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Bad faith (existentialism)

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Bad faith (from French, mauvaise foi) is a philosophical concept first coined by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to describe the phenomenon wherein one denies one's total freedom, instead choosing to behave inauthentically. It is closely related to the concepts of self-deception and ressentiment.

Bad faith

A critical claim in existentialist thought is that individuals are always free to make choices and guide their lives towards their own chosen goal or "project". The claim holds that individuals cannot escape this freedom, even in overwhelming circumstances. For instance, even an empire's colonized victims possess choices: to submit to rule; to negotiate; to act in complicity; to resist nonviolently; or to counter-attack.

Although circumstances may limit individuals (facticity), they cannot force persons as radically free beings to follow one course over another. For this reason, individuals choose in anguish: they know that they must make a choice, and that it will have consequences. For Sartre, to claim that one amongst many conscious possibilities takes undeniable precedence (for instance, "I cannot risk my life, because I must support my family") is to assume the role of an object in the world, merely at the mercy of circumstance—a being-in-itself that is only its own facticity.

Intentional Consciousness and Freedom

For Sartre this attitude is manifestly self-deceiving. As human consciousness, we are always aware that we are not whatever we are aware of. We cannot, in this sense, be defined as our 'intentional objects' of consciousness, including our facticity of personal history, character, bodies, or objective responsibility. Thus, as Sartre often repeated, "Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is." An example would be if one were now a doctor but wished and started to "transcend" to become a pig farmer. One is what one is not—a pig farmer—not who one is—a doctor): it can only define itself negatively, as "what it is not"; but this negation is simultaneously the only positive definition it can make of "what it is."

From this we are aware of a host of alternative reactions to our objective situation (i.e., of freedom) since no situation can dictate a single response. Only in assuming social roles and value systems external to this nature as conscious beings can we pretend that these possibilities are denied to us; but this is itself a decision made possible by our freedom and our separation from these things. It is this paradoxical free decision to deny to ourselves this inescapable freedom which is "bad faith."

Sartre's Examples

Sartre cites a café waiter, whose movements and conversation are a little too "waiter-esque". His voice oozes with an eagerness to please; he carries food rigidly and ostentatiously. His exaggerated behaviour illustrates that he is play acting as a waiter, as an object in the world: an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. But that he is obviously acting belies that he is aware that he is not (merely) a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself. [1]

Another of Sartre’s examples involves a young woman on a first date. She ignores the obvious sexual implications of her date's compliments to her physical appearance, but accepts them instead as words directed at her as a human consciousness. As he takes her hand, she lets it rest indifferently in his, refusing either to return the gesture or to rebuke it. Thus she delays the moment when she must choose to either acknowledge and reject his advances, or submit to them. She conveniently considers her hand only a thing in the world, and his compliments as unrelated to her body, playing on her dual human reality as a physical being, and as a consciousness separate and free from this physicality. [2]

Sartre tells us that by acting in bad faith, the waiter and the woman are denying their own freedom, but actively using this freedom itself. They manifestly know they are free but do not acknowledge it. Bad faith is paradoxical in this regard: when acting in bad faith, a person is both aware and, in a sense, unaware that they are free.

Two Modes of Consciousness

Sartre tells us that the consciousness with which we generally consider our objective surroundings is different from the consciousness of ourselves being conscious of these surroundings (pre-reflective and reflective consciousness respectively), though neither can properly be called unconsciousness. He gives the example of running after a bus: one does not become conscious of one's running after the bus until one has ceased to run after it, because until then one's consciousness is focused on the bus itself and not one's chasing it.

In this sense consciousness always entails being self-aware (being-for-itself). Since for Sartre consciousness also entails a consciousness of our separation from the world, and hence freedom, we are also always aware of this. But we can manipulate these two levels of consciousness, so that our reflective consciousness interprets the factual limits of our objective situation as insurmountable, whilst our pre-reflective consciousness remains aware of alternatives.

Freedom and Morality

One convinces oneself, in some senses, that one is bound to act by external circumstance, in order to escape the anguish of our freedom. Sartre says man is condemned to be free: whether he adopts an 'objective' moral system to do this choosing for him, or follows only his pragmatic concerns, he cannot help but be aware that they are not - fundamentally - part of him. Moreover, as possible intentional objects of one's consciousness, one is fundamentally not part of oneself, but rather exactly what one, as consciousness, defines oneself in opposition to; along with everything else one could be conscious of.

