Sartre on Freedom – 07/03/2016

Most philosophies can be found in books in university libraries, or in the heads of philosophers, but not far beyond. At least not in any explicit form. How many of your friends are self-identified metaphysical materialists? Or conceptual relativists? Or moral realists? Not that many, is my guess. Philosophies like these, whatever their merit, tend to be perceived as dry, academic business. Many people just rather spend their weekends drinking wine in a bar than reading up on metaphysics, and who can blame them?

But once in a while, a philosophy suddenly catches on and becomes fashionable. This was certainly the case with existentialism in the years around WWII in Paris. Jazz bars were full of self-proclaimed existentialists in black turtleneck jumpers, who smoked heavy tobacco while they discussed nothingness, anxiety and sex. And the appeal of existentialist philosophy hasn’t worn off. Particularly young, politically engaged people tend to be attracted by its emphasis on freedom and responsibility, or find themselves in the idea of existential anxiety and the meaninglessness of life. And as with most fashions, for some the imagery of sex, tobacco and turtlenecks may have been sufficient to jump on the bandwagon. This article, that appeared in the Guardian recently, lists ten reasons to become an existentialist.

Part of the appeal of existentialism, no doubt, is the fact that it makes immediate appeal to one’s attitude. It invites you to take responsibility for your life. You can read a lot of metaphysics without really being affected by it – your life won’t change if you read today that reality consist of ideas – but it is impossible to read existentialism and not feel addressed.

In an earlier class, we discussed whether it is possible for us to have a free will if we live in a world that is determined by causation. Sartre’s answer to this question is a wholehearted ‘yes’. Whilst it is true that our current position is determined by our history, our environment, our stimuli, our biology and other contingent facts, which Sartre calls our ‘facticity’, we are not reducible to these contingent facts. What defines our human existence is the fact that we transcend our facticity. So much so, that we are always living in a moment of choice. We are, as it were, doomed to make choices. There is no escape.

Imagine you walk home in the dark, after a boozy night in a Parisian jazz club. You’re tired and your turtleneck smells of tobacco. But then you are interrupted by a woman with a gun. She points the gun at you and demands: “your money or your life!” Many (philosophers and non-philosophers alike) would argue that, if you did indeed give her your money, you should not be held responsible for it, since you didn’t really have a choice. Technically, you have a choice between two alternatives: your money or your life, but realistically, you can’t be expected to give up your life, so that option is not a real option. Hence, you are forced to give your money, and you are not responsible for doing so.

Sartre would disagree. According to Sartre, the gunwoman situation is unfortunate, but there is nothing about it that affects your freedom. You are as free as ever, even if you’re held at gun point. The decision to give your money to the gunwoman is still your decision, a choice you make. Therefore, you are responsible for giving your money to the gunwoman.

This reveals a controversial point in Sartre’s philosophy. There is a glaring problem with holding the victim of a gunwoman responsible. It seems not only a merciless case of blaming the victim, but it also seems to fail to explain what oppression really means, and how oppression curbs someone’s freedom.

But in a more charitable reading, Sartre is not out to blame any victims. His idea of freedom is not designed to make the victim of the gunwoman feel guilty or embarrassed about giving his money to an armed robber. Sartre can very well concede that giving his money was probably, given the circumstances, the best choice to make. But it was a real choice all the same. Sartre stresses this, because he contends that the victim would be better off, particularly given the pickle he’s in, to have at least his humanity acknowledged. And his humanity transcends his particular situation. He is still a free human, whatever armed robbers do to him. Read in this way, it is a real consolation.

But is it really a consolation? Sartre observes that the tendency to deny ourselves this freedom is widespread. We often deflect our responsibility by blaming our facticity (our circumstances, other people’s expectations, our habits or other factors), thus explaining ourselves as not really having made a choice. Sartre calls this ‘bad faith’: an existential condition whereby we try to make ourselves less human by deflecting the responsibility for our lives. A life lived in bad faith is, in Sartre’s eyes, a life with less meaning. We give meaning to our lives, for ourselves, by taking responsibility for it. That allows us to say: the life I live may not be perfect, but it is truly mine.

Sartre does understand why people suffer from this existential condition of bad faith. When we are faced with the radical freedom we have, when we realise we can’t hide behind our facticity, when we realise we are by nature doomed to make choices, all the time, then we are overcome by a great anxiety. An anxiety grounded in the realisation that life has no meaning other than that given by the choices we make, for which we are solely responsible. Without making choices, we are nothing. This anxiety in the face of our own nothingness explains why we are drawn to bad faith. Sartre’s aim is to make us look nothingness square in the eye, so we can give meaning to our lives and avoid living a meaningless life.


There are lots of resources, books and blogs about Sartre and other existentialists. This episode of Philosophy Bites is but one.


Hannah Arendt – The Banality of Evil 22/02/2026

Few topics are as delightful to discuss over a cuppa on your ordinary Monday evening as evil. Pure, horrible, terrifying evil. Can’t wait.

Here’s a thought to ruin your night’s sleep: did you think that for evil to be done, you need an extraordinary kind of person, or extraordinary circumstances? A really wicked kind of person, who takes delight in cruelty? Or if not a cruel person, then at least extreme circumstances that force one to choose between two evils? Not so, says Hannah Arendt. She contends that evil is very banal. If you don’t pay attention, if you don’t think or resist, if you just do your job, if you just do what is expected of you, you might be doing horrible evil right now. Evil is not some extraordinary thing, Arendt argues, evil is “terrifyingly normal”.

