DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

4. Freedom and responsibility

As being-in-the-world, we are already engaged in a shared life-world that gives us a prior sense of what is possible, and we find ourselves with choices in our past that carry weight in determining how we can act in the future. This is our ‘facticity’, and it makes up what is just ‘given’ in our lives. However, existentialists regard facticity as only one aspect of human existence, for they hold that humans always have the ability to transcend their given situation by taking a stand on their own lives. As ‘transcendence’ we are always taking over our situations and making something of them through our choices. This ability to transcend our facticity means that we have free will. Our choices are free in the sense that (1) no outside factors determine our will, (2) in any particular case we could have acted otherwise than we did, and (3) we are therefore responsible for our choices in a way that justifies moral praise and blame (see Free will). (Nietzsche is inclined to reject the third sense because of its role in imposing feelings of guilt on people, but in other respects he seems to be committed to believing in human freedom.)

The existentialist belief in human freedom is based on a phenomenological description of our everyday lives. In confronting situations where I must make a choice, I find myself facing an open range of possible courses of action where nothing compels me to choose one course of action over the others. Even in cases where I am not aware of making choices, a moment’s reflection shows that I am in fact deciding my own life. Suppose that I show up for work faithfully each day, and I believe that I am compelled to do this because I need to make money to support my family. Does this mean that I am forced to do what I do? An existentialist like Sartre would say that it is self-deception to think I am compelled to be a conscientious worker, for I could always walk away from it all and join a monastery or turn to a life of crime. If I am choosing to let considerations of duty or money be deciding factors for me in this way, then this is my choice. What this suggests is that even in my habitual and seemingly ‘automatic’ actions I am actually assuming a particular identity for myself through my own free choices, and am therefore responsible for what I do.

Sartre tries to capture this idea by saying that humans are ‘condemned to be free’. Because our being is ‘in question’ for us, we are always taking it over and giving it some concrete shape through our actions. And this means that, whether we are aware of it or not, in continuing to act in familiar ways we are constantly renewing our decisions at every moment, for we could always change our ways of living through some radical self-transformation. Moreover, since all criteria or standards for evaluating our actions are also freely chosen, in our actions we are also deciding what sorts of reasons are going to guide our actions. With no higher tribunal for evaluating reasons for acting, we are entirely responsible for what we do: we have ‘no excuses behind us nor justifications before us’.

Existentialists generally hold that we are not only responsible for the direction our own lives take, but also for the way the world around us appears. This idea has its roots in Kant’s view that the reality we experience is partly shaped by the constituting activity of our own minds, though existentialists differ from Kant in holding that our construction of reality depends on our own choices (see Kant, I. §5). Kierkegaard, for example, contends that one’s sense of reality is determined by the ‘sphere of existence’ in which one lives, so that the person who lives the life of a pleasure-loving aesthete will experience a world that is quite different from that of the duty-bound follower of the ethical. Similarly, Nietzsche holds that reality is accessible to us only through some ‘perspective’ or other, that there is no way to get in touch with reality as it is in itself, independent of any point of view or framework of interpretation.

Sartre works out an especially strong version of this Kantian outlook by developing the theory of constitution in Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl held that the world we experience is constituted through the meaning-giving activity of consciousness. Sartre takes this account of constitution to mean that, because I shape the world around me through my meaning-giving activity, I am ultimately responsible for the way the world presents itself to me in my experience. Thus if I have had some painful experiences as a child, it is up to me to decide what these mean to me. I can use them as an excuse for going through life feeling cheated, or regard them as challenges that will make me stronger. Sartre’s point is not that there are no constraints on the ways I interpret my situation, but that constraints and obstacles gain their meaning from me, and since there are indefinitely many possible meanings any situation can have, there is no way to identify any supposedly ‘hard’ facts that could be said to compel me to see things one way rather than another. But this means, according to Sartre, that in choosing my interpretation of myself, I simultaneously choose the world. It is our own freely chosen projects that determine how reality is to be carved up and how things are to count. Sartre even goes so far as to say that, if a war breaks out around me, then I am responsible for that war, because it is up to me to decide what the war is going to mean to me in my life.

Other existentialists have tried to formulate a more tempered conception of freedom. Kierkegaard argues that, because being human involves both necessity and possibility, the extreme sort of ‘anything-goes’ freedom (such as that later envisaged by Sartre) would lead to the ‘despair of lack of necessity’. Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty work towards a notion of ‘situated freedom’ according to which choice is always embedded in and dependent upon the meaningful choices disclosed by a specific social and historical situation. Beauvoir tries to show how institutions and social practices can cut off the choices open to women and oppressed groups. Finally, Nietzsche calls attention to the way biological and historical factors operate ‘behind our backs,’ influencing our decisions without our awareness. But even when such limitations are recognized, the belief that we can rise above our situations to be ‘creators’ remains fundamental to existentialist thought.

Citing this article:
Guignon, Charles B.. Freedom and responsibility. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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