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?
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?