Ethics For Libertarian Existentialism

My small treatise on Existential Contractualism contained a page on ethics but it referred to ethics in more of a political sense and not the complete view of how an individual should act -what most people refer to ethics as.

Existentialism is oftenly (and mistakenly) taken to be seen as a nihilist philosophy where anything is permissible. Perhaps it is because of novels like The Stranger where the main character, Mersault, shoots a man because the heat was bothering him, and then later reflects on it and is even satisfied that he did it. But anyone familiar with Camus’ other work would know that he does not condone this behavior. In fact Camus was an anarcho-pacifist (and syndicalist), striving for a world of peace and love. This essay here will layout an ethics of embodiment, a synthesis of virtue and Kantian ethics in the existentialist strand of Merleau Ponty

Kantianism Falls Short

As I’ve said, the existentialists do like Kant, see ethical decisions as universalizing and hold the same maxim of never treating others as means to an end. To recap, despite holding similar principles a categorical imperative can’t work under an existentialist paradigm because:

  1. There’s no justification to value the rest of humanity. One can’t just say “since I cannot deny that I act in order to overcome barriers in life, I must value the efforts of others to do the same”.  The consistency argument is how Sartre tried and failed to ground a moral theory, it assumes moral value in acting consistently with human reality but does not give any ground to do so. In other words, it runs into the is/ought problem
  2. Sartre in Existentialism is a humanism gives an account of a student who asks him whether to fight in the war and liberate the millions living under Nazi occupation or stay and care for the mother who nurtured and cared for him his whole life. Both are good things to do but Kant’s ethical formula gives us no help on what course of action to take.
  3. It looks at everything in abstract terms and thus fails to look at the circumstances of a situation. Kant prohibited lying no matter what. Say for instance, one were in a situation where he knew that telling the truth would result the death of an innocent man, according to Kants imperative you must tell the truth regardless. Obviously willingly participating in someone’s death cannot be morally good.

And one new thing I’d like to add is that it leaves out virtue. Although I did mention the necessity of having the virtue of prudence, that had more to do with the situationalist ethics of politics rather than personal ethics. So by virtue, I am referring to having virtue in one’s character like Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

While existentialism and Kantianism do come from the same idealist tree, existentialism is a lot closer to Aristotle when it comes to ethics. For one thing, the big hoopla every existentialist talks about is being an authentic individual. Kierkegaard for instance talks about the three moral stages an individual goes through, the second being the ethical described as “the universal, it applies to everyone and the same thing is expressed from another point of view by saying that it applies every instant” (p.107 Fear and Trembling). But Kierkegaard says there is a third stage that takes precedence before the ethical, our relationship with God. Fear and Trembling was written to demonstrate how to be an authentic Christian, not what me must do to be a Christian. As such, it is the “knight of faith” who is elevated the most by Kierkegaard

Nietzsche has his “ubermensch” and Camus has “Sisyphus”, but all these characters are authentic individuals. Existentialists are not concerned with duty, they strive to be authentic i.e., to be:

In touch with one’s inner self, knowing one’s self, having a sense of one’s own identity and then living in accord with one’s sense of one’s self is being authentic. To be authentic, people need to make themselves as they want to be. They must assert their will in the choices made when confronted by possibilities Being attuned to one’s own experiences rather than interpreting the world through institutionalized concepts and abstractions makes people authentic individuals.

Existentialism vs Classical Virtue Ethics

The ancient Greek philosophers like the Stoics and Aristotle argued that man had a “telos”, that is, man is an unfinished process working towards a goal. That goal being “eudemonia”,  having well-being. Achieving eudemonia wasn’t something we ought to do, rather it is something we naturally do. Aristotle example was an acorn growing into an oak tree, it’s something that is naturally meant to do, that’s its purpose, its essence. Mans essence is to be virtuous. Teleology is how well man fulfills his telos, man’s certain function is to have well being much like a machine works to produce what we want, its success is how it accomplishes what we expect it to do. So a machine can be a good machine if it functions to our expectations and man can be a good (virtuous) man if he does what is expected of him. Lastly, Aristotle would argue that “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit” (The Story of Philosophy, pg.87), that is we become virtuous by doing virtuous things repeatedly.

