Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith
In search of authenticity, individuality, and self-realization.
Posted March 20, 2012 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
[Article revised on 1 Jan 2021.]
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980) 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 limply and 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, 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.
Top 7 Sartre quotations
- Only the guy who isn't rowing has time to rock the boat.
- My life and my philosophy are one and the same.
- As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become.
- Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.
- Life begins on the other side of despair.
- One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.
- Three o'clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.