As individuals and social beings, we desire the freedom to think, choose and act according to our own point of view, conscience or moral code. Is personal autonomy a universal human right, or does it depend on social, cultural, legal and institutional precepts and moral codes? Does it apply to children, the elderly, those deemed ‘ mentally unfit’ and in other situations where expert opinion weighs in to decide what is best? Most individuals have been in situations where there are barriers to self-expression or dissent with the prevailing opinion. One must not look far for a recent example. After the end of World War II, many soldiers revealed to the world that they were horrified by their own actions, but there was nothing they could do. They were duty-bound to follow orders and fight for their country. It was not their choice, as it was required of them by their superiors. Such situations are repeated on a smaller scale anytime there exist power imbalances or challenging situations where there is not a positive solution, but whereas some would say the individual is not culpable, others would argue that they are indeed responsible for everything they have done and everything they will ever do.
In relatively ‘normal’ situations, in our private and personal lives, do we freely choose who we are and what we do? According to the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, this freedom is the chief characteristic of the human condition. Sartre rejects any idea that we, or our actions, are determined by forces outside our control; biology, biography, personality or situation cannot be called upon as excuses or explanations for our actions: “there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom.” Here, we have a very different understanding of human nature or the human condition from that put forward by Freud. Indeed, Sartre rejects emphatically one of the corner-stones of Freudian psychoanalysis, the unconscious, arguing that, on some level, we exercise choice regarding the material that is repressed out of conscious awareness. Thus, the unconscious cannot be called upon as an excuse for our actions or behavior. This stance disavows the possibility that our choices may sometimes result from unconscious wishes or fears, early influences, learned behaviors, or the subtle dictates of the superego as defined by Freud. The impact of past experiences or ideologically conditioned assumptions in the cultural and moral realms, do not, according to Sartre, dissipate our autonomy and our responsibility for our choices, decisions, and behaviors. Anyone who tries to explain away his or her behavior is living in what Sartre calls “bad faith,” and is hiding and shirking from true human existence. One must always choose. Whether or not they take responsibility for their actions determines whether they live in “bad faith” or not.
Is Sartre’s conception of human freedom compatible with our personal experience of life? Is it extreme in its demands and its responsibilities? Does it remain a theory or can we actually live up to it? In opposition to Sartre’s conception is the contemporary philosopher Susan Wolf, who insists that freedom and responsibility are conditional on sanity: ‘In order to be responsible, an agent must be sane.’ This assertion leads Wolf to explore the complexities and ambiguities pertaining to individual responsibility, culpability, and autonomy. Her admission that ‘it is not ordinarily in our power to determine whether we are or are not sane’ raises other questions relating to the power and ‘expertise’ of others when it comes to judgment and diagnose.
Sartre’s conception of human freedom and responsibility raises important questions regarding the human experience. It provides an interesting and perhaps an extreme perspective on perennial philosophical issues that are pertinent and significant beyond the particularities of time and space: Who am I? How am I to live? Sartre’s exploration of the nature of truth and knowledge and particularly self-knowledge and understanding is limited and debatable, but may provide a starting-point for a more comprehensive and on-going investigation into the nature of human beings and more generally the human experience.
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