About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Are you pursuing your project?

Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, once said that “You are nothing but the sum of your acts.” He later softened this position of extreme personal responsibility, but his main point remains: as human beings we exercise choices throughout our lives, and it is these actions – not how we talk about them – that count in an ethical sense. According to Sartre – who didn't seek meaning in the supernatural – human life is about choosing and pursuing one's own project.

What does it mean to “have a project”? Sartre explains by means of elucidating what it means not to have one. Many of us, according to the French philosopher, behave in “bad faith,” by which he meant not that we lie to other people, but that we lie to ourselves. His example was that of the “waiter who is too much of a waiter,” that is someone who adopts a role in life and behaves according to a script that is not his own. Sartre wasn't making fun of waiters (as an assiduous patron of Paris' cafes that would simply not do), he was saying that denial of our freedom to choose and pursue our project is the most common subterfuge to avoid responsibility for our actions. The overly overly waiterly waiter is engaging in role-playing, an actor on the human stage, but he is not himself, he is being inauthentic.

Similarly, when someone says “I did it because I was following orders” (in Sartre's time this was the common excuse of the Nazi engaged in the Holocaust, today it is used by the American soldiers implicated in the Iraqi prison scandals) he is again using a scripted role to avoid moral responsibility. Of course, it was eventually pointed out to Sartre that this approach to personal responsibility is a bit too stern to provide a realistic picture of the human condition. After all, there are strong cultural and historical circumstances within which we find ourselves, and that are largely outside of our control. My project might have been to be a university professor all along, but had I been born in the second century in the middle of the Amazon basin, there simply wouldn't have been any university to speak of, and the very concept of academic pursuit would have been meaningless and alien to me (and to much of the rest of the world, for that matter).

That is why eventually Sartre modified his “we are what we do” to a more sensible “we are what we make of what others have made of us.” So, the waiter may still have to be a waiter for the time being, while – say – he saves money to go back to school, or to pursue his real project, whatever it may be. Analogously, the soldier can defy orders, but this may come with a high personal price to pay, which doesn't make it an automatic decision, and which muddles the ethical judgments we may make about it.

The beauty of Sartre's mature philosophy, then, is that it provides an example of mediation between personal and societal responsibility, all within an entirely secular view of life and morality. So, once again, have you thought lately about your project, and are you doing enough to pursue it?


  1. Wilhelm von Humboldt, writing around 1790, had this to say:

    "Whatever does not spring from a man's free choice - or is only the result of construction and guidance - does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. And if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is." (In "Limits of State Action")

    I like Humboldt's version better, but I must admit "too much a waiter" is very terse

  2. How does one distinguish between purposive, autonomous behavior and purposive but externally controlled behavior? When are we not in some sense controlled or changed by outside forces? What constitutes such a force?

  3. I think that, as rational animals, humans are a mix of Sartre's early and late statements. We are what we do, but because we exist in an historical context (evolutionarily, culturally, technologically), the estimate of our worth comes from the evaluation of both our volitional actions and the context in which those actions occur. Together these comprise the reality of our situation. And by 'volitional' I mean those actions which are capable of human control, not just those we are conscious of doing. A great many automated and/or subconscious actions fall under the purview of individual responsibility. A great many more than many people freely acknowledge.

  4. Katie said we exist in an historical context

    I agree and oddly was thinking about this on the way to work this morning. We have 'free will' but the options that we consider for any given act are influenced by evolution, society, family, etc. so that each option does not have an equal probability of being chosen by our 'free will.'

    We can chose the option that has the least probability if we want - the one that evolution and society says "no" to, that is our choice. But most people rarely do this (for good reason).

    Morality is a washout, it's all context dependent.

  5. "Me" said: Morality is a washout, it's all context dependent.

    Well, morality is another can of worms, worthy of many, many thoughtful posts. I will say, briefly, I disagree with you, because I don't think that context negates objective evaluations of morality; rather, to evaluate objectively, context must be retained. Blind strictures such as "Thou shalt not..." are not objective rules of morality, but in practice, they act as good rules of thumb. People want easy, plug-n-chug "rules" for being "good." There are rules, and goodness is possible, it's just not easy, because it requires constant, active, holistic use of one's rational faculty, which plugging n chugging conveniently skirt.

  6. Morality being context dependent? That is a good point. Is it? By that definition, it is to say that murder could somehow be moral. That sounds rediculous. But something like acceptance of nudity on T.V. could be moral depending on its context. So I would both agree and disagree. I guess it would depend on the context (just kidding). The definition of Morals would have to be decided first. If being moral is to follow the golden rule (if you don't like it then dont do it) then I would have to argue that context is not very important and morals could not change. If the definition of moral is some set of ideas of how people should act at some given point in history, then yes context will change what is moral.

  7. Katie said I don't think that context negates objective evaluations of morality; rather, to evaluate objectively, context must be retained.

    Exactly. Whether something is 'good' or not depends on the context. I agree with you. I wasn't saying context negates morality, but I was saying that because morality is context dependent it therefore negates the idea of an 'absolute, eternal, good-for-all-circumstances' code of ethics. Which you seem to agree with.

    As soon as someone tries to define what is good others think they can behave badly as long as they find a loop-hole in the wording of the ethical code.

    Just do the right thing. Simple.

  8. Incidentally, I do "believe" in a highly delimited set of maxims that in some ways I consider to be an "absolute, eternal, good-for-all-circumstances code of ethics". They are simply based on the aspects of context that do not and cannot change for humans. I figure it's good to build on a foundation you can count on :o).

  9. Have any of you guys read "The Science of Good and Evil", by Michael Shermer? I've just finished it a few weeks ago, and it's pretty interesting how he treats all this absolute x relative morality issue (among other things). I recommend the book - I think I have to read some parts again, at least.

    But regarding what you guys have been discussing, what he advocates is "provisional morality". Relative (anything goes, as long as you come up with the right scenario) and absolute won't do. Provisional, if I understood well, is what's right (or wrong) for most people most of the time. It is reasonably universal since it's the result of our evolution, history and culture. But it's also reasonably flexible - again due to our continuing historical and cultural "evolutions", but also due to our recognizing of the nuances of positions possible in different times/cultures/etc.

    I'm still struggling with the fine details of this (and therefore want to read the book again), but sounds like a good start.


  10. I've read it J,

    I like pretty much everything by Shermer and am an avid reader of Skeptic magazine.

    Personally, I think provisional morality is more than just a philosophy or an ideal way of looking at morality, I think it's the way people actually operate in the real world. From relativist to fundamentalist, we all have exceptions to what we believe to be right or wrong, we just find ways to justify those exceptions to fit the society we live in.

    I'm not sure if that is what Shermer is trying to convey, but I think it is what his veiw naturally leads to.


  11. Purposeful behavior. Moral Context. Free Will. You folks really MUST READ - Wegner's Illusion of Conscious Will.

    Now - let's consider Moral Context -
    Most people the world over wouold consider it morally reprehensible to kill your child. Is there ever a time when killing your infant child is the 'right' thing to do?

    Anyone want to make this a little more interactive? What is your answer? Choose carefully.


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