The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980) called it ’bad faith’ [French, mauvaise foi], the habit people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice.
By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to recognize the multitude of other options that are available to her, a person places herself at the mercy of the circumstances in which she happens to find herself. Thus, the person is more akin to an object than to a conscious human being, or, in Sartrean terms, more akin to a ‘being-in-itself’ than a ‘being-for-itself’.
People may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices by pursuing pragmatic concerns and adopting social roles and value systems that are alien to their nature as conscious human beings, but to do so is in itself to make a choice, and thereby to acknowledge, even if only implicitly, their freedom as conscious human beings.
The Waiter Example
One example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a waiter who does his best to conform to everything that a waiter ought to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter.
Sartre points out that, in order to play-act at being a waiter, the waiter must on some level be aware that he is not in fact a waiter, but a conscious human being who is deceiving himself that he is a waiter.
The lesson here is that, whenever we take up a social function, we need to be careful not to confuse this borrowed identity with our own. Our social function is often a convenient hiding place, but, if the boundaries are blurred, it can lead us to act against our own beliefs, principles, and interests—as often happens with politicians when they confuse means and ends, losing sight of the ends or ideals that, early on, drove them into politics.
To kill a man is still to kill a man, even if we happen to be wearing a uniform.
The Young Woman Example
Another example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a young woman on a first date. The woman’s date compliments her on her physical appearance, but she ignores the obvious sexual connotations of his compliment and chooses instead to direct the compliment at herself as a conscious human being. He then takes her hand, but she neither takes it nor rejects it. Instead, she lets her hand rest limply and indifferently in his so as to buy time and delay having to make a choice about accepting or rejecting his advances.
Whereas the young woman chooses to treat her date’s compliment as being unrelated to her body, she chooses to treat her hand (which is a part of her body) as an object, implicitly acknowledging, or betraying, her freedom to make choices.
For Sartre, people may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices, but they cannot pretend to themselves that they are not themselves, that is, conscious human beings who actually have little or nothing to do with their pragmatic concerns, professional and social roles, and value systems.
In pursuing such and such pragmatic concerns or adopting such and such social roles and value systems, a person may pretend to himself that he does not have the freedom to make choices, but to do so is in itself to make a choice, namely, the choice of pretending to himself that he does not have the freedom to make choices. Man, Sartre concludes, is condemned to be free.
We cannot evade responsibility; if we try, we will become the walking shadow of the person we ought to have been.
Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide.