[Article updated on 17 September 2017]
As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become. —Jean-Paul Sartre
The 20th century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it mauvaise foi ('bad faith'), the habit that 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 recognise the multitude of other choices that are available to him, a person places himself at the mercy of the circumstances in which he happens to find himself. Thus, the person is more akin to an object than to a conscious human being, or, in Sartrean terminology, more akin to a ‘being-in-itself' than to 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. However, to do so is in itself to make a choice, and thereby to acknowledge their freedom as conscious human beings.
One example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a waiter who does his best to conform to everything that a waiter should 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. However, in order to play-act at being a waiter, the waiter must at 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.
Another example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a young woman on a first date. The young 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 indifferently in his so as to buy time and delay having to make a choice about accepting or rejecting his advances. Whereas she chooses to treat his compliment as being unrelated to her body, she chooses to treat her hand (which is a part of her body) as an object, thereby acknowledging 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, 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.
Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.