Well, it’s been several days since I wrote anything here. I’ve been busy. I wrote a paper on morality being contingent on the existence of God, and in the process, I discovered that the argument for the existence of God based on morality is actually a quite well-developed one. The problem that I’ve found so far in my research is that the atheistic existential arguments for meaning, value, morality, and ethics apart from God have been largely successful in dealing with either of the claims that existence is ultimately meaningless without God and that morality is contingent on the existence of God. I have found this to be quite disheartening, because I believe a strong case can be made for theism along these lines. In my paper for my philosophy of Christian religion class here at Asbury, I decided to use Jean-Paul Sartre as my opposition to represent the view of optimistic atheistic existentialism arguing for morality, meaning, and value apart from the existence of God.

I found it extraordinarily easy to rip Sartre’s arguments apart. I do not consider myself to be a philosopher even in the least, so I really was disappointed with Sartre’s performance. Give me something tough to deal with, man! Anyway, you may disagree, but I’ll provide the paper for you below:

            The origin of morality is a contemporary subject of debate. As Western society struggles with the division of the secular and sacred dialectic, many have attempted to approach the task of providing a cogent means of establishment of morality in a secular framework, apart from the sacred themes that have been historically linked with morality and ethics as their intrinsic purpose and end. Morality will here be examined in order to establish the veracity of the theistic claim to objective moral truth in light of its relationship to God -namely, that morality and ethics are contingent on the existence of God -over against the claims of atheistic existentialism as argued by Jean-Paul Sartre. A general initial refutation of Sartre’s conception of values in a Godless world will be presented first, followed by individual refutations of each of the three practical implications he presents that arise from his ethics ontology. A conclusion will then be provided as a summary of the evaluation of the thesis stated above.

            These arguments presuppose the concession of moral normativity.[i] This must necessarily begin from the discussion of meta-ethics and ethical theory, though these are beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice to assume moral normativity is generally accepted by both theistic believers and atheistic naturalists alike. For the purposes of this discussion, it will be assumed that, simply stated, if existence consists alone of time, space, and matter, existence is ultimately purposeless and without moral meaning or value. Time, space, and matter will be referred to hereafter as physical naturalism, as opposed to metaphysical supernaturalism, which will hereafter refer to the existence of Q, where Q is the addition of any metaphysical element to the physical universe. Atheism (including atheistic existentialism) requires, by definition, that all of existence is the culmination of metaphysical naturalism: thus, in any atheistic system, all meaning, morality, value, ethics, etc. must derive from, and originate in, physical cosmology.

            Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that meaning and value -and by extension, morality- are not dependent on the existence of God.[ii] These emanate from both the individual human and from the community of humankind, which produce their own meaning and value. Sartre admits that this is indeed basically relativistic in nature, but he insists that meaning is not lost on its dependence upon the individual person or community. Sartre is completely inconsistent at this point. By setting out to prove the continuation of meaning within the closed system of physical cosmology, Sartre argues for the absurd. He argues that “To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all.”[iii] In this statement alone, Sartre presents a leap in logical thought: that a choice has meaning in-and-of-itself, simply because it is a choice made. He even goes beyond this by stating that any choice made is good! If he had left it as a purely amoral event, he might have remained logically secure here, but instead, he provides it with a judgment of value. This is logically inconsistent, because any amoral thing cannot, by definition, be rendered either moral or immoral -essentially, this means that it cannot possess value or meaning. A choice made by a human cannot be provided with a moral connotation unless some universal standard is established against which to measure the rightness or wrongness of a human decision. Sartre maintains that this universal standard is intrinsically subjective[iv]; but if it is subjective, it cannot have meaning, because when all meaning is ultimately purely subjective, it loses identifiableness and is thus no longer universal. Thus, in order to retain meaningfulness, a universal standard for morality must be established that at the very least contains some intrinsically objective truth. This is provided in theistic meta-ethics. Rationally based, the conception of God (as stated above) as the most perfect moral Being serves as the absolute universal standard of morality through His self-revelation to humankind through the reality of history.

