Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sartre’s entire philosophy is based on the freedom humans have because a human’s existence precedes his or her essence. It seems intuitively true that we are free. When I get up in the morning, I have a choice whether to go to class or skip work or to wear whatever I want, etc.

But there are certain philosophies, i.e. Determinism, that tell us the exact opposite. We are human animals conditioned in such a way as to make decisions based on our genetic make-up and how we were socialized. To jump-off from where Jen left off on her previous post, examine the man with the “alcoholic” gene. The man may have the gene to be an alcoholic but chooses not to drink a sip of alcohol in his life. But why would he do his? One could point to his upbringing. The man was raised by an alcoholic father and saw the awful effects of alcoholism and his mother encouraged him never to have a sip of alcohol.

Sartre might respond to this by saying that this example is completely consistent with freedom because one could imagine another man (Man B) having the same situation as Man A, and making a completely different decision. Man B could have an alcoholic father, the alcoholism gene, and a mother who encouraged him not to drink. And yet, Man B could certainly choose to become an alcoholic. Indeed there are empirical examples of both of these decisions being made.

The determinist could respond by questioning whether Man A and Man B’s situations were absolutely identical. There are subtle differences in the genes and situations of Man A and Man B. Maybe Man A’s mother was more caring and attentive than Man B’s mother. Or perhaps Man A had a passion to become a philosophy professor (due to genetic and social factors, of course), while Man B was awful at school (genetic intelligence factors) and thereby had a low self esteem which contributed to his alcoholism. No matter how specific the situation is, the determinist could argue that there is a factor that we have not accounted for. However, no matter how specific the situation is, the existentialist will argue that a human could have decided differently.

Despite all of the different arguments, determinism merely assumes that causes are there whether we can identify them or not, while Existentialism assumes that causes are not there, which is why we can not identify them.

If determinism is true, however, why do we experience guilt or pride? When a human being accomplishes something great, he or she has an emotional reaction. This is not merely restricted to moral decisions, but also extends to creating great philosophies, making great works of art, and making important scientific discoveries. There was no moral imperative to motivate him/her. Although he/she may say things like “I could have never done this without the support of my family” or “My colleagues were integral in my success,” he/she still has the feeling that “I accomplished this.” In a similar way, the alcoholic, Man B, can feel guilt. It does not matter if he has an alcoholism gene or had an awful childhood. And even if Man B hurts no one else, he still feels disappointed in himself and guilty about his actions. This is because he feels that he could have made the opposite choice, but, instead, he chose to be an alcoholic.

Determinism could say that these feelings of guilt and pride are programmed into us, but I think that they are indications of our self-knowledge of our own free-will. There is no moral imperative to “be great at something” (though you will receive praise if you are) and the alcoholic should be guilt-free if he hurts no one but himself. However, we have these feelings of pride and guilt because they are natural emotions that arise from a free-will.

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