Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sartre's Ethics of the Oppressed

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sartre's Ethics of the Oppressed

Article excerpt

At the close of Being and Nothingness Sartre promises his readers that he will develop an ethical theory based upon the ontology elaborated in his first major work.1 While he never did so formally, the posthumously published Notebooks for an Ethics marks his first attempt to construct an ethical theory.2 Composed in 1947 and 1948 the Notebooks consists of a little over 500 pages of Sartre's notes on a range of topics. In this early text Sartre places the oppressed at the center of the possibility of a human ethics, stating that we "must be on the side of the oppressed."3 He argues that the initial motivation towards realizing a genuine human ethics lies solely within subjugated peoples because they are the ones to whom oppression is originally disclosed. Thus Sartre writes "the only human group in a position to conceive a human ethics is the oppressed."4 This commitment to the privileged moral insight of the oppressed is consistently maintained throughout Sartre's subsequent writings.

In agreement with Sartre, I aim to show that oppressors cannot initiate the realization of an ethical society and are, in fact, dependent upon the revolutionary actions of the oppressed. I will also explore the ontological conditions of oppression, with a primary focus upon the bond of complicity between the oppressed and oppressors which precludes the realization of a human ethic except under extraordinary conditions. Sartre situates the discussion of complicity in the context of slavery not only, I believe, because it is an elegantly simple model of oppression but also because contemporary conditions of oppression (specifically racial oppression in the United States) are simply an extension of such a slave society. Sartre's analysis of complicity reveals a key structure of oppression, which can give support to the struggle against the complexities of modern day oppression. The oppressed play a pivotal role in the possibility of achieving a human ethics and to understand this we must look towards both the ontological conditions which sustain oppression and the actions that promote its eradication.

While the Notebooks is dismissed, or underappreciated by many, including some Sartre scholars, I believe that this incomplete work merits attention for several reasons. Firstly, the Notebooks offers a glimpse into the development of Sartre's ethics in the movement from the individualistic ontology of Being and Nothingness to the social ontology of Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume One.5 secondly, it illustrates Sartre's attempt to rethink the relationship between ethics and politics, as he insists that ethics must address the concrete historical situation of oppressed peoples if it is to bring about concrete freedom. Finally, the phenomenological analysis of oppression undertaken in this work provides contemporary race theorists with fruitful insights. Sartre's phenomenology of oppression gives credence to the assertion that ethics is born within the oppressed.

From the Notebooks through the first volume of the Critique the primary goal of Sartrean ethics is the realization of concrete freedom for all human beings. As such, no human being can be considered free until all human beings are free. Sartre argues that freedom is the fundamental human value that must be pursued because it is the source of all other values. Many in the secondary literature question why Sartre posits that we must not only pursue our own freedom but the freedom of others as well. According to Thomas Anderson, "neither the Notebooks for an Ethics nor any other work of the period offers full-fledged arguments to prove that one should value others' freedoms along with his or her own."6 David Detmer questions "Sartre's justification for this freedom-ethic."7 In order to answer this question we need to consider briefly the arguments presented in the Notebooks in conjunction with "Existentialism is a Humanism."8

In this lecture delivered in the fall of 1945, Sartre defends existential atheism from its critics and tries to establish it as "an ethic of action and self-commitment. …

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