            Sartre argues that “…man is anguish.”[v] He states, “…the man who involves himself and realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a law-maker who is, at the same time, choosing all of mankind as well as himself, cannot help but escape the feeling of total and deep responsibility.”[vi] He goes on to explain that this anxiety is intrinsic to the human experience  and derives from the innate sense of conscience that allows for a common, or shared, human experience in regards to morality insomuch that it almost becomes a universal standard that mediates morality for humankind. Here, Sartre introduces several contradictory elements into his discussion, including anxiety (which he provides as serving a purpose in terms of human morality), conscience, responsibility toward other human beings, and right. None of these can be considered from a perspective of metaphysical naturalism unless they are proved to derive from physical cosmology, which Sartre assumes and makes no attempt to verify in regards to his argument. This cripples his argument for anguish before he even begins, leaving it with no logical foundation upon which to build.

            Sartre contends that “When we speak of forlornness, we mean that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this.”[vii] Any atheistic argument that begins in reference to God -even in reference to the absence of God- has already conceded defeat in that a logical argument cannot be made on the basis of that which does not exist. A negative existential proposition cannot be proved. Beyond this, Sartre concedes that “The existentialist… thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.”[viii] For Sartre to make this concession executes any argument he continues to attempt for morality apart from God, because if he then maintains that it is derived from the act of individual and corporate freedom[ix] (which he does), he succumbs to a type of fideism wherein humankind becomes God, or a collection of gods, who produce this meaning and value -introducing a metaphysical or supernatural element into physical cosmology, which, of course, is illogical. He goes on to introduce human “instincts” into his argument[x], for which he fails to provide any basis of origination; however, this suggests once again either a sense of human nature (which he rejects) or an outside universality which mediates morality in relation to humankind.

            Lastly, Sartre maintains that human life is possessed of despair.[xi] By this, Sartre means that human beings are confined to “reckoning only with what depends upon our will.”[xii] In other words, one cannot control the world of exterior circumstances and should therefore concern oneself only with one’s own actions which one may control. Sartre is not too far from the mark on this point, though he approaches the subject from the wrong point of view. He proceeds from a realm of pure relativity, whether he acknowledges it or not, and thus concludes despair as humankind’s disposition. In effect, Sartre here suggests that betterment is impossible[xiii], for no growth is available to the individual -nor to the whole of the human community[xiv]. He maintains that Descartes “meant essentially the same thing”[xv]; but his claim cannot stand, because Descartes’ system involved betterment and growth which was fundamentally at odds with Sartre’s system. This is because Descartes was a theist and therefore approached existentialism from a standpoint of eschatological hope. This position from Sartre only works to reaffirm the nihilistic eventuation of his atheistic existential system.

            In conclusion, it must be accepted that morality and ethics are contingent upon the existence of God. Sartre’s arguments for a system of morality apart from God are altogether unsound and incapable of providing such a system with veracity and logical rationale. Jean-Paul Sartre is thought of as a perpetual optimist, but despite his optimism, his atheistic existential system fails to defeat the eventuation of nihilism. His entire system is shot through with both logical inconsistencies and contradictions and must therefore be discarded altogether. It possesses no redeemable qualities whatsoever upon critical examination. The continued failure of atheism to provide a logical rationale for morality can only point to the plausibility of God, in the least; in light of the counter-postulation of the existence of God, argued on the basis of morality, it must be seen as rational to conclude that not only does God exist (at least, in a broad theistic sense), but morality is contingent upon His existence.

Works Cited

Byrne, Peter. “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God”. Stanford Encyclopedia of

            Philosophy. 25 May 2004. Web. 10 May 2010.

Peterson, Michael, et al. Philosophy of Religion. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press,

            2010.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1985.


[i] Byrne, Peter. “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 25 May 2004. Web. 10 May 2010.

[ii] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1985. Ethics Without Religion.

[iii] Peterson, Michael, et al. Philosophy of Religion. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pg. 623.

[iv] Ibid. Pg. 623.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 623.

[vi] Ibid. Pg. 623.

[vii] Ibid. Pg. 624.

[viii] Ibid. Pg. 624.

[ix] Ibid. Pg. 625.

[x] Ibid. Pg. 626.

[xi] Ibid. Pg. 626.

[xii] Ibid. Pg. 626.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 627.

[xiv] Ibid. Pg. 629. Note here that Sartre argues that humankind, both individually and corporately, are in a perpetual state of change and development, but this is not a qualitative state as much as it is a state of continuous motion toward the future.

[xv] Ibid. Pg. 626.