There are many factors that determine whether you are leading a meaningful life. One factor is freedom of choice. According to the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, our free choices are not just choices about what to do, but also freedom of the mind.
Even if you are imprisoned, you are free to choose what to think and how to look at your situation. Sartre didn’t hold that we can make any choice we would like. Our unique situation, which includes our biology and the world that surrounds us, constrain the choices available to us. We cannot choose our parents, where we are born, which gender is assigned to us at birth, which language we first learn to speak, or our genes. I cannot choose to become the legendary The New York Times book reviewer and Pulitzer Prize winner Michiko Kakutani or senior senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts. Nor can I choose to become as fast a sprinter as American Olympic athlete Carmelita Jeter, whose personal best time is 10.64 seconds in the 100-meter dash.
But within the boundaries of our biology and the world around us, we are free to make our own choices. Our human nature can make us inclined to make one choice rather than another but we can often choose to act against our human nature. Suppose you are terribly shy and lack self-esteem. You really like this girl at your high school called Sarah. You are both in your senior year, but she just arrived at your school, so you don’t know her that well. But you are pretty certain that she likes you back, because last time you guys chatted after school, she told you that she thought you were cute. You said the same to her. One afternoon where the two of you are chatting after school, Sarah asks what your plans are for the weekend. You answer matter-of-factly that you don’t really have anything planned yet. She says the same. Yet you never summon up the courage to ask her out on a date, and apparently she isn’t going to ask you. You continue to chatting after school, almost every day. But by the end of your senior year she has given up on you. She tells you that she is going out with Casey, another senior, and that it’s getting serious. They don’t even have to part ways after graduation, as they both got into Dartmouth with full scholarship. You realize it’s over for you. You didn’t get into Dartmouth, and your parents want you to go to Florida International University, because in-state tuition at a public school is so much cheaper than at the private colleges in the Northeast, where you got accepted but without a scholarship. You are sad and angry. Not at Sarah. Not at yourself. You are angry because you think it’s unfair that Casey gets your girl because she is outgoing and you are shy.
But this line of thought is flawed, on Sartre’s view. Your shyness is not an agent, so it is meaningless to blame it for anything. Moreover, your failure to do something you want to do is not at all like the automatic knee kick and bounce-back when the doctor hits that little sweet-spot below the kneecap with her tiny rubber hammer. You cannot choose to block the automatic knee kick in response to the doctor’s reflex hammer. But you could have casually asked your crush: “Do you want to do something on Saturday?” You could have chosen. She might have turned you down. But your choice to follow your heart would nonetheless still have been the right one. By choosing not to overcome your shyness, you have become responsible for the outcome and must live with that burden.
This is why Sartre said that we are condemned to be free. We pay for our freedom by carrying the burden of responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our choices. We are not responsible for all the consequences that flow from our choices, only the foreseeable ones. If you are rear-ended by a car on your way to work, you might think with regret “if only I had left five minutes later.” But because you could not have foreseen that the car accident, you bear no responsibility this outcome.
The free choices we make on our life’s journey make us who we are as individuals. This existentialist thought is encapsulated in the catchphrase “existence precedes essence,” coined by the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. “Existence” here refers to our free choices that make us who we are, and “essence” refers the human nature that we inherit from our biological parents or develop during childhood when we are still dependent on caregivers.
The existentialist slogan “Existence precedes essence” tells us that the human nature we are born with doesn’t make us who we are. The choices we make that are truly our own are what Sartre calls “authentic.” An authentic choice is one that is truly your own when it’s not determined by doing what everyone else does or choosing what someone else tells you to choose. Suppose your spouse gets seriously ill. You leave his bedside only when you have to relieve yourself in the bathroom. Your spouse lies in the hospital bed in a feverish coma for several weeks. Hope has waned. But then his condition finally improves. When he wakes up from his coma, he asks you whether you have been sitting there by his side the whole time. You nod somberly, replying: “I sure did. It was the morally right thing to do, even though it wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Your spouse is moved to tears. Not tears of joy. Tears of shock and horror. If your choice to sit by your sick spouse’s bedside is driven by a sense of moral obligation rather than what you want to do, your choice is inauthentic.
It is only when you live authentically that your life has any meaning. When you make choices that are not your own, you are acting in bad faith. In Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, published two years after Being and Nothingness, the protagonist Daniel is bothered by the fact that others see him as a sentimental person, partly because he is very fond of his cats. He wants to prove to himself that the bullies are wrong. To do so, he decides to drown his cats in the river. But when he reaches the river, he realizes that he cannot bring himself to do it (pp. 81-91). Sartre likens choices that go against one’s core values, to “cheques without funds to meet them” (p. 86). Daniel’s choice was made in bad faith because it was choice determined by what the bullies wanted him to become, not what he wanted. Daniel choice to abandon his plan to drown his beloved cat is the right choice because it is authentic.
~Berit “Brit” Brogaard is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at University of Miami. She is a contributor to Psychology Today and the author of Transient Truths (Oxford University Press, 2012), On Romantic Love (Oxford University Press, 2015), The Superhuman Mind (Penguin, 2015) and Seeing & Saying (Oxford University Press, 2018).