For some reason, I find that a lot of atheists love existentialism as a philosophical branch. They flock to it, I think, seeking the destruction of universal moral claims. This is especially true, I think, of those people who are relatively (or perhaps entirely) unfamiliar with the real teachings of the existential thinkers (that means you, Holiday).
Existentialism does not destroy morality. It does not free you from duty, from guilt. It places more
duty and more
guilt on you than had you merely gone by the Moral Law (as universals).
The thing about the Moral Law is that it's universal. It applies to every man. As such, it's made up mostly of negative commands: "Thou shalt not...whatever." "Thou shalt not issue a lying promise." "Thou shalt not murder." "Thou shalt not kick small babies, even non-lethally."
Granted, there are positive moral duties which apply universally, such as the duty to give charity, to duty to develop one's talents, the duty to love God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and so forth and so on.
That said, it's possible (and almost definite to occur) that a man can follow all of the Moral Law and still run into gray areas. In fact, this happens every day for most, if not all of us. That's the thing about Universals. Universals are instantiated in a multitude of particulars in a variety of ways, and there are a number of ways in which one can act and still satisfy these Universals.
Herein lies the problem of Existentialism. By and large, the Moral Law is concerned with this question: "What ought I not to do?" Sometimes, it asks us: "What are my duties, generally speaking?"
Existentialists rightly understand that these questions are too vague. For example, in Essays in Existentialism
, Sartre points out that whether you follow Christ's command to love God and one another, or Kant's command never to treat a person as a means, but always an ends, there are times in which one is going to be placed in sort of an equipoise between two courses of action. He offers this example:
A man living in France during World War II considers going out to join the Free French forces, but in so doing, he must leave his widowed mother at home alone. If he leaves, he abandons his mother. If he stays, he lets down his country. That said, it isn't certain that, in going, he will help his country. Perhaps he'll be captured on the way, or perhaps he'll be stuck in some desk job. Should he go, or should he stay? Going solely by the Moral Law, going solely with Kant, or going solely with Christ's commands...well...he's stuck. It could go either way.
Existentialism, therefore, asks another question: "What ought I as a concrete existing individual
to do in these particular circumstances
People read the phrase "existence prcedes essence" in Sartre, or they read "God is dead" in Nietzsche, and they think: "Hoorah! Morality is gone." No. The burden of morality has never been heavier. I quote Nietzsche:
Draft of a Letter to Paul Ree (The Portable Nietzsche) wrote:
...She told me herself that she had no morality -- and I thought she had, like myself, a more severe morality than anybody.
The Existentialist philosophy is only Existential insofar as it offers us an existential imperative
(my phrase, I think), and each good Existential philosopher has his own.
Kierkegaard's entire philosophy turns around the idea of Christ as "The Absurd," which destroys any relationship we might have to Christ with our intellect, and places Him solely as the object of our will. Christ is God-man. "The Eternal Truth has existed in time." The Truth Itself is a paradox, and therefore our reason cannot approach it. The leap of faith is solely in the will, and when we will Jesus Christ, when we say "Christ is God-man," my willing arises solely from me, and from me alone. It is unique. This is Kierkegaard's existential imperative: "Act if and only if in acting your action arises from the God-man relationship. That is, act if and only if in acting you are acting in virtue of The Absurd."
For Nietzsche, there is only this world. Christianity is a lie. All
systems are lies. If for Kierkegaard truth is subjectivity (in the sense that the only truth worthwhile to me as a concrete existing individual is the truth "for which I can live and die"), then for Nietzsche there is no truth. There is only the individual and how he perceives the world. Therefore, since there is only this world, since there is nothing beyond the individual and how he relates to the world, that is where morality lies. "How am I to act now
?" This, therefore, is the origin of Nietzsche's existential imperative:
The Gay Science (The Portable Nietzsche) wrote:
The greatest stress. How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest lonliness and say to you, "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immesureably small or great in your life must return to you--all in the same succession and sequence--even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a dust grain of dust." Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, "You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly." If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, "Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?" would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress (Emphasis mine). Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
Nietzsche's imperative is this: "Act if and only if in acting you could will that you repeat action over and over again forever. That is, act if and only if in acting you could will that your action echo throughout all of eternity."
Jasper's imperative is a bit different. Basing himself on Kierkegaard, and to some degree in Nietzsche, his system bases itself on how we relate to the world and to what is beyond the world. He centers his system on the idea of "Openness" or "Transcendence." His imperative is basically this: "Act if and only if in acting the action brings you towards openness towards the Transcendent."
Heidegger isn't purely existential. He's very much a phenomenologist, but insofar as he is existential, he has an imperative. For Heidegger, almost as in Kierkegaard, the realization must dawn on each one of us: "I am going to die." Every moment I live, I live only insofar as I am moving towards the great undoing, my death. Furthermore, the very fact that I live now is a paradox. Why? I am responsible for my life...but I am not the origin of my life. I am responsible for a being of which I am not the cause. This, then, is Heidegger's imperative (so far as I can pluck one out): "Act if and only if in acting your action arises from a proper relationship towards your own death. That is, act if and only if in acting you fully realize: 'I am going to die.'"
Sartre says, quoting Nietzsche, "God is dead." Therefore, there is no a priori
good. Therefore, there is no a priori
standard for humanity. "Therefore I can act however I want," right? Wrong. Because there is no a priori
good, and because there is no a priori
standard for humanity, and because there is no God...I alone
am responsible for my actions, and not only my actions, but I am responsible for all of humanity. Because existence precedes essence, whenever I act, I am creating my essence, and not only my essence, but the essence of all humanity. This, therefore, is Sartre's imperative: "Act if and only if in acting you will that your action be offered up as an image for all of mankind. That is, act if and only if in acting you desire that all men do likewise." Are you acting in such a way that you want your action to be hidden? Then you're not just offending some abstract moral law. You are in bad faith
. Your action is inauthentic
For Levinas, life is social. The point of interaction is the Face, and the Face screams out "Thou shalt not kill!" The moment I come into interaction with another person, regardless of who that person is, I come into contact with the Face, and the Face calls me to care for that person. That care is primary. That care is non-reciprocal. That care is absolute. I cannot choose it. I cannot refuse it. I must care for the Other. This, therefore, is his existential imperative: "Act if and only if in acting the action arises out of care for the Other. That is, act if and only if in acting your concern is turned outwards."
So y'all thought that the Existentialists destroy morality? I disagree. What would have been acceptable behavior given the Moral Law now ceases to be acceptable given the Existential imperatives. The full weight of responsibility, the full weight of duty, the full weight of morality crushes you at every moment