Fundamentally, Sartre believes one cannot escape responsibility by adopting an external moral system, as the adoption of a moral system is in itself a choice that we endorse, implicitly or explicitly, and which one must take full responsibility for. Sartre argues that, one cannot escape responsibility, as each time one attempts to part oneself from one's freedom of choice, the very act in itself is a choice exercised freely.

As a human, one cannot claim our actions are determined by forces exterior to the self; this is the core statement of existentialism. One is 'doomed' to this eternal freedom; human beings exist before the definition of human identity exists. One cannot define oneself as a thing in the world, as one has the freedom to be otherwise. One is not “a philosopher”, as at some point one must/will cease the activities that define the self as "a philosopher". Any role that one might adopt does not define one as there is an eventual end to one's adoption of the role; i.e. other roles will be assigned to us, "a chef", "a mother". The self is not constant, it cannot be a thing in the world. Though one cannot assign a positive value to definitions that may apply to oneself, one remains able to say what one is not. For example, an adult human male may not be a man, but he is certainly not a woman. Therefore, one is defined by what one is not.

This inner anguish over moral uncertainty is a central underlying theme in existentialism, as the anguish demonstrates a personal feeling of responsibility over the choices one makes throughout life. Without an emphasis on personal choice, one may make use of an external moral system as a tool to moralize otherwise immoral acts, leading to negation of the self. According to existentialism, dedicated professionals of their respective moral codes - priests interpreting sacred scriptures, lawyers interpreting the Constitution, doctors interpreting the Hippocratic oath - should, instead of divesting the self of responsibility in the discharge of one's duties, be aware of one's own significance in the process. This recognition involves the questioning of the morality of all choices, taking responsibility for the consequences of one's own choice and therefore; a constant reappraisal of one's own and others' ever-changing humanity. One must not exercise bad faith by denying the self's freedom of choice and accountability. Taking on the burden of personal accountability in all situations is an intimidating proposition - by pointing out the freedom of the individual Sartre seeks to demonstrate the social roles and moral systems we adopt to protect us from being morally accountable for our actions.

A Freudian framework

Freudian psychoanalysis poses a potential solution to the paradoxical self deception that occurs in bad faith. In a Freudian framework, the mind is a structure of three parts: the Id (the basic urges or instincts), the Ego (the executive function that negotiates the demands of the id and the super-ego, as well as reality), and the Super-ego (in effect the conscience which gives self-praise or self-punishment). The split between conscious and unconscious allows a person to consciously believe one thing, and unconsciously believe another. Thus, according to Freud, self deception is possible.

In the case of the waiter, it is possible that his unconscious recognizes his freedom and expresses desires to engage it. Perhaps he unconsciously wishes to spit in his patron’s food. Under this framework, his unconscious desires are repressed by the Superego. He then consciously rejects his freedom and assumes the role of "a waiter".

The ego acts as a policeman and facilitator between both the Id and the Superego. A self-deception occurs when the Superego knowingly transmits false information to the Ego. The ego, our conscious faculties, fully believes what is transmitted to it by the Superego. The self deception is possible because there exist two separate "belief systems" which are divided. It is with the Superego that Sartre lodges his chief complaint. [3] He tells us that if the Superego is to perform its duties, it must possess knowledge about the information it is restraining from the Ego. Without knowing what it is restraining, the Superego would not be a policeman, but rather a sieve, arbitrarily restricting the Id’s drives. Sartre also tells us that the Superego must know that it is making choices concerning what information to facilitate. It must be aware of itself and what it is doing. [4]

Sartre then makes two important moves that deserve fleshing out with some precision: (1) He believes that by "knowing" and "choosing", an entity must also possess the capability to "know itself" and know that it is facilitating false information. He tells us that in order to make the jump from sieve to facilitator, such upper-level knowledge is necessary. (2) Sartre rejects the Freudian framework as a response to the paradox of self deception, because the upper-level consciousness that knows it is facilitating false information is the same upper-level consciousness present in the Ego, which accepts that information as true. Therefore, both the acceptance and the rejection that occurs during bad faith are in the same mental scope, and it is still paradoxical.

Further reading


  1. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Essays in Existentialism, Citadel Press. 1993, pp. 167-169
  2. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Essays in Existentialism, Citadel Press. 1993, pp. 160-164
  3. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Essays in Existentialism, Citadel Press. 1993, pp. 155-158
  4. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Essays in Existentialism, Citadel Press. 1993, pp. 156-157

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