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:
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!”
T: How can you justify lying to all of them?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.
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.
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.