Bad Faith

Bad faith is a philosophical concept used by existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to describe the phenomenon where a human being under pressure from societal forces adopts false values and disowns his/her innate freedom to act authentically. It is closely related to the concepts of self-deception and ressentiment (an assignment of blame for one’s frustration).

A critical claim in existentialist thought is that individuals are always free to make choices and guide their lives towards their own chosen goal or ‘project.’ The claim holds that individuals cannot escape this freedom, even in overwhelming circumstances. For instance, even an empire’s colonized victims possess choices: to submit to rule, to negotiate, to act in complicity, to commit suicide, to resist nonviolently, or to counter-attack.

Although external circumstances may limit individuals (facticity), they cannot force a person to follow one of the remaining courses over another. In this sense the individual still has some freedom of choice. For this reason, individuals choose in anguish: they know that they must make a choice, and that it will have consequences. For Sartre, to claim that one among many conscious possibilities takes undeniable precedence (for instance, ‘I cannot risk my life, because I must support my family’) is to assume the role of an object in the world, not a free agent, but merely at the mercy of circumstance (a being-in-itself that is only its own facticity, i.e., it ‘is’ inside itself, and acts there as a limitation).

For Sartre this attitude is manifestly self-deceiving. As human consciousness, we are always aware that we are more than what we are aware of, so we are not whatever we are aware of. We cannot, in this sense, be defined as our ‘intentional objects’ of consciousness, including our restrictions imposed by (facticity) our personal history, character, bodies, or objective responsibility. Thus, as Sartre often repeated, ‘Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is.’ An example would be if one were now a doctor but wished and started to ‘transcend’ to become a pig farmer. One is what one is not (a pig farmer), not who one is (a doctor): it can only define itself negatively, as ‘what it is not’; but this negation is simultaneously the only positive definition it can make of ‘what it is.’

From this we are aware of a host of alternative reactions to our freedom to choose (an objective situation), since no situation can dictate a single response. Only in assuming social roles and value systems external to this nature as conscious beings can we pretend that these possibilities are denied to us; but this is itself a decision made possible by our freedom and our separation from these things. ‘Bad faith’ is the paradoxical free decision to deny to ourselves this inescapable freedom.

Sartre cites a café waiter, whose movements and conversation are a little too ‘waiter-esque.’ His voice oozes with an eagerness to please; he carries food rigidly and ostentatiously; ‘his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid.’ His exaggerated behavior illustrates that he is play acting as a waiter, as an object in the world: an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. But that he is obviously acting belies that he is aware that he is not (merely) a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself. Another of Sartre’s examples involves a young woman on a first date. She ignores the obvious sexual implications of her date’s compliments to her physical appearance, but accepts them instead as words directed at her as a human consciousness. As he takes her hand, she lets it rest indifferently in his, ‘neither consenting nor resisting – a thing’ – refusing either to return the gesture or to rebuke it.

Thus she delays the moment when she must choose either to acknowledge and reject his advances, or submit to them. She conveniently considers her hand only a thing in the world, and his compliments as unrelated to her body, playing on her dual human reality as a physical being, and as a consciousness separate and free from this physicality. Sartre tells us that by acting in bad faith, the waiter and the woman are denying their own freedom, but actively using this freedom itself. They manifestly know they are free but do not acknowledge it. Bad faith is paradoxical in this regard: when acting in bad faith, a person is both aware and, in a sense, unaware that they are free.

De Beauvoir described three main types of women acting in bad faith: the ‘Narcissist’ who denies her freedom by construing herself as a desirable object; the ‘Mystic,’ who invests her freedom in an absolute; and the ‘Woman in Love,’ who submerges her identity in that of her male object. She also considered what she called the ‘Serious Man,’ who subordinated himself to some outside cause, to be in bad faith in as much as he denies his own freedom.

Sartre tells us that the consciousness with which we generally consider our surroundings is different from our reflecting on this consciousness, i.e., the consciousness of ‘ourselves being conscious of these surroundings.’ The first kind of consciousness, before we think about, or reflect on, our previous consciousness, is called ‘pre-reflective.’ Reflecting on the pre-reflective consciousness is called ‘reflective consciousness.’ But this cannot be called unconsciousness, as Freud used the term. Sartre gives the example of running after a bus: one does not become conscious of ‘one’s running after the bus’ until one has ceased to run after it, because until then one’s consciousness is focused on the bus itself, and not one’s chasing it.

In this sense consciousness always entails being self-aware (being for-itself). Since for Sartre consciousness also entails a consciousness of our separation from the world, and hence freedom, we are also always aware of this. But we can manipulate these two levels of consciousness, so that our reflective consciousness interprets the factual limits of our objective situation as insurmountable, whilst our pre-reflective consciousness remains aware of alternatives.

One convinces himself, in some sense, that he is bound to act by external circumstance, in order to escape the anguish of freedom. Sartre says that man is condemned to be free: whether he adopts an ‘objective’ moral system to do this choosing for him, or follows only his pragmatic concerns, he cannot help but be aware that they are not – fundamentally – part of him. Moreover, as possible intentional objects of one’s consciousness, one is fundamentally not part of oneself, but rather exactly what one, as consciousness, defines oneself in opposition to; along with everything else one could be conscious of.

Fundamentally, Sartre believes mankind cannot escape responsibility by adopting an external moral system, as the adoption such is in itself a choice that we endorse, implicitly or explicitly, and for which we must take full responsibility. Sartre argues that, one cannot escape responsibility, as each attempt to part one’s self from freedom of choice, is in itself a demonstration of choice.

As a human, one cannot claim his actions are determined by external forces; this is the core statement of existentialism. One is ‘doomed’ to this eternal freedom; human beings exist before the definition of human identity exists. One cannot define oneself as a thing in the world, as one has the freedom to be otherwise. One is not ‘a philosopher,’ as at some point one must/will cease the activities that define the self as ‘a philosopher.’ Any role that one might adopt does not define one as there is an eventual end to one’s adoption of the role; i.e. other roles will be assigned to us, ‘a chef,’ ‘a mother.’ The self is not constant, it cannot be a thing in the world. Though one cannot assign a positive value to definitions that may apply to oneself, one remains able to say what one is not. For example, an adult human male may not be a man, but he is certainly not a woman. Therefore, one is defined by what one is not.

This inner anguish over moral uncertainty is a central underlying theme in existentialism, as the anguish demonstrates a personal feeling of responsibility over the choices one makes throughout life. Without an emphasis on personal choice, one may make use of an external moral system as a tool to moralize otherwise immoral acts, leading to negation of the self. According to existentialism, dedicated professionals of their respective moral codes – priests interpreting sacred scriptures, lawyers interpreting the Constitution, doctors interpreting the Hippocratic oath – should, instead of divesting the self of responsibility in the discharge of one’s duties, be aware of one’s own significance in the process.

This recognition involves the questioning of the morality of all choices, taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s own choice and therefore; a constant reappraisal of one’s own and others’ ever-changing humanity. One must not exercise bad faith by denying the self’s freedom of choice and accountability. Taking on the burden of personal accountability in all situations is an intimidating proposition – by pointing out the freedom of the individual, Sartre seeks to demonstrate that the social roles and moral systems we adopt protect us from being morally accountable for our actions.

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