Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Effects of Biological Predispositions on our Self-Created Essence

Sartre’s philosophy is concerned with personal responsibility. He believes that our ability to think shows that we are entirely free. We are born into the world without any traits, but we develop our persona as a result of the choices we make. For instance, an honest person is not such because he was born that way; rather, he becomes honest after he acts truthfully in a situation where he could lie. Basically we are not born into any particular situation, because we have infinite possibilities on how to mold our lives. However, this seems to bring about too big of a responsibility for humans, according to Sartre. Thus, the huge responsibility causes people to have tremendous anxiety. Sartre believes that we experience anxiety because we suddenly become aware of the possibilities in store for us. We discussed in class that we don’t have to graduate from Rhodes, and go on to some graduate school or the workforce. We feel the need to do so, however, because it gives more purpose to our lives. Thus, the actions make up our essence that we create for ourselves. Because humans are faced with such deterministic responsibilities, we purposefully seek ideas or concepts that will make choices for us.

I find this perspective somewhat problematic. Sartre’s philosophy is not supported by scientific research that proves the existence of biological predispositions for certain habits or personality traits. Sartre believes that humans tend to blame our genes for the way we act. While human’s have (what seems to be) an endless variety of choices to make in order to create our “essence”, there are cases where the possibilities are limited due to our genetic makeup.

Take, for instance, depression. While there are cases where the person may be in mourning or traumatized in some way, depression is a genetically linked ailment. The brain of a depressed person simply cannot produce the proper amount of neurotransmitter. The family members of a depressed individual may be vulnerable to this chemical deficiency as well. These predispositions are then present before birth. Although one may be proactive about their condition and assume responsibility, the depression itself was determined for that person before birth (based on its genetic link), and will affect this person’s behavior throughout its life.

Secondly, alcoholism is another genetically linked dependence that again, is determined before the person is born. For these reasons, I find it difficult to completely agree with Sartre. It is important to understand that inherited disorders can deeply impair a person from having full control over his or her life.

Based on Sartre’s idea that we are born without traits, I wonder how Sartre feels about homosexuality, in terms of it being natural or not. He clearly condemns homosexuality, in the sense that he refers to the "guilt" that homosexuals must feel. But it seems that he assumes homosexuality as something that someone determines for themselves. In contrast, there are a number of scientific studies demonstrating that humans or animals do not consciously “choose” which sex they are attracted to. A study in 2006 on demonstrated that over 1,500 species have demonstrated homosexual or bisexual characteristics, including apes, lions, and dolphins. Thus, it is suggested that homosexuality is determined before birth and occurs naturally. However, it seems that Sartre would see it as a choice made by that person; it is something that that person feels is necessary for his or her “essence.”

While humans take responsibility for themselves for the most part (choosing a job, or education, acting honestly, or kindly, etc.), it is possible that a person has predetermined traits that will affect the creation of his or her essence.


  1. I think that Sartre would respond to the issues of depression or alcoholism by pointing to the idea of necessity.

    I think he would say that just because we have genes that make becoming addicted to alcohol easier, we still can choose not to be alcoholics. For example, there are plenty of people who have the "alcoholic" gene and choose to either give up alcohol or never to drink in the first place. Therefore, although an alcoholic with the alcoholic gene could say "It was so difficult stay away from alcohol" the alcoholic could NOT say "I had absolutely no choice in becomming addicted to alcohol."

    The depression issue can be addressed similarly. Sartre gives the example of a sad person who puts on a cheerful face when he meets someone else. For those few moments, the person IS acting happily and therefore not depressed. Although the immense burden of "pretending" to be happy all of the time would be extremely draining, Sartre could argue that even though the depressed person has a physiological state of pain (due to lack of seratonin or dopamine), he or she can act as if they are happy. They can therefore "choose" to be happy.

    Like you though, I also find these answers definately problematic. Especially the depression one. Sartre wants to collapse "being happy" with "doing things a happy person would do" but I don't think that that distinction is meaningless or should be gotten rid of. Imagine that someone has debilitating arthritis and yet snow boards and runs and just lives with the pain. However, even though he or she is living like one without arthritis, that does not mean that that person does not have arthritis or does not experience that pain. Similarly, if someone is clinically depressed, the person can not just change that by acting happily. I think that clinical depression and maybe even run-of-the-mill sadness should be included under the "facticity" about a person.

  2. People still have infinite choices despite what our genes say. Even when an alcoholic is addicted, they still choose to drink. Nothing forces them to drink, they are still making the choice. People still make choices, genetics might just make people a little more likely to choose one way or the other. I need to drink water to live, however I can still make the choice not to drink water. I might die, but I will still make the choice.

    When the person makes the choice to drink they become the alcoholic, there choices still make them who they are.

  3. I think it is important to note that Jen is saying that genes limit the choices that people are able to make. People do have the right to choose whether to drink alcohol or not even if they have alcoholic genes ( like Jared said above). However, Jen was explaining in the main blog that because of certain genes, people are predisposed to making certain decisions. People always have a choice regardless of their genes' tendencies; however, as a result of certain genes, as such genes of alcoholism or depression, people are more limited by the effects of these genes when making choices.

  4. I wouldn't immediately say that Sartre condemns homosexuality, because some homosexuals DO feel guilt; this guilt may not arise from feeling that homosexuality is wrong but rather from society teaching us its supposed incorrectness. Especially in communities with heavy religious influences, homosexuals are seen as "sinners" that need praying for rather than the support of friends. A host of "sinners" were, at my high school, singled out in the after-school prayer group as needing to be prayed for. The names of the "sinners" were even written on the board weekly with the consent of the teacher. These factors are hurtful for a young person, especially the homosexual being condemned, and an outcome that I've seen in friends is guilt. I just thought I would provide a proper defense of Sartre here...Still, I would say that the supposed guilt of the homosexual may in part arise from the constant prodding of his friend to assign an essence to him, that of a homosexual rather than a person that at various times has intercourse with the same sex.

  5. Depression does provide an interesting tension between Sartre's notions of facticity and transcendence, as clinical depression and what some call "free choice" are often at odds. The depressed person begins life with a certain facticity guaranteed by genetics, along with a family that may reinforce and deepen the depression, and may have problems with living in general. However, to hold the pretension that being happy amounts to acting happy seems to be another form of bad faith, lying to oneself. Mental illness may provide a foil to Sartre's idea that when we choose for ourselves, we choose for all people. I would posit that when a depressed person sees the world a certain way, a way in which he was predisposed by genetics and environment to see it, he should not wish for all people to see it that way. I would question the good will of such a person, but such a person may have a problem with "willing" in the first place.


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