Merleau-Ponty comes to similar conclusions. He conceptualizes man’s existence in terms of the “lived-body” (the body as one lives it, their own body). Consciousness is a body-consciousness and the lived-body is an active, mobile body; intentionality becomes a motor-intentionality. Thus mans body is for them a “‘postural,’ or ‘corporeal schema’” (The Primacy of Perception, pg.117), a system of motor powers in which the knowing-body’s spontaneity presents itself as an “I can,” as an “I am able to.” This power to exist, the “project towards the world that we are” (Phenomenology of Perception, pg.405) describes ones most immediate awareness of them-self as a “tacit cogito” which is brought to expression and explicit awareness through language.

The self’s spontaneous interpretative abilities aren’t arbitrary but instead are teleologicaly motivated towards achieving equilibrium with the world. In and through motor-intentionality, the knowing-body seeks to deal with the world intelligibly and successfully. And it is this “practical wisdom” (as Aristotle called) which in “intentionality will be  the concept that would bring intelligibility both to bodily behavior observed physiologically and psychologically, and perception explored transcendentally” (Analecta Husserliana pg.83).

Now to say that we seek to exist in the world “successfully” reveals the goal of equilibrium because success here implies a certain balance with the world — an ability to cope with it. But the desideratum of equilibrium usually manifests itself in bodily motility when we lose the ability to orient ourselves. That is, when our anticipations are fulfilled, the equilibrium is maintained. It is the foundation of what we call “normal,” because the “norms” are the conditions which constitute the lived-body’s equilibrium balance with its social environment. But when the norms are not fulfilled, we become disoriented, and in disorientation the balance is broken.

For instance, a parent may develop habits in order to take care of his kids, such as: getting use to its cries, feeding it at certain times, entertaining it, etc. The parent is ethically incorporating his/her kid into the way they habitually occupy space, and the equilibrium that’s gained constitutes a valued existence. This means that knowing how to live in the world is habitual. Knowing how to ride a bicycle, use a typewriter, and play musical instruments all involve developing skilled habits for these respective instruments. Likewise, being an ethical person means, as Aristotle believed, is developing moral habits.

Man first exists, encounters himself and emerges in the world, to be defined
afterwards… It is man who conceives himself, who propels himself towards existence. Man becomes nothing other than what is actually done, not what he will want to be. (“Existentialism is A Humanism”)

But where the existentialists part from Aristotle is on the primacy of essence or existence. While Aristotle believed man had an inherent essence to fulfill, Sartre’s famous lines were that “existence precedes essence”. We have no predefined purpose set for us, there is no intrinsic meaning like the Aristotle argued.

‘Existence’ is the movement in which man is in the world and involves himself in the physical and social situation which then becomes the point of view of his world (Sense and Nonsense, pg. 72)

There is no one fixed human nature (or essence) instead it is always unfolding and malleable by numerous interpretations. Yet man is similar to other men, we see the world in very similar ways, and experience pleasures and pains in similar ways. Since mankind are similarly embodied beings, man can have a glance of the experience of other men’s pains and pleasures. Man does encounter “natural” impulses such as love, hate, greed, etc. but how these are framed linguistically and socially, and is open to a great variety. In short everything in humans is natural but at the same time is created, articulated, and socially framed.

The body is our general medium of having a world. Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conversation of life, and accordingly it posits us around a biological world; at other times elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to figurative meaning, it manifests itself through them  a core of new significance; this is true of motor habits such as dancing. Sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world (Phenomenology of Perception, pg.146)

Both Existentialism and Virtue Ethics can be said that they contend embodying a rational principle, rather than applying one as Kant did. But both Existentialism and Virtue Ethics have been criticized by deontologists for not having an “ought”. That is, we don’t have something transcendental or universal like Kants imperatives instead we are just appealing to our nature and this was the very same criticism levied against me by Jack on ifunny (@TheKeynesian). This was the case when I said in the comments of last essay on functionally objective morality:

Humans behave in a way that must be genetically and cognitively hard wired to feel as if they ought to behave in that way

This statement was said to be meaningless because 1) it’s only describing what humans intuitively feel, it doesn’t say anything normative. 2) there’s no justification for it to be considered truly good or how one ought to act. This is why Kantians (among other Deontologists) posit that there is a higher universal standard of goodness that we must adhere to. But I don’t find virtue ethics and Kantianism to be contradictory, in fact existentialist philosopher Christine Daigle argues that Ponty provides us with a synthesis of both and libertarian philosopher James Otteson posits that this synthesis gives a strong moral case for classical liberalism.


