bad Faith

The reason why bad faith is a problem is that it allows us to escape responsibility for our moral choices by treating humanity as the passive object of larger, organized forces — human nature, the Will of God, emotional passions, social pressures, etc. Sartre argued that we all act to shape our destiny and as such, we need to accept and deal with the awesome responsibility this imposes upon us.

Sartre’s conception of bad faith is closely related to Heidegger’s idea of “fallenness.” According to Heidegger, we all have a tendency to allow ourselves to become lost in present concerns, a consequence of which is that we become alienated from ourselves and our actions.

We come to see ourselves as if from the outside, and it seems as though we don’t make choices in our lives but instead are simply swept along by the circumstances of the moment.

Critical to Heidegger’s conception of fallenness are gossip, curiosity, and ambiguity — words which are related to their traditional meanings but he nevertheless used in specialized ways. The term gossip is used to denote all those shallow conversations in which one simply repeats accepted “wisdom,” reiterates cliches, and otherwise fails to communicate anything of importance. Gossip, according to Heidegger, is a means of avoiding authentic conversation or learning by focusing on the present at the expense of possible futures. Curiosity is the insatiable drive to learn something about the present for no other reason than that it is “new.”

Curiosity drives us to seek out momentary pursuits that in no way help us in the project of becoming, but they do serve to distract us from the present and from having to deal substantively with our lives and choices.

Ambiguity, finally, is the consequence of a person who has given up on trying to actualize their choices and make the most of any commitment which might lead to a more authentic self. Where there is ambiguity in a person’s life, there is a lack of real comprehension and purpose — no direction that a person is trying to move in for the sake of an authentic life.

A fallen person for Heidegger is not someone who has fallen into sin in the traditional Christian sense, but rather but a person who has given up on creating themselves and creating an authentic existence out of the circumstances they find themselves. They allow themselves to be distracted by the moment, they only repeat what they are told, and they are alienated from the production of value and meaning. In short, they have so fallen into “bad faith” that they no longer recognize or acknowledge their freedom.