Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sartre the Womanizer (I): Habit, Character, and Self-Deception

I hope in an upcoming post to throw out some thoughts about the relation between a philosopher’s life and thought, and in what ways we might reasonably connect the two. For now, I want to take Sartre as a test case. Recently, I watched a BBC documentary about him. These documentaries have, by their popular nature, a tendency to reduce thought to a mere response to particular life circumstances. In Sartre’s case, however, something interesting happened: the documentary stressed transcendence. Thus, while attributing Sartre’s rather extreme views on human relationships to his experience of being ugly, the documentary also emphasized his freedom in his attempt to work out a coherent political project through both his interest in Marxism and his later repudiation of it. But it was the brief discussion of Sartre’s tendency to sleep around that struck me. Olivier Todd recounted the following story (which, apparently, he has recounted quite frequently, both in conversation and in writing):

I remember asking Sartre, “how do you manage with all these women in your life?” And he would say, “well, I lie to them,” with this gesture of his arm. And I then said, “To all of them?” “Yes, to all of them.” “Even to Beaver?” “Especially to Beaver!”

This is interesting for any number of reasons; in the present context, because it does not strike me as a particularly strange thing for Sartre to say given his views of freedom. Unlike some features of a thinker’s biography, which may indeed be largely irrelevant to philosophy, this one seems to me to be a great example of the Sartrean notion of freedom in practice. Taking it as a sort of philosophical experiment, we can find here a kind of reductio of absolute freedom. Let’s work out a line in the form of an imaginary continuation of the dialogue:

T: How can you justify lying to all of them?
S: I can lie or not lie. What matters is that I choose to lie or not to lie, and that I make that choice in full awareness of the dreadful burden of my freedom.
Given the various positions laid out in “The Flies” (Orestes’ justification for murdering his mother and the king), Being and Nothingness, and “Existentialism is a Humanism” (especially the discussion of Flaubert), I think this is rather close to what Sartre would say. I am guessing, really, that this was how he rationalized his womanizing to himself. But there are two obvious difficulties here. The first has to do with the character of the liar and the problem of habit. The second (which will be the topic of my next post) having to do with the freedom of others.

A tradition stretching from Aristotle to van Inwagen is rather firm on the way habituation works: by choosing to lie, I take upon myself not only the responsibility for this choice, but also for the future consequences it has on my character, which every vicious choice corrupts. Sartre might have little patience for such views, since it is always possible for us to transcend the corruptions of our character. To think that my choices shape my character in ways that determine my future choices is to fall into bad faith, to take myself as facticity rather than transcendence. But this is a typical flaw in Sartre: the stark contrast between facticity and transcendence tends to miss the grey area between the voluntary and the involuntary (a flaw emphasized by Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur). In his obsession with our ability to transcend our facticity, Sartre misses the phenomenological features of character such as temptation, rationalization, and, in general, everything that falls under the Kantian rubric of radical evil: having a capacity to be free is no guarantee that we will fully exercise that freedom. Our choices shape who we are and, because (as Sartre admits) self-deception is inevitable, our choices can strengthen that self-deception and undermine our exercise of freedom. It is precisely for this reason, one might say, that an ethic based on freedom must pay careful attention to that which—with or without our consent—undermines that freedom.

That we are free—in the Sartrean sense—does not, in other words, mean that all ethical determinations are ones we freely choose. We can see why by looking at two points. (1) First, Sartre does think that our radical freedom implies that we have a certain kind of obligation toward fostering that freedom—that is, there is an imperative to make decisions in the recognition of our freedom. (2) Sartre would reject the claim that lying is essentially a vicious act—if I freely choose to lie and freely commit myself to this choice, I affirm it as an ethical act. The problem, as I have tried to point out, is that contra (2), lying (despite being warranted in some circumstances) is vicious in its essence precisely because it undermines our ability to act in the full recognition of our freedom (1). Because we are beings capable of self-deception, and so beings that do not always act in full recognition of our freedom, we have an obligation—insofar as recognition of freedom is demanded of us—to avoid freely choosing whatever undermines this recognition. If the exercise of our freedom in full awareness is a value demanded of us by our freedom, then other hierarchies of value necessarily spring from it. Freely choosing lying is an unethical act precisely because—even if chosen in the recognition of our freedom and with the proper assumption of responsibility—it is an act that undermines our freedom.


