On the Coherence of Sartre’s Defense of Existentialism Against the Essentialist Charge of Ethical Relativism in His “Existentialism and Humanism”
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Although its slim volume may suggest otherwise, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism” treats a wealth of existentialist themes. Indeed, within its pages, Sartre characterizes many of the hallmarks of existentialist thought, including subjectivity, freedom, responsibility, anguish, forlornness, despair, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, however, Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism” occasions a defense of existentialism against its most frequently dealt criticisms, particularly the essentialist charge that existentialism necessarily gives rise to ethical relativism. And while this defense may seem convincing at first, in many places, it also seems to abandon, for the sake of its project, the fundamental commitments of existentialism, at least as Sartre understands them. Thus, in this essay, I critically examine the coherence of Sartre’s defense of existentialism against the essentialist charge of ethical relativism. To the extent that that defense relies largely upon his espousal of an existentialist ethics, I examine, in particular, whether that ethics coheres with the fundamental commitments of existentialism as he understands them. Following this examination, I conclude that (a) the fundamental commitments of existentialism preclude Sartre from coherently positing objectively valid normative ethical statements, that (b) because he nonetheless posits such statements in his espousal of an existentialist ethics, his defense of existentialism against the essentialist charge of ethical relativism breaks down, and finally, that (c) although this incoherence presents a substantial problem for Sartre, one may still defend his attempt to espouse an existentialist ethics.
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