Friday, October 26, 2007

Sartre the Womanizer (II): Lying, Ethics, and the Freedom of Others

Apologies for the long blogging hiatus. There was a cancellation of my internet access, followed by a traumatic return from Germany back to the land from which my accent (and spelling) originates, another conference paper, job applications, etc. But now I’m back—blogging is the best stress relief. In the last post I tried to sketch out a problem with a completely unlimited conception of freedom: particularly, that freedom tends to undermine itself. People who freely choose to lie and to put themselves into situations where they feel compelled to lie end up with a nasty habit of lying. Here I want to take up the ethical aspect of lying by looking at what lying has to do with the freedom of others.

Let’s try a continuation of the imaginary conversation with Sartre started in the last post. First, here’s an objection that could be raised to Sartre’s approach:

T: But doesn’t lying to people undermine their freedom, their ability to make decisions about their lives, by depriving them of somewhat crucial facts—in this instance—about their relationships?

If, as Sartre often insists, he is committed to the freedom of others, then this really does seem to be a problem for him. Of course there are really two senses of freedom in operation. First, there is the freedom that we all have at all times just by virtue of being for-itselves rather than in-itselves. It would not make much sense to be committed to the freedom of others in this sense, since every person is already, by definition, free in this sense (though one can be committed to the authentic exercise of freedom by others; more on this below). The other kind of freedom, which I will call voluntariness to distinguish it from the first kind, is freedom from external constraints. Some of these constraints are political, and removing those was an important project for Sartre. Other constraints are matters of knowledge, particularly of the circumstances relevant to one’s exercise of freedom in the first sense.

Recall that Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, includes certain kinds of ignorance in the list of circumstances that reduce an agent’s culpability and voluntariness. If I give my friend a piece of string without knowing that he plans to use it to make a detonator, then my action of aiding in a terrorist ploy can hardly be considered voluntary. In the rather extreme case where I am completely ignorant of all the circumstances relevant to understanding my actions—if, for example, I am in some delusional state—then none of my actions are voluntary. I may still be free, in the sense that facticity does not necessitate my actions, but my freedom is completely worthless since I have no genuine control over what I am doing; only an ability to originate my actions. Lying to others about circumstances relevant to their decisions obviously deprives them of knowledge they would need to maximize the voluntariness of their actions. Consequently, lying to others decreases the value of their freedom. This can hardly be a good thing.

But perhaps Sartre can deny that his lying has such dire consequences:

S: Their freedom is not undermined at all! They choose to believe my lies!

That is, when we lie, we lie to a person, a for-itself, who is free to take our words any way she sees fit. The responsibility for the decrease in the other’s freedom is thus conveniently transferred from the liar to the silly person who falls for the lie. This can happen in two different ways. First, the other person does not have to believe what the liar tells them. They can exercise a general skepticism about anything they are told. Or, perhaps, the women should pay more attention to how Sartre acts and less to what he says. If they simply accept his lies at face value, they are being naïve. The fault is entirely their own.

Second, they might recognize that Sartre is lying, but deceive themselves about this fact, pretending that the lie is true. When Sartre lies to a woman he is seeing with the goal of getting her to stay with him, doesn’t she simply choose to believe him because, even though he is lying, she really wants to stay with him and needs an excuse to do so? If she chooses to believe him, she does so in bad faith. The fault, again, is her own.

But clearly neither of these tactics gets the liar off the hook. The reason is simple: presumably, Sartre does not lie to women because he is pathological; he does it because he wants them to overlook his infidelities and trust in his commitment. A non-pathological lie—that is, a lie told in order to attain some goal—has its acceptance as part of that goal. One does not, normally, lie unless one intends the lie to be accepted. The other’s acceptance of the lie aids in the attainment of some goal. But this just means that the liar, in lying, is already committed to the other’s bad faith. The liar aims at a conflict—a war of freedoms. He pits his freedom against the freedom of the other, his authenticity against the other’s inauthenticity. (The exercise of one’s freedom against the freedom of others is brilliantly attacked in Camus’s Caligula, possibly his best work.)

Regardless, then, of whether Sartre intends that the women believe him because they are naïve or because they want to believe him, in lying he commits himself to their bad faith. One simply cannot systematically lie to others while claiming to be committed to their freedom—either the authenticity or the value of their exercise of freedom is undermined. The ethics of the liar cannot be an ethics of freedom—at most, it can be an ethics of personal freedom, but it assaults the freedom of others.

Taking this together with the last post, my suggestion is that there cannot be a Sartrean ethics of freedom. What Sartre’s major influences—Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger—all recognized is that freedom cannot be a freedom of indifference. A freedom without internal norms is self-defeating, because in various ways it undermines both one’s own freedom and that of others. My own feeling is that Sartre’s mistake lies in understanding freedom primarily with regard to the particular rather than the universal. That will have to wait for another post.

Addendum: Fido's comments raise a point that I should throw in with the post. It is a point about whether freedom can tolerate internal norms. I think it has to, though it cannot tolerate external norms. This ties in with a further question: Could Sartre simply bite the bullet and drop ethics altogether? It seems like it is possible to just say, "Well, okay, I must be committed to my own freedom, to my own authenticity, but not that of others. That would be nice, but it isn't necessary." But I don't think so. A commitment to freedom involves a commitment to everyone's freedom. This is an internal norm. If I did not have this commitment, then I would be placing a limit on freedom—I would be concerned with freedom only as limited by my own person. And this would be an external norm. In any case, though, even a truncated Sartrean account cannot do entirely without internal norms: our freedom commits us to acting in the full awareness of that freedom, i.e., to authenticity.

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