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 News-medical.net 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.