If people reproach our writings, it is not because we describe humanity as frail and sometimes frankly bad, but because, unlike Zola whose characters are shown to be products of heredity or environment, you cannot say of ours “That is what we are like, no one can do anything about it”. The existentialist portrays a coward as one who makes himself a coward by his actions, a hero who makes himself heroic.
Some still reproach us for confining man within his individual subjectivity. But there is no other starting-point than the “I think, I am” – the absolute truth of consciousness, a simple truth within reach of everyone and the only theory which gives man the dignity of not being a mere object.
All materialisms treat men as objects, no different in their being bundles of determined reactions than a table or a chair or a stone. We want to constitute a human kingdom of values distinct from the material world.
Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to the philosophy of Kant, we are discovering in the cogito not just ourselves but all others. We discover an intersubjective world where each man has to decide what he is and what others are.
It is not possible to find in each man the universal essence called human nature, but there is a human universality of condition. Any purpose, even that of the Chinese, or the idiot or the child can be understood by a European, given enough information. In this sense, there is a universality of man; but it is not a given, it is something perpetually re-built.
That does not entirely refute the charge of subjectivism. People tax us with anarchy; they say that “you cannot judge others, because you have no reason to prefer one project to another. You give with one hand what you pretend to receive from the other.”
Let us say that moral choice is comparable to a work of art. Do we reproach the artist who makes a painting without starting from laid-down rules? Did we tell him what he must paint?
There is no pre-defined picture, and no-none can say what the painting of tomorrow should be; one can judge only one at a time.
Amongst morals, the creative situation is the same, and just as the works of, say, Picasso, have consequences, so do our moral judgements.
That student who came to me could not appeal to any system for guidance; he was obliged to invent the law for himself. We define man only through his engagement, so it is absurd to reproach us for the consequences of a choice.
But it is not entirely true that we cannot judge others. We can judge whether choices are founded on truth or error, and we can judge a man’s sincerity.
The man who hides behind the excuse of his passions or of some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver. “And what if I wish to deceive myself?” – there is no reason why you should not, but I declare publicly that you are doing so.
We will freedom for the sake of freedom. And through it we discover that our freedom depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that their freedom depends on ours. Those who hide their freedom behind deterministic excuses, I will call cowards. Those who pretend that their own existence was necessary, I will call scum.
To the objection that “You receive with one hand what you give with the other”, that is, your values are not serious, since you choose them, I answer that, I am sorry, but having removed God the Father, one needs somebody to invent values. Things have to be taken as they are.
One has reproached me ridiculing a type of humanism in Nausea, and now suggesting that existentialism is a form of humanism. The absurd type of humanism is to glory in “Man the magnificent” ascribing to all men the value of the deeds of the most distinguished men. Only a dog or a horse would be in a position to declare such a judgement.
We cannot, either, fall into worshipping humanity, for that way leads to Fascism.
But there is another humanism, the acceptance that there is only one universe, the universe of human subjectivity. Existentialism is not despair. It declares rather that even if God did exist, it would make no difference.