Jean Paul Sartre: The Concept of Bad Faith and its Role in Ethical Analysis

bad_faithBad faith (mauvais foi) is essentially inauthenticity for Jean Paul Sartre. He thinks of bad faith as an attempt to evade the responsibility of discovering and understanding one’s authentic self. Bad faith is thereby an attempt to escape the freedom that Sartre believes is an inherent feature of our lives.  When Sartre says, “Consciousness is what it is not and is not what it is,” he means that consciousness is something that is a constantly integrated combination of facticity and transcendence which                                                                        can be taken to mean the past and future                                                                                      respectively.

In the section discussing the patterns of bad faith in Being and Nothing, Sartre notes that, “The basic concept which is thus engendered, utilizes the double property of the human being, who is at once a facticity and a transcendence, These two aspects of human reality are and ought to be capable of a valid coordination. But bad faith does not wish either to coordinate them nor to surmount them in a synthesis.” It is thereby imperative to understand these two dimensions of human consciousness to understand bad faith.

Facticity represents all the concrete realities (or the “givens”) of an individual. For instance, a person’s actions in the past, their childhood, their height, their school and so on represent aspects of the person’s facticity.  It can be abstractly understood as a person’s past as his past is essentially a totality of all of the concrete occurrences that happened to him. Transcendence is a conscious individual’s ability to transcend or surpass the immediate situation (that represents facticity).  So transcendence can be abstractly be taken to represent the future.

One can escape bad faith if one’s notions of facticity and transcendence are coordinated validly. An authentic individual will thereby understand that these two dimensions need to co-exist.  Bad faith thereby occurs when an individual doesn’t recognize the combined value of these two dimensions of consciousness. So there is a self-deception involved regarding one of these two dimensions that paves the way for bad faith. There are two ways by which one can have bad faith.

The first way is through the affirmation of one’s facticity and the denial of one’s transcendence. Sartre provides two examples to explain this form of bad faith.

In the first example Sartre describes a waiter in a café. He observes, “let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step a little too quick. His voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. He gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. The waiter in the cafe plays with his condition in order to realize it.” As Sartre points out, the waiter plays his role the way an actor plays a role in a performance. This is a clear example of the denial of transcendence as the waiter tries to completely commit himself to the role that he is playing.  The idea of being more than this role would completely elude him.

In the second example, Sartre describes a woman on a date with a man. The man through his words and actions very unambiguously is looking to flirt with the woman. As Sartre notes, “She knows very well the intentions which the man who is speaking to her cherishes regarding her.” She must know that she has to make a decision regarding the man’s advances eventually. However as “she does not quite know what she wants”, she chooses to “restrict(s) his behavior to the present” and thereby denies the future implications of the man’s flirtation. When the man finally takes her hand she is presented with two choices. The first is to leave her hand in his, encouraging his flirtatious advances and the second is to pull her hand back rejecting his flirtatious advances. However the woman’s “aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible” and so she ends up leaving her hand there without noticing that she is leaving it there. By refusing to confront the obvious implications of her act she is clearly exhibiting a denial of transcendence and the affirmation of facticity.

The second way to arrive at bad faith is through the affirmation of one’s transcendence and the denial of one’s facticity. Sartre provides an example involving a homosexual man to explain this form of bad faith. The homosexual man acknowledges his sexual preference for men in the past. In Sartre’s words, “Here is assuredly a man in bad faith who borders on the comic since, acknowledging all the facts which are imputed to him, he refuses to draw from them the conclusion which they impose.” So he denies his homosexuality. Even if this man has a new homosexual experience he would refer to it as an “exception” or a “difference” and would immediately assert that this “mistake” was in the past. He likes to believe that he is “perpetually born anew” and wishes to “avoid the terrible judgment of collectivity.”  So by refusing to accept his homosexual nature, the man is clearly denying his facticity and is in bad faith.

For Sartre freedom is inherent to human beings.  However this freedom comes with a set of responsibilities. So this absolute and complete freedom becomes a burden for human beings. Bad faith thereby helps a human being reject responsibility and artificially deny his freedom or deceive himself about the idea of his freedom. This is probably why Sartre refer to bad faith as an “immediate permanent threat to every project of the human being.”

I think that the concept of bad faith can be very useful in ethical analysis. For me ethical analysis is essentially solving conflicts or approaching situations with the “ethical” objective of ensuring the long term preservation of human beings as a species.  In my opinion our understanding of the ethical must be rooted in this immortal, fundamental and absolute objective.  As we are all members of environmental, social and economic frameworks, the aim of any ethical analogy should be to understand how to preserve these frameworks in order to ensure the long term preservation of our species. In the modern world it is very evident that a majority of individuals like to deny their responsibility to themselves and consequently to their society and natural environment due to some form of bad faith. For instance, human beings continue in self-destructive paths of environmental, economic and social destruction due to various forms of bad faith.

For instance, we have approximately accelerated the natural species extinction rate by a factor of 1000 (with some estimates even reaching as high as 10000).  Other man induced destructive phenomenon such as global warming continue to seriously threaten our survival. Economic inequality has increased substantially over the decades threatening social and economic stability. Inclusive, collective and sustainable economic growth is a necessary but absent reality. The list of unfortunate realities can go on. Fundamentally the idea that self-preservation is only possible through collective preservation is simply not acknowledged by the unthinking majority. The problem seems to be that most of us believe that there is nothing we can do to alter these detrimental realities. Or that some of us deny these realities and their implications. So both forms of bad faith seem to plaguing the human race. It seems to me that we can only arrive at the right answers in any ethical analogy if we fundamentally embrace our freedom (the capacity to choose at every point with a balanced approach to facticity and transcendence) and then question the status quo.

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