Christine Daigle finds that the conflict between Virtue Ethics and Kantianism lies in the role (if any) our bodily nature has in morality. She defines Ponty’s definition of embodiment as two things:

First, our bodily resources condition our perception, language, thought, and freedom; and second, that our body, in its actions and expressions, is itself meaningfully implicated in the world and is not merely the physical instrument of a separate mind. As a result, we are moved bodily by meaningful imperatives we encounter in the world. (Existentialist Thinkers, pg. 147)

Accordingly, she follows that since our bodily capacities, which are developed by our habits, inherently inform our perceptions then these capacities must also inform our own sense of freedom. One’s embodiment is their way of coming to reality  and through adopting new habits, it shows us what let’s us perceive new meanings and possibilities in the world. Developing habits is embodying a rational principle (practical wisdom); one views their situation intelligently. But Ponty goes further with this than Aristotle. He gives an example organist playing an unfamiliar organ; the organist needs a minute to get the hang of  it, he doesn’t act as if he was intellectually applying his knowledge of using organs or take up the amount of time that would require:

Are we to maintain that the organist analyses the organ, that he conjures up and retains a representation of the stops, pedals, and manuals and their relation to each other in space? But during the short rehearsal preceding the concert, he does not act like a person about to draw up a plan. He sits on his seat, works the pedals, pulls out the stops, gets the measure of the instrument within his body, incorporates within himself the relevant directions and dimensions, settles into a house… During the rehearsal, the stops, pedals and manuals are given to him as nothing more than possibilities of achieving certain emotional or musical values, and their positions are simply the places which this values appears to the world. (Phenomenology of Perception, pg.168)

To put it briefly, the organist is acting in a of perceiving, “a way of taking things up in terms of their musical abilities”. He is embodying the principles of music which means that by his habits, he has “a special attunement to the demands of this kind of situation, an insight into such situations, and that, correlatively  he is moved by the situation in a certain way.”

It is these kinds of people that know what the right thing to do is and act intelligently and appropriately are by virtue of embodying a rational principle moved by a situation to take it up in a certain way. Which leads us to point number 2, “knowledgeable people do not think about what to do but find the situation they are in setting out imperatives for them… and moving them bodily”. Knowing how to do the right thing in any given situation requires perceptual insight that finds directives in that same situation like how the musician develops a capacity to deal with new instruments by developing habits of instruments of those kind.

But these imperatives so far only seem to be functions of one’s personal projects. In order to know of an imperative that demands from us something beyond ourselves, first we must understand one’s interpersonal situation and their relation to others.

If one’s behavior and actions are answer to imperatives one experiences by their situation then they express a particular situation and the person’s being in it. They are expressions of how the world is seen by the person, how it moves them, and what imperatives they’ll find in the world. They are expressions of our being in the world:

If for instance, we are to respond to a situation defensively, this would not be a self-possessed and absolutely free choice. Our defensive response is, rather, an action summoned from us by the way the situation presents itself to us. It is insofar as we perceive in that situation a challenge to our place in the world and perceive it in the demand to defend ourselves that we take up the situation defensively (Existentialist Thinkers, pg. 152)

Albeit we do have some freedom in the expressions but it’s always conditional freedom. We have freedom to the extent that this expression is an active taking up of a situation. Since any situation is ambiguous, how we take it up helps determine its meaning and the person’s place in it. “Our actions are thus self-creations” because they contend over the nature of a situation and the position of the person and others in it. Situations that are not fully determinate has our actions realize a particular way of being and a certain meaning in the world.

