In Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, “bad faith,” (mauvaise foi) is a form of self-deception that is pervasive in human life and very difficult to avoid. It is related to two other concepts in Sartre’s views about human nature: “facticity,” which refers to all of the facts that are true about oneself, such as culture, family, health, time, place, and past choices; and “transcendence,” which refers to one’s possibilities and openness to a future. According to Sartre’s philosophy, facticity and transcendence make up the broad structure of human consciousness and existence. Individuals are always free to make something out of what they have been made into, both by themselves with their choices and by their place and time, family and culture, and health and genetic makeup. The details of these concepts are explained most famously in Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness (1943).
There are two forms of bad faith. One occurs when people deny their transcendence, that is, when they pretend that they are victims of circumstances and do not have open possibilities, such as when an individual refuses to leave a job or a relationship that makes him or her miserable. The other occurs when people deny their facticity, that is, when they deny that they have made certain choices, such as the decision to be monogamous; or that their actions form a significant pattern, such as that of a sexual orientation; or that they have certain unchangeable characteristics, such as a certain height or health condition.
Sartre thought bad faith was difficult to avoid because of the structure of consciousness and certain predispositions in the way people think about themselves. Sartre describes “sincerity” as an attempt “to be what one is.” Paradoxically, Sartre argues that such efforts to be sincere are self-undermining—any attempt genuinely and fully to be what one is will result in bad faith. This is easiest to see with the help of one of Sartre’s memorable examples.
Consider a man who refuses to say that he is homosexual, despite having had sexual desires for and romantic relationships with men. His friend, who values sincerity and wants him to avoid bad faith, asks him to own up to his sexual orientation and embrace his identity as a homosexual. Sartre thinks there may be wisdom in the first man’s unwillingness to follow his friend’s advice: people, unlike mere objects, cannot be exhaustively defined in terms of essential characteristics because they are free. Who and what one is is always open to change. Sartre argued that there is bad faith in answering questions of identity. The most accurate and honest answer, according to Sartre, is, “I am not what I am.” This creates an unavoidable dilemma. If the man in Sartre’s example says that he is homosexual, then he denies his transcendence; he pretends it is impossible for him to be otherwise, to have different desires and relationships in the future. But on other hand, he also cannot say that he is not homosexual, because then he would deny his facticity. He would be pretending that his past relationships and desires had no significance.
Sartre’s general idea is that everyone is in the same position with respect to his or her own characteristics, whatever they are: people both are and are not the sum total of their choices and influences, because they are characterized most essentially by their possibilities and capacity for self-constitution. People are what they “are not yet,” and what they become is an amendable aggregation of self-creating choices and commitments. Identities are things individuals create and sustain, or revise and refashion, not things people are born with or given. The man in Sartre’s example, therefore, can say, “To the extent that a pattern of conduct is defined as the conduct of a [homosexual] and to the extent that I have adopted this conduct, I am a [homosexual]. But to the extent that human reality cannot be finally defined by patterns of conduct, I am not one.” This formulation allows him to take ownership of his past while simultaneously embracing his open future.
Most people are not this reflectively aware of themselves. Sartre thought this was because human beings have a tendency to see themselves both as things (“being-in-itself”) and as free, open-ended, incomplete and incomplete-able works in progress (“being-for-itself”). Individuals think of themselves as having complete identities with fixed characteristics, but they also think of themselves as being “metastable” and pluripotent. However, whenever a person takes up one of these perspectives, he or she covers over the other.
The only hope people have for avoiding bad faith, as Simone de Beauvoir shows in The Ethics of Ambiguity, is to become reflectively aware of who and what one has been—all of one’s choices, in all of their significance—and to appreciate that one’s past does not fully determine one’s future. Identities are contingent and unstable, not fixed and necessary. They are what people make of them. Which is why, in order to be authentic and avoid becoming slaves to their former selves or to social pressures and ideas that are not their own, individuals must again and again, in moments of lucid self-reflection, renew their commitments to life-shaping projects. People avoid bad faith by living their lives reflectively, in light of the ontological ambiguity and instability within human nature. This requires taking full ownership of one’s past while simultaneously accepting and embracing the radical freedom available in one’s open future.
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- Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
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