  1. Because Sartre was a habitual liar he succumbed to his own facticity? Would he have been more Sartrean had he chosen to tell the truth to women once in a while? Well, you're saying that he shouldn't have ever lied at all. I just wonder if that's his only way out.

  2. Hi Yak (may I call you Fido?),

    Thanks for commenting. I'd love to hear what you think his way out might be.

    I'm saying mainly that Sartre doesn't pay enough attention to the role of habit in the transcendence/facticity dichotomy. There are, of course, good reasons to occasionally lie. But if you regularly put yourself into situations where lying seems appropriate, and you make yourself into a habitual liar, then you have undermined your ability to tell the truth.

    Of course you can reverse the point: if you make yourself into a habitual truth-teller, this undermines your ability to do something else (namely, to lie). And that, too, could be bad (I'm an awful liar and as a result tend to suck at games that require bluffing, for example.) So in a sense my criticism also depends on a certain ethical conception according to which being a habitual liar is worse than being a habitual truth teller (more in the next post).

    But one point now: lying is traditionally recognized as the result of human imperfection. One way of seeing this: we sometimes feel it necessary to lie because of the situations we find ourselves in. The suggestion I'd make (this isn't thought out, and I can already see dozens of problems with it) is that lying is more likely to be an action dictated by circumstances (by facticity) than truth-telling. And if that's right at all, then a committment to freedom would seem to require that we both try to avoid lying and that we try to avoid putting ourselves in situations where lying seems necessary. ("Oh what a tangled web we weave...")

  3. Yes, call me Fido, and I'll call you Roman.

    Are we talking about undermining Sartre's freedom, or his transcendence (just curious), or his ability to tell the truth? Is his freedom undermined only because his ability to tell the truth is undermined, or could we conclude from your counterpoint that freedom would also be undermined by an inability to lie? That is, is it the habit or the lying that's doing the undermining? From your counterpoint, it seems like we might be talking about habit, although your interest in self-deception and lying suggests that lying itself must also undermine Sartre's freedom, as you said in your initial post. However if lying only undermines Sartre's freedom in the form of a habit of lying, then the out I see for Sartre is for him to not fall into the habit of lying, which isn't the same thing as always telling the truth (or vice versa). To be true to his idea of freedom he would have to be in the habit of not forming habits. That sounds preposterous and more than a little inhuman. And apparently Sartre did have a habit of lying, so maybe it's neither here nor there.

    I look forward to your argument about why habitual lying is worse than habitual truth telling. Hope this hasn't been too much of a distraction.

  4. Hi Fido,

    Distractions are good. That's what the blog is for, among other things.

    As I understand it, for Sartre we always act freely. Our freedom rests on the interaction between facticity (what is not up to us) and transcendence (what is up to us). Regardless of what our facticity is, we can always transcend it because, as reflexive consciousness, we can imbue the facts with a meaning of our choosing so that the facts cannot determine how we act on them. While we always act freely, then, we do not always act in good faith (i.e., in full recognition of our freedom) and sometimes think that our actions really are necessitated by the facts. This is bad faith, or self-deception.

    Now you're right: Sartre could try to take up the habit of not forming habits. But, as you say, this is a bit preposterous. It is preposterous because habits are tricky things: they are not really voluntary. We form habits more or less automatically, and breaking a habit, while it can be done, usually requires not a pure act of transcendence, but rather the formation of counter-habits.

    The tricky thing about habits, then, is that they create a messy bridge between facticity and transcendence. In a sense they are just facts about ourselves that, in theory, we can always overcome. But in practice, habits are deeply ingrained and they influence--in ways often unseen to us--the ways in which we act and the ways in which we choose to act. I may think, for example, that I am making a completely free choice to lie, when in reality I am just following a pattern of lying, a habit which has made lying so easy and natural to me that the choice to lie is largely automatic.

    So to get back to your question about what I am talking about undermining. First, I want to undermine the sharp distinction between facticity and transcendence--habit complicates the picture by establishing an influence from one to the other. Second, I want to suggest that lying--if it becomes habitual, which can happen in unnoticed ways--undermines the ability to tell the truth; because lying becomes second-nature, it is an overly easy option to take in certain concrete situations. And this, in turn, impacts on our ability to act in good faith, since it conceals the bad faith involved in taking the easy way out.

    This is just a tenuous prequel to a longer term project, but what I'm shooting for is something like a second-order theory of self-deception, the extent to which we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are not deceiving ourselves, and the role of semi-voluntary features like habit or addiction.

