Existentialism’s mortal sin deserves a fair hearing
The end of the second World War was followed by a flowering of creative activity in Western Europe and the US. The philosophical and artistic movement called existentialism spread like wildfire during this time. Our culture is now saturated with existentialist ideas.
The essence of existentialism is that we must choose what kind of person we are. We aren’t born a certain way, nor are we created by society; instead, we make ourselves who we are by the actions we take. Our choices define us, and there are right choices and wrong choices. The right kind of choices are “authentic,” and driven by one’s internal beliefs and desires. Wrong choices are “inauthentic” and are driven by outside forces like social or economic pressures.
Existentialism had great social value when it was a story that quirky, iconoclastic outsiders told themselves to feel worthy despite being scorned by society. Its value was lost when it became the dominant ideology. Its ugly flaws are becoming clear now. One of these is the way it treats conformity, social pressure, and inauthenticity.
Conformity is the compromise made between individuals and society so we can all get along
To us as individuals, being expected to conform is an intolerable nuisance. But we rely on others- the rest of society- to conform to our expectations, at least in some ways. Even if you’re fine with all kinds of un-”PC” language, for example, are you really fine with people cutting in line or farting in an elevator? If we choose not to conform, though, how is it fair for us to expect everyone else to?
Following social standards, such as dressing ‘normally’ or avoiding offensive language, is a symbolic way of showing that you’re willing to compromise. You’re willing to do what people expect of you. It creates trust and a common identity. By adopting common cultural tokens, you’re showing solidarity with others.
People see it as a red flag if you can’t be bothered to make that compromise and conform to basic expectations. It’s a signal that you might be a taker who wants the benefits of being part of society while considering yourself above it. Their mistrust isn’t just bad you personally, but weakens the bonds of trust of society as a whole.
Social expectations push us to fulfill unpleasant responsibilities
Other people have expectations for how we ought to behave, and these subtly shape our identities. This idea is sometimes taken to the extreme and leads to claims that society is forcing us to behave a certain way and that we’re robbed of free will.
Existentialists would be disgusted by that idea; they believe you have a terrible responsibility to create your own identity by choosing the actions that coincide with the person you want to be. Jean-Paul Sartre, king of the existentialists, called fulfilling this responsibility living in “good faith”; conversely, ducking this responsibility is living in “bad faith”.
The problem is that the person we want to be, our ideal self, is often a glamorous fantasy. For how many people does “good faith” living mean trying to be an Instagram celebrity or reality TV star? Even Sartre’s life is not something attainable for most. If a janitor comfortably accepts his role in society, does that mean he’s living in “bad faith” because it isn’t an expression of his true self? Cleaning toilets is almost never an authentic expression of one’s inner self. The janitor is sacrificing part of himself (his time and energy) in return for part of someone else (their money). It’s easy to sneer at that as ‘selling out’ but he’s choosing to live a life that benefits himself and others.
Think of the movie American Beauty. The main character, going through a midlife crisis, finds his life as an office worker and family man to be inauthentic. He begins to smoke weed, leaves his job for an entry-level job in fast food, and pursues a relationship with a teenage girl. To an existentialist, this would be a positive transformation: he’s started to live life more authentically. To the rest of us, his “good faith” lifestyle changes did unimaginable damage to the people around him.
The existentialists are right that the character should choose to live better than just sleepwalking through life, only doing what’s expected of him. But his “bad faith” life is a minimum, not an alternative to an authentic life. It’s his responsibility to fulfill his social roles. After that, he’s free to pursue his “good faith” life.
Those societal expectations are on him for a reason, and when he abandons his responsibilities he’s doing something morally wrong. He’s hurting other people to pursue his own fulfillment.
Nonconformists can’t lead
Another problem with existentialism is that it makes a terrible dominant philosophy. It’s great for scrappy rebels on the edge of society to talk about how it’s important to do your own thing and ignore expectations and so on. It’s not a great message for the overbearing weight of mainstream culture to push on people.
How do you tell everyone that they’re expected to find their own bliss? There’s no need to answer that question; we already know what it looks like. There’s now a shortage of people with technical skills able to do the dull, unglamorous work of society, and a surfeit of people dreaming of being rock stars but ending up miserable.
We teach people to look down on the ‘majority’ as a faceless rabble living meaningless lives just because they can’t go on book tours and get paid for interviews. There’s already a natural human tendency for high-status people to look at low-status people with disgust; existentialism just reinforces that sense of superiority.
It’s important for leaders to have a sense of noblesse oblige and common identity with their followers. Teaching them that the majority are beneath them, and living “bad faith” lives, and that they have no responsibilities to the commoners but only to their own hearts, results in profoundly irresponsible and selfish leadership. There’s a reason why so many people have lost faith in the elites; the elites have embraced a philosophy that treats them as a superior class of person to the rest of humanity.
Nonconformists can’t breed
Existentialists are not known for having stable, successful family lives. To be fair, philosophers in general aren’t disposed to domestic bliss. Existentialism, though, makes it especially difficult to create and raise a new generation. If you see your primary duty as being true to the whims of your heart, how can other people possibly trust you?
Families must rely on each other through thick and thin, good times and bad, for decades. It’s not easy for a child to grow up knowing that their mom would run off as soon as she felt her motherhood was inauthentic.
Healthy, intelligent young adults only see downsides to being restrained by society’s demands. Why should they have to sacrifice their autonomy for the good of the group? It takes a village to raise a child, though, and if every able-bodied individual opts out because they consider the responsibility too onerous, then it becomes impossible to raise the next generation.
Everything in moderation, including authenticity
I’m not arguing that you should give up on all your dreams and do whatever you’re expected to. Existentialists may have overrated authenticity, but that doesn’t mean authenticity is a terrible thing and you should always do the complete opposite. Rather, you should be comfortable with a certain amount of “selling out,” of doing what’s expected of you, and of tempering the passion with which you pursue your dreams. These things have a hidden value even though they’re uncool.
Originally published at http://simonphilosophy.home.blog on May 16, 2019.