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Excuses, Psychological Determinism, and Capitalism

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December, 2013

Excuses are constructed as explanations for our failings or lack of actions. We use excuses to explain our choices and conditions. The tone of excuses is to deny the possibility that our choices or conditions could not be otherwise, and to deny that we possessed freewill. The term excuse is taken in the strictest meaning, cheating ourselves that things could not have been otherwise.

How do we explain excuses? We cannot dismiss excuses as just a formality, because formality towards ourselves is meaningless. Sartre explains excuses through psychological determinism. He states "psychological determinism, before being a theoretical conception, is first an attitude of excuse, or if you prefer, the basis of all attitudes of excuse" (263).

Sartre's concept of psychological determinism depends on his ideas about human beings, freewill, anguish, and "bad faith". For Sartre, man first exists, only then he defines himself. Man is what he "conceives" and "will himself to be" (448). Further, he states that man in choosing in individual matters is responsible for others, because he is "involving all humanity in monogamy" in each choice (448).

According to Sartre, Human being consists or is in an "intersection" of being-in-it-self and being-for-it-self (Notes). Being-in-it-self is the causal being, who is subject to the physical laws of the universe. Being-for-it-self is the consciousness or "nothingness" of human being. This part of self is free. How do we know it is free? We know it is free because it is capable of questioning. Questioning presupposes that whatever the situation, it can be undone or be different (254). How do we know that we can question? What if all our questions are just predetermined occurrence in our minds? "If we admitted that the question is determined in questioner by universal determinism, the question would thereby become unintelligible and even inconceivable" (285). Questioning is not a causal event, because by questioning "the questioner must be able to effect in relation to the questioned a kind of nihilating withdrawal, he is not subject to the causal order of the world" (255). Sartre's explanation is only sufficient if the freedom is understood as not the ability to alter the physical laws themselves, but only the ability to alter the condition or reality within it.

Further, he states that man is aware of his freedom in his anguish. "It is in anguish that freedom is, in its being, in question for itself" (256). Human being must question each of his or her action, and "act in such a way that humanity might guide itself by" (449) it. We are in anguish because of this "direct responsibility" (450).

Are we not governed by the values of the state laws, and directions in the Bible? Can we not rest knowing that we acted according to those customary guidance? No. Sartre says such easy exist from responsibility is no more available to the modern man. Our secular society has made "God an outdated hypothesis", and denied itself finding truths in heaven. What about parliamentary laws and the values they uphold. Each value "can be revealed only to an active freedom which makes it exist as value by the sole fact of recognizing it as such" (261). Whenever we act according to those values we are recognizing their worth. Thus, the freedom or the responsibility is never removed from the individual. Moreover, Sartre notes "in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, no justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses" (450). But, we use excuses. Why? And how?

Anguish is not pleasant. It arises within us when we are indecisive and in doubt, as a form of extreme fear directed at us. In excuses, we try to avoid our anguish. Sartre identifies two forms of avoidance: unreflective and reflective. Excuses are of the latter form.

In reflective avoidance, we avoid by numbing, automating, and amusing ourselves. Sartre explains: "world of the immediate, which delivers itself to our unreflective consciousness, we do not first appear to ourselves, to be thrown subsequently in enterprises. Our being is immediately "in situation"" (262). Being immediately "in situation" we avoid considering alternative action, inaction, isolation or suicide (261). Further, he notes that the individual and individual alone is the one who made the decision to be thrown "in situation".

In reflective avoidance or bad faith, we actively limit our options by either denying our being-for-it-self or being-in-it-self. Although, origins of excuses can be traced to we limiting our actions based on untruthful conception of us, Sartre explains excuses in a more particular way through psychological determinism.

Psychological determinism is a "reflective conduct with respect to anguish" (263). Psychological determinism suggests that there are "antagonistic forces" within us comparable to the being-in-it-self "things", they prevent us to exercise our freewill. Psychological determinism "links past and present, between present and future" (263). It "denies the transcendence of human reality", and reduces us "to never being anything but what we are" (263).

In denying freewill, Sartre asserts we are acting in "bad faith" towards ourselves. He states "bad faith is a lie to oneself". But, he is careful to differentiate lying to oneself from lying in general. "In bad faith it is from myself that I am hiding the truth. Thus the duality of the deceiver and the deceived does not exist here. Bad faith on the contrary implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness" (267).

Why would we do this to ourselves? How can we do this to ourselves? Sartre suggests we are doing this in order to avoid seeing "possibilities of temporal development" (269); we are tempted in our state. We are selecting to view the "refined forms which it produces" (270). We are postponing the hard decisions. In bad faith, human being becomes "passive object to which events happen", and "all its possibilities are outside of it" (270).

Today, many of us see the privilege of our position, the plight of the poor, degradation of the environment, and the evolving oppression of corporations, yet we hold things could not be otherwise. We shrug off accusations that we are the agents of the current systems. Even an individual feels compelled to chose a "career" along market demand, watch television, purchase a car, eat at fast food restaurants, and tolerate declining air quality. When the individual craft becomes outdated, or when he or she is fired, the person shrugs the shoulder and blames it on market's forces. Market-forces or capitalism is the main form of how psychological determinism manifests itself in today's Western society.

The foundation of the values of today's society is capitalism. The underling assumptions of capitalism are profit motive, continuous economic growth, consumerism, and minimal governmental intervention. The systems of today's society such as education, healthcare, transportation, technology, and security are shaped by capitalism.

Sartre states psychological determinism "provides us with a nature productive of our acts, and these very acts it makes transcendent; it assigns to them a foundation in something other than themselves by endowing them with an inertia and eternality eminently reassuring because they constitute a permanent game of excuses" (263). That "something", for today's society is capitalism. The society no more questions the basic assumptions. For instance, is profit motive necessary for efficiency and innovation in an industry? Are we certain profit does not encourage theft, misrepresentation, and exploitation? Is endless economic growth desirable? For what end is growth desirable? Should we encourage consumerism in developing regions as means to growth? We do not generate or verify values, rather we perform up to the values the world upholds.

There are three reasons why questioning the capitalism has ceased in the last decade, in particular. The other major ideological systems such as socialism and communism no more have any significant influence, thus capitalism does not need constant justification. The "liberalization" of all major world economies has made capitalism a "universal" system, thus it appears as the soul foundation for values. The multinational corporations have expanded and are the driving force behind governments and economy, thus the society do not want jeopardize its livelihood.

Sartre is right, "I have to realize the meaning of the world and my essence; I make my decision concerning them-without justification and without excuse", so does the society. Time is now that we discard excuses and take responsibility for environment, corporations, globalization and technology. For all the potential of capitalism, we must not act in bad faith towards it.

Works Cited and Acknowledgements

(References from pages 447 to 452)
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1999.
Existentialism and human emotions. In philosophy: The quest for truth. Edited by Louis P. Pojman Belmont.
California: Wadsworth.

(References from 253 to 273)
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1996.
Selections from being and nothingness. In existentialist philosophy: An introduction.
New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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