Arendt attended the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. She was a journalist at the time. Eichmann was a Nazi who designed the time tables for the logistic operation to and from concentration and extermination camps. He was very good at this job, and thanks to his effort, the killing of millions of Jews happened efficiently. Eichmann, thus, made a major contribution to one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.

But in court, his defenses were all cliches: he was just doing his job, he was just obeying orders, he was just doing what was expected of him, he was just trying to do his job well. And it’s true: Eichmann never saw any prisoners, he just shifted some papers on his desk and made some phone calls to ensure the trains were all running on time. It’s not that he didn’t know that these trains were full of Jews and that they were going to their final destination, but he never thought about it very deeply. He never paused to think whether something horrible might be going on, and whether he might be bearing some responsibility for these atrocities.

Arendt was puzzled by Eichmann. She had read Immanuel Kant, who explained evil in terms of weak or corrupted will: humans have a propensity to subordinate moral law to self-interest, and that’s when evil is done. But Arendt was not satisfied by this explanation. It explained neither the horror nor the scale of such evils as the Holocaust. And it failed to explain Eichmann’s evil in particular. Eichmann was just an ordinary man, not a monster. His motives were commonplace. He had no deep or wicked desire to exterminate a group of people, he just wanted to do his job well.

Thus, Arendt concludes, Eichmann was just an ordinary man, doing evil. Evil is as banal as Eichmann’s motives. Yet, she doesn’t let him off the hook, because it is his thoughtlessness that makes him culpable, according to Arendt. He should have paused to think about what was going on, what he was doing, and what his role and responsibility was.

The banality of evil is disturbing. If ordinary people can so easily be lead to do evil, then who guarantees us that you and I aren’t a cog in some evil machine right now? This disturbing thought is illustrated quite starkly by experiments like the Milgram experiment, in which 26 out of 40 subjects were willing to administer a fatal electric shock to an innocent individual simply because an authority told them to.

The Stoic Way of Life – 25/01/2016

The Stoics are a group of philosophers ranging from Zeno of Citium (344-262 BCE) in Cyprus to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180). Other famous Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca and Cicero, but there were many more. Their philosophy covers various domains, including ethics, logic, and cosmology, and academic philosophers may or may not agree with the Stoics on these points. However, even when they disagree, many philosophers today admire the Stoics for one thing: they viewed philosophy not as merely an academic discipline, but as a way of life. The point of doing philosophy was to become a wise person: a sage.

And who doesn’t want to be wise?

I know I do. And I must admit, Stoic philosophy rubs off on you. In stressful times, it sounds very appealing! Last year, I was preparing a lecture on the Stoics for philosophy students at university. So I had read a chapter on their famous advice to exercise not having any emotions. If you think about it, the Stoics argue, any negative emotions are irrational: if you have control over the circumstances that cause a negative emotion, then you can fix it, and if you don’t have control over the circumstances, then there’s no point in worrying about it anyway.
So on my way to the lecture hall I met a colleague, who was winding himself up over the failing IT systems we were having to work with at university. He used many expletives to explain how frustrating it all was. Then he said: “Marthe, you seem unaffected by any of this.” I answered: “Oh, that’s because I’m lecturing about the Stoics today.” He said: “I can tell! You are very Stoical!”

When people say that someone responded very “Stoically” or “philosophically” to a particular situation, they often mean that this person remained calm, didn’t show signs of emotional distress and was able to preserve enough emotional detachment to be able to think clearly. A “Stoical” person remains emotionally unaffected when misfortune strikes. I think the stereotype many people think of when they think about a wise philosopher is someone like that: someone who can remain calm and reasonable when others might flip.
Today, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – a therapy designed to help people ‘train’ their thoughts so they might suffer less from anxiety – owes very much to Stoic philosophy.

But where does this idea come from? And what is the argument with which the Stoics support this idea? That is what we’ll discuss in this class.


There is a very good podcast about philosophy, with interviews with experts about almost every topic within philosophy you can think of, all made very understandable for those who have no background in philosophy: Philosophy Bites. This Philosophy Bites podcast is about living Stoically, with philosopher William B. Irvine, who aims to live Stoically.

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Bonnie and Clyde – 18/01/2016

Imagine the following scenario:

You, Bonnie, and your associate Clyde, have robbed a bank. You have been arrested and locked up in separate cells, unable to communicate with each other. After a while, the sheriff enters your cell to interrogate you. When it becomes clear that you are not going to confess, the sheriff admits that he has enough evidence to get both of you convicted for possession of the illegal substances he found in your car, but not enough evidence to get either of you convicted for armed robbery. So he offers you the following deal, and informs you that he will offer Clyde the same deal:

1. If you confess and rat on Clyde, but Clyde remains silent, your account will be enough to lock Clyde up for 10 years. In return for this favour, you get your freedom.
2. If you confess and rat on Clyde, and Clyde also confesses and rats on you, both of you get a prison sentence of 7 years.
3. If you remain silent, but Clyde rats on you, you will face 10 years in prison, whilst Clyde goes free.
4. If you both remain silent, all the sheriff has is the illegal substance, which will land both of you a prison sentence of two years.

Then he leaves you to consider your options.

It is immediately clear that the best thing to do for you and Clyde is to remain silent.



But then you start to doubt. Although you love Clyde, you are not willing to sacrifice 10 years of your life for him. Knowing him, you suspect that he won’t do that for you, either! What’s more, you don’t trust him one bit. Coming to think of it: he’s a self-interested bastard, and cunning too! You decide to take the option that will leave you with the shortest possible prison sentence, assuming that Clyde will do the same.

When the sheriff knocks on your cell door, will you rat or remain silent? How long will each of you spend in prison?

And whatever you choose, what does that tell us about cooperation and rationality?