Monday, June 20, 2011

Mauvaise Foi

I am not an existentialist. At least I keep telling myself that; it's funny how often I find myself invoking some of the concepts at the fuzzy edges of my own "air-tight" thought-world. If I am, I am certainly Keirkegaard and not Sartre; I do believe there is a God, a transcendent signifier on which we can (and "should") ultimately hang all meaning, rather than all of it being self-enclosed constructions of value based purely on what we choose to value.

However, for a variety of reasons, I have been thinking about Sartre today. Specifically his concept of mauvaise foi or "bad faith," really the one existentialist "sin" (for he would reject such a notion otherwise, of course) in opposition to the one pseudo-virtue of authenticity.

As I said at the start, I am no existentialist, nor have I read more than selections from Sartre. But the description of the concept that has been disseminated is relatively standardized. It's funny, one wonders sometimes why these philosophers feel the need to write huge tomes on their concepts which other people, then, seem able to sum-up in a fairly consistent manner in just a few paragraphs.

One of the major themes emphasized in existentialism is, of course, the inherent anguish involved in free will. The common example given is how people are troubled when walking along a cliff by the knowledge that, at any moment, they could choose to throw themselves down to their deaths. And we could. An authentic person recognizes this terrible responsibility.

One of the premises of this sort of existentialism is that "existence precedes essence" meaning, basically, humans fundamentally are free subjects and so are not mechanistically determined in our actions by a "nature" in the manner that say, an apple or a lamp is, or even an animal (whom existentialists would apparently agree are just "organic robots," as it were, driven by instinct and circumstance in a deterministic manner).

But humans are not objects at the mercy of their nature physically interacting with material circumstances, humans always have more than one option regarding what to do, what to become, even when some options are not possible due to our facticity (for example, I could not choose to fly right now because I don't have wings). We may not choose the choices circumstances present to us or the options available to us in those situations, but we do make the choice when the situation is presented, and there is always more than one option.

To deal with the angst or anguish of this terrible responsibility of freedom to which we are doomed, Sartre proposes that many people use the defensive tactic of bad faith. Bad faith involves the paradoxical choice to deny one's own power to choose. For example, one might hear a shy boy looking admiringly at a boisterous peer acting spontaneously and say, "Oh, I could never do that, I'd be too embarrassed" or some such excuse.

The truth is, there are no physical limitations on his ability to do the exact same thing. He is choosing to value the avoidance of embarrassment over his wistful longing for the spontaneity. In itself, this can still be perfectly authentic as long as he owns that choice and admits it to himself. Though I think there is a tendency for people to be less likely to admit to themselves that they are choosing to value mere pleasure or pain-avoidance over more noble possibilities.

As such, many take the bad faith approach the shy boy did here: they objectify themselves and deny their own freedom by acting as if they are bound by a value whose precedence is undeniable and, as it were, imposed externally. The boy has alienated his own freedom and objectified himself by treating his decision to value avoiding embarrassment over acting spontaneously as something deterministic, as simply part of some nature of the self that has been imposed on him in an unchosen manner.

One sees examples of this all the time, I think. "I can't do that, I'd be too afraid," "I can't do that, it isn't me," "I cannot risk my life, because I must support my family," "I can't decide right now, I'd be plagued by doubt or what-ifs without more information," "I can't live right by the Church, I'm divorced and remarried," "I could never steal, that's immoral."

The truth is, all of these can'ts and could-nevers are lies and self-deception. Any of these choices could be made, and it is in bad faith to deny that a choice is already being made, in these very statements or decisions, to value avoiding the bad consequence over the good that would also result. Yes, we could throw ourselves off the cliff. Every moment of every day we are, essentially, choosing not to kill ourselves (and to not do many other things). But this is terrifying. If it all depends on a constant application of free will, and not some sort of stable essence or nature acting deterministically, then there is a terrible responsibility on us. Then, if we do fear an idea, the idea that we could nevertheless someday choose it...can be dreadful.

Even if 99% of the time we choose to stick to our chosen existential "project" and, say, value life...if we slip up even 1% of the time (and freedom always can on a whim!) we might go on a shooting spree and kill everyone! The thought is dreadful, and people prefer to essentialize or objectify themselves in such a manner that such a choice is simply "impossible."

Sartre was suspicious of external systems of morality for this reason. He believed that in choosing to follow a pre-made moral code, people were projecting their own responsibility onto the code. "I have to act this way, my values or morals require it" hides or denies the fact that we ultimately choose the values or moral code we will follow. Of course, I would counter personally, one can admit this and still choose a pre-made system. In fact, according to Kierkegaard, this is what we should do vis a vis Christianity; follow it even while admitting it is a free leap and not something imposed.

I'd argue that the Catholic epistemology surrounding Faith would actually agree with this; we choose to cooperate with the grace of supernatural Faith when offered, or to value the motives of credibility that can be offered by natural Reason, but there is always this element of choice, we never are compelled to believe as if it were intuitive like a syllogism. And though Faith provides infallible certainty, we could also choose to throw it away at any moment in favor of some other good. Of course, the opposite is true too: no circumstances ever force someone to act immorally. If someone is holding a gun to our heads, we cannot claim we were "forced" to do something. We could have just as easily accepted getting shot.

Finally, today, my mind returns to the second of the two classic examples often cited from Sartre of bad faith. A woman is on a date, and the man takes her hand, or rests it on her leg under the table or something like that. She pretends to ignore it or not to notice, she does not rebuke the advance, but she does not reciprocate either, they do not discuss it but continue their dinner conversation. By taking this passive approach and pretending it represents the "default" non-choice, the woman is objectifying her hand or leg as simply an object in the world whose "natural" state is just the inertia of the status quo.

But of course, the "choice not to choose" is no such thing, that's a paradox. To remain passive and pretending as if nothing has changed is just as much a choice as to withdraw her hand, or to discuss it with the man, or to make a move herself. Unless she admits to herself "I'm actively choosing to just leave it there and say and do nothing. I enjoy the affection, but am choosing to value the avoidance of the negatives that would accompany either confrontation or further escalation over the positives that might also accompany them," she is shirking her own responsibility.

I am not sure any of this is necessarily incompatible with the Catholic Faith if one takes a more Kierkegaardian stance that there is in fact an absolute value in the universe that will naturally fulfill us, that there is a final and ultimate good (in the Beatific Vision) which the will chooses infallibly, not because it has been made unfree, but because the very nature of the will is to choose the Good. And while on earth there are many, as it were, fragments or reflections of the good and thus so many to choose between, the actual object is The Good itself. But since The Good Itself is not available to our intellect in this life, before Heaven, we do have to make an existential leap to choose goods in conformity with the abstract notion of such a transcendence good and happiness, to choose to value that unseen value out of all the various alternatives available.

As such, I could see a big difference between a Catholic who "owns" his choice to be Catholic and adopt that moral code, and one who, in bad faith, convinces himself that he "must" as if this is an external compulsion. Even the threat of Hell does not compel us, even if it were known with infused certainty, as we would still be choosing to value the absence of that pain over whatever good sin could offer us, and indeed we do this all the time.

But, still, I'm not an existentialist. Maybe.

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