However the imperatives or possibilities offered up by a [person’s] initial reception of a situation motivate, or condition, his or her free determining of its meaning. We cannot arbitrarily decide the meaning of the situation or of ourselves. We are, rather, moved by the still ambiguous ‘sens,’ or meaning, of the situation to take it up a certain way

Thus, though our acts are inherently self-expressive, they are not so in the sense of being determined by an inherent nature or personality type; nor are they self expressive in the sense of being unconditioned choices that create a certain ex nihilo. Rather, our actions are creative realizations of a way of configuring a situation that are motivated by ambiguous meanings already at work within our situations. (Ibid pg. 153)

And because our self expressive acts present a particular positioning of the self and institute a certain claim that these actions involve others. Actions meaningfully set up an entire situation and positions the self, the other, and the world in according to each other.

If, for example, one takes up an interpersonal situation defensively, such behavior sets out the other as hostile; and if dismissively, it sets out the other as inferior. (Ibid pg. 153)

The setup of the situation, therefore, cannot be merely a subjective intention but rather the persons embodied behavior “secretes” an interpersonal meaning. As such, others are included bodily, making imperatives for them to and “calling on them to take up the positions delineated for them.” The body is also an expressive power because it secretes in itself importance and projecting that onto its material surroundings and sharing it with other embodied subjects. The expressiveness of the bodies of others function us primarily in an unreflective way. Usually we don’t find the other’s as a perceptual object but instead we are taken by its meaning and orientated by it. One is motivated to deal with the others expressions in an appreciative way by taking up the position they lay out for us.

If they act warmly and respectfully towards us, we are called into solidarity with them and see the happy and harmonious dimensions of the situation. If they behave sadly, with dejection, then we typically feel an imperative to be consolatory with them and find ourselves looking for the “bright side”. We are unreflectively and immediately moved to confirm and endorse the others’ configuration of self-other-world to bring ourselves into unity with it. (Ibid pg. 154)

The problem with the motivation of others expressions is one’s own identity and place in the world. The expression of the other positions us in a particular way and demands our verification of this manner of being related to each other because it’s a claim about the truth of a shared situation.We are motivated to support this person’s delineation of the self-other-world.

The problem is that we may not be able to confirm the other’s delineation of self-other-world without alienating ourselves. If the other has delineated me as a hostile and he or she as needing to defend his or self, but I do not take myself to be hostile, I may feel compelled to resist the other’s configuration of the situation. Resisting constructively can be very difficult. For the other’s expression of the situation has already set constraints on who I can be. The other’s defensive behavior backs me into a corner and seriously constrains the possibilities for my own creative way of taking up the situation. I am compelled to answer the other’s configuration of the situation in some way, yet that is very difficult for me to do while remaining true to myself. (Ibid pg. 155)

Thus one’s behavior affects how someone else may behave and therefore one’s actions affects someone else’s freedom. Every action a person makes affects someone else in some way and when these actions demand an answer from others that contradicts who they are, these actions negate the freedom of others. But if these actions allow the possibilities for someone else to be expressively self-fulfilled and construct new routes of action, their freedom is being supported and promoted.

We can attain mutual freedom and creative self-expression, therefore, only through expressions that allow for mutual recognition (Ibid pg.155)

The Imperative of Others

Kant argues that when we reflect to our moral experience we find a transcendental principle of pure reason commanding us to fulfill a duty beyond us. Embodied ethics likewise says that when we look to our embodied experience with others, therein lies a principle that is both transcendental yet inherent our embodiment, that is the imperative of recognizing others and supporting their freedom.

To reiterate since one’s actions affects how others can self express themselves this implies that as embodied beings we are obligated to answer to others perspectives and have mutual recognition. Only by this can we achieve our own sense of identity, selfhood, and existence in the context of another who recognizes us. And that other can only do so if we recognize them and their freedom as well.

