ABSTRACT

If it is the case that whatever I do I do freely—more, that I choose freely even my inner evaluative acts, and my attitudes—how can freedom and unfreedom at the same time provide a criterion for the ethical judgement of my behaviour? In the framework of traditional Graeco-Scholastic rationalism, the answer would turn on the distinction between two meanings of ‘freedom’: (a) free-will, the natural ‘faculty’ ascribed to man qua man, and (b) the freedom of rational self-control and self-determination as opposed to brute impulsiveness or ‘slavery to passion’ or ‘sensuality’; a distinctive quality of freedom proper only to the ‘virtuous’ man. Whatever the inherent defects and the possible relative merits of such a conception, the existentialists deviate from it in that they insist on the groundlessness of free choice and reject its interpretation in terms of rationality and prudence, let alone of conformance to specific codes representing a general guarantee or basis of a minimum of rational and prudent conduct. (Nor do they recognize the presupposition of such types of ethics: namely, ‘happiness’ as the universal and invariable ‘final end’ of man, not itself dependent on his free choice.) Yet, in a wider sense, something remains or returns, under the existentialist dispensation, of the distinction between the everpresent and ineluctable fact of free-will and the differential quality of freedom as a (highly exigent, perhaps unattainable) standard of conduct. It might indeed be suggested, though not without reserve, that existentialism inverts the rationalist-utilitarian schema of valuations. In its view, man’s true freedom resides, not in his emancipation through reason from the dominance of his primal spontaneity but on the contrary, in the sustained manifestation of that primal freedom of pure indeterminacy as against its doctoring and stifling, its suppression and falsification, by the misguided demand of normative rationality. But, to state the necessary reservations, on the one hand rational conduct is not so much bad in itself as pointless because it is necessarily ungenuine, the alleged rational grounds being no more than an artificial sham which the agent thinks up so as to dodge the inexorable hardship of freedom; on 124the other hand, original freedom is not the mere natural spontaneity of sensuous urges or biological wants but the vertiginous abyss of conscious existence as such, the claim upon man of Naught—which constitutes his core and essence—to create himself out of Naught.