Philosophy 111 – Introduction to Philosophy (Fall 2002)
Human Nature. Sartre. “There Is No Human Nature”
[Students and professors, please read.]
I enjoyed reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s explanation of existentialism as it relates to human nature, because it really made me consider all the implications of how I formerly thought about this–implications I didn’t think to consider before.
Sartre believes that, since we each have different experiences and act on our own, we each have a nature unique to ourselves which we do not necessarily share with any one else, a nature which we can change at any moment just by acting differently. Unlike a tool whose nature is crafted by its inventor–Sartre believes we are the inventors of our natures, because we, unlike a tool, possess reason and a will.
Because we invent our own natures, and so can not claim “The reason is in my universally human nature that I did this thing, I have no control over it,” there is no such event as being carried away unwillfully by passion–we have no other excuse but that we chose to be carried away. We also can not disclaim responsibility by saying “An angel of the Lord commanded me to do this,” or “The devil made me do it,” because ultimately, the choice is ours to go do it–for the same reason we can not say “The bible tells me so,” as if that releases us from a reasoned answer (not that a rule in the bible is by definition unreasonable). And when we invent our natures, we are essentially saying, “This is the nature I think is good for all mankind.” We are responsible for our own actions, as if we are to be the example human.
Basically Sartre discusses all of that to rebut that atheism releases people from responsibility for their actions–on the contrary, Sartre lays out how it gives them no excuse to fall back on and places the responsibility squarely on their shoulders. This reminds me of the “you reap what you sow” concept of Christianity.
Although we can invent our own natures, Sartre counsels that we should not think too much about things beyond our control (a concept agreed with by so many religions). That does not mean we should give up and do nothing–because we can still involve ourselves. Sartre holds the same view of quietism and inaction as that found in the Gita, saying “There is no reality except in action,” somewhat similar to when Christians say, “Faith without works is dead.”
To conclude our discussion of human nature, Sartre is saying there is no such thing as an objective, unchanging morality, that we invent through reason what is right or wrong, and can change it the same way–just like our natures. Initially I have a hard time with this, because we have physical limitations that we cannot change, which we could say contribute to a universal human nature, and those same physical limitations in this universe we could say contribute to a universal morality (which does not excuse us from our being ultimately responsible for our actions)–but I can imagine what he is saying makes sense when I consider the possibility that things can change, and if the physical laws of the universe changed to do away with pain and death, then the moral laws the universe effects would change, too–how many of our current laws surround the issues of pain and death? I think it just all boils down to Sartre saying we have no excuses whether we have religion or not, whether we think there is a universal human morality or not–we are responsible for our actions, period. The only responsibility existentialist-atheists release themselves from, according to Sartre, is the responsibility to a higher power they don’t believe exists.
“There Is No Human Nature.” The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Presbey, Gail M., et. al. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2000. 234-241.