To be embodied… is to act in the world in a way that makes a claim about who I am, who others are, and what really matters in this world. Until another freely confirms or disconfirms my expression, however, I cannot ascertain whether my claims are realistic, whether I am who I take myself to be, or whether this situation and myself have a different meaning than I assumed. (Ibid pg. 156)

As paradoxically as it may sound, we embodied beings are both simultaneously subjects and objects, these two aspects of ourselves are inseparable from one another. We act in the world to self-actualize ourselves (our subjectivity) but at the same time to realize ourselves for others (objectivity). Our embodiment is inherent to us as humans so thereby making us incapable of being wholly outside of ourselves to know who we are to others; thus we don’t completely possess ourselves. How our actions impact others depends on how they receive ones actions, what meaning they can find in them. Consequentially we can only know ourselves in the world through others.

We need, however, not simply other’s confirmation but their free confirmation. Insofar as we need others recognition to settle our sense of identity, we are tempted to manipulate others into conforming us as we suppose ourselves to be… But we can never find satisfaction in confirmations born out of such manipulations. For in this case, if a confirmation is given, it has its source in us and not in the others free affirmation of us, and it therefore doesn’t count for us as a real and independent confirmation of our reality and identity. Thus, I need others to be free in order to become myself – to attain my own sense of reality, actualize myself, and experience my own reality and freedom in this shared world. (Ibid pg. 156)

It is our perception of reality – being meaningful and creative agents in the world- that we find our freedom and eudaimonia connected to those of other’s. Self-actualization cannot be attained without supporting others to do the same. Herein is the embodied experience that formulates our imperative, to condone the freedom of others as best we can.

But this imperative is not a hypothetical one i.e., it’s not an imperative that we promote others freedom solely so that we can attain our own. Hypothetical imperatives begin with the assumption that the self is acting autonomously of others and able to employ others for their own benefit. The embodied self that’s been described is only realized within a community of others who must ontologically depend on the free existence of each other. They find in others “not an instrument for his or her self but the fulfillment of his or her self and the possibility of a meaningful, shared world”. The nature of embodied beings is beings that are entangled in others who transcend us.

Embodied ethics is like virtue ethics insofar as it calls for us to develop our own excellence, fulfill our own nature, and become, through the development of good habits, people of integrity, people who embody a rational insight to the human condition. But this embodied ethics also acknowledges that morality is a matter of answering to something not just to our own selves but also to something beyond us: to others, who in their own self-realization , transcend us. (Ibid 158)

Embodied Ethics is a Classical Liberal Ethics

James Otteson Actual Ethics begins with the Kantian categorical imperative, which as demonstrated is akin to ours, and set outs synthesizing it with Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Otteson first explains that . Secondly he makes a distinction between “negative justice” and “positive virtue”. The latter he defines as “the actions and behaviors that one ought to engage in order to be a fully good person” and the former as “[the] minimal actions and behaviors one must refrain from for society to survive and social relations to exist”. Negative justice, from an existentialist point of view, derives from what I refer to as “functionally objective morals“.

If people in your society are assaulting, enslaving, or stealing,  from one another… then your society is not long for this world (Actual Ethics pg.22)

But Otteson argues that while positive virtue ought to be what every individual should attain to have, the government should not go about enforcing it and refrain itself to the sphere of negative justice. Otteson argument is that coercing individuals to perform virtuous acts is both arbitrary and would lead to a serious sacrifice of our privacy and freedom:

 The systematic substitution of the state’s judgement of what counts as the minimum allowable charity, compassion, or generosity for that each individual would lead … to a gradual decline in individuals own abilities to judge. [Adam] Smith says that a government charged with the vague goal of enforcing positive virtue would soon institute something like a society-wide ‘inquisition’, endeavoring to peer into the inner thoughts of people, asking neighbors to spy and give evidence on their neighbors, and so on. (Ibid pg.24)

His concept of negative justice also fits in perfectly to the jurisprudence of existential contractualism. He identifies it with Aristotle criterion that justice is empirical and pragmatic; it depends on historical norms, present day norms, and what works or in other words what allows human beings to “flourish” (eudemonia), and is understood to be transient and apprehended through empirical observation and pragmatic judgement.


Published by

Manu Belmonte

Senior Editor at The Credible Hulk Magazine and writer at my personal blog

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