  5. Pardon my ignorance but what and where is the "third kingdom"?

    Is there any room for the Queen of Heaven in your "kingdom"?

    Which king? Whose king?

    And how are you going to end thought anyway. In some sense every philosopher has struggled with this quest-ion. And not a single one has ever done it.

    Wittgenstein may have come close to the "edge"---but even then the "edge" always goes on forever.

    Isnt the essential purpose of all philosophy an attempt to come to terms with the over-whelming fact of death, or put in another way, to account for the seeming and presumed sense of separation---of me being separate from everything "else".

    The first bit of philosophy I ever really took any notice of was George Harrison's question/statement: "We were talking of the space between us"

    And Bob Dylan's "Something is happening and you dont know what it is, do you Mr Jones"

  6. Very late into the mix, don't exactly respect a response, but I thought an important theme to the development of Sartre's thought was the role of the other as an objectifier. I believe he claimed that sexual desire stemmed from the need to ameliorate this feeling of being objectified. From this understanding, perhaps sleeping with as many women has he did was really his little way of taking the edge off. And accordingly, maybe sleeping around isn't so complicit to his intellectual thought after all.

  7. Uh, yeah, I'm pretty sure that many people who sleep around think of it as their little way of taking the edge off. No particularly complex "phenomenological ontology" is needed for that... My point, though, was more about the lying than the sleeping around. And of course claiming that the latter necessitated the former would kinda beg the bad faith question...

  8. “I'm saying mainly that Sartre doesn't pay enough attention to the role of habit in the transcendence/facticity dichotomy. There are, of course, good reasons to occasionally lie. But if you regularly put yourself into situations where lying seems appropriate, and you make yourself into a habitual liar, then you have undermined your ability to tell the truth.”
    I think with your attention to habit, you’ve equated the ‘lying of Sartre’ with what Sartre calls ‘the genius of Proust’. The finite manifestations of lying reveals the essence of a liar. But as I think Sartre would have said, this essence of a liar is nowhere to be found: there are only individual manifestations of lying.
    Now as you say that there are of course good reasons to lie, I think to Sartre there is only one reason to lie, which is for the sake of freedom. Thus each lie that Sartre commits should be viewed as an individual incident, a hypothetical imperative if you will (to borrow from Kant). Sartre commits the action of lying for the purpose of realizing his freedom. Within this lens one can see that Sartre is not a liar per se, but when encountered with a particular situation, he lies for the purpose of realizing his freedom. Is he a liar? Is lying attached to his character? To affirm this would be to neglect the fact that Sartre or any person is confronted with particular situations and must choose his freedom in light of those particulars he is presented with.

  9. Oops. I keep missing the comments on this post. Here's what I want to say: sure, each act of lying can be seen as a completely individual act of freedom without a "liar essence" behind it. This is where the point about habit comes in: if I find myself constantly lying, the claim that each act of lying is an individual act of freedom starts to look very much like bad faith. Thinking of yourself as burdened with a factical essence you cannot transcend may well be bad faith; but refusing to recognize a habitual pattern of behavior for what it is is also bad faith. That is, thinking of myself as pure freedom capable of transcending my facticity is one thing; thinking of myself as de facto acting freely in everything I do is likewise problematic.

    Habit falls somewhere between facticity and transcendence, undermining the sharp distinction between them. It is not unchangeable, like facticity, but neither does it allow for effortless transcendence. Genuine freedom encounters resistance. This resistance is habit.

  10. Benjamin here,
    Insightful take, although I'm not sure I can quite put my finger on the point here. When you say that "refusing to recognize a habitual pattern of behavior for what it is is also bad faith", I'm not sure what type of recognition is being refused. I presume you didn't mean that the habitual pattern reveals the essence of a liar as we would then be falling into the trap of facticity. Do you then mean that Sartre does not recognize in a statistical sense that he exhibits a pattern of lying? If this is Sartre's refusal of recognition that you wish to point out, I can't quite see why it is problematic.

    To be more clear, I guess, you said that thinking of one's self as de facto acting freely in everything s/he does is problematic, but I don't see why this is. If someone tells the truth 95% of the time and lies only 5% of the time, should that person not be allowed to think that s/he is acting freely the 95% of the time s/he tells the truth? To me, that is quite a pattern of truth telling, but I wouldn't call it a problematic habit nor would I be skeptical of the freeness of the acts accompanying the pattern. But maybe you meant something different?