Ethical Individualism

Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought

Existentialist ethics is characterized by the emphasis on moral individualism. Rather than seeking a “highest good” that would be universal, existentialists have sought means for each individual to find the highest good for them, regardless of whether it might ever apply to anyone else at any other time.

A basic feature of moral philosophy throughout the history of Western philosophy has been the attempt to construct a moral system that allow people at all times and in all situations to be able to figure out what they should do morally and why.

Various philosophers have postulated some “higest moral good” that would be the same for everyone: pleasure, happiness, obedience to God, etc.

This, however, is incompatible with existentialist philosophy on two important levels. First, it is concerned with the development of a philosophical system and that is contrary to the most fundamental roots of existentialist philosophy. Systems are by their very nature abstract, generally failing to take into account the unique features of individual lives and individual situations. It was in reaction against this that existentialist philosophy has grown and defined itself, so is it only to be expected that existentialists would reject systems of ethics.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, existentialists have always focused upon the subjective, personal lives of individual human beings. There is no basic and given “human nature” that is common to all people, argue existentialists, and so each person must define what humanity means to them and what values or purpose will dominate in their lives.

An important consequence of this is that there can’t be any single set of moral standards that will apply to all people at all times. People must make their own commitments and be responsible for their own choices in the absence of universal standards to guide them — even Christian existentialists like Søren Kierkegaard have emphasized this.

If there are no objective moral standards or even any rational means for deciding upon moral standards, then there can be no ethical system that applies to all human beings at all times and in all situtions.

If Christian existentialists have accepted this consequence of basic existentialist principles, atheistic existentialists have pushed it much further. Friedrich Nietzsche, even though he probably would not have accepted the existentialist label for himself, is a prime example of this. A predominant theme in his works was the idea that the absence of God and belief in absolute standards means that we are all free to reevaluate our values, leading to the possibility of a new and “life-affirming” morality that could replace the traditional and “decrepit” Christian morality which continued to dominate European society.

None of this is to say, however, that one person’s ethical choices are made independently of other people’s ethical choices and situations. Because we are all necessarily part of social groups, all choices we make — ethical or otherwise — will have an impact upon others. While it may not be the case that people should base their ethical decisions on some “highest good,” it is the case that when they make choices they are responsible not only for the consequences to them, but also the consequences to others — including, at times, others’ choices to emulate those decisions.

What this means is that even though our choices cannot be constrained by any absolute standards that apply to all people, we should take into consideration the possibility that others will act in a manner similar to us. This is similar to Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which we should only choose those actions which we would have everyone else do in exactly the same situation as us. For existentialists this isn’t an external constraint, but it is a consideration.

Modern existentialists have continued to expand upon and develop these themes, exploring the ways in which a person in modern society might best manage to create values which would lead to a commitment to subjective moral standards and thereby allow them to live a truly authentic life free from bad faith or dishonesty.

There is no universal agreement on how such goals might be achieved.