Reading Sartre's Second Ethics

Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone
Monday, July 10, 2023

Welcome to this gathering, Reading Sartre’s Second Ethics: Morality, History and Integral Humanity by the authors, Betsy Bowman & Bob Stone, edited by Matthew Ally. This is our first public presentation of our book. The gathering is both in person and by Zoom. On Zoom we now have about 35 online participants. We hope you will contribute comments and questions to what we hope will start a good conversation.

We co-founded the Center for Global Justice with the late and much missed Cliff Durand 20 years ago. We also wrote our book on Jean-Paul Sartre’s second ethics titled Reading Sartre’s Second Ethics subtitled Morality, History & Integral Humanity. Capping 40 years’ study of the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, work begun in 1982, we hold that his second ethics of 1964-5 speaks to us in our epoch. After a condensed overview of the second ethics we’ll discuss with you if and how much it helps us now.

In August 1945 atomic bombs ended World War II; now, seventy-four years later, improved versions of those bombs still threaten humans and life generally – even more credibly. We and Sartre both live under this 74-year-old nuclear threat which defines our epoch. Mere weeks after the bombings Sartre noted the new epoch’s fascination with collective suicide or omnicide. Suicide or not was a choice we must each make for “in each of us humanity discovers its potential death, takes responsibility for its life and death.”1 What does Sartre teach us about life in the age of omnicide?

In October of 1945, in a part of his first ethics titled Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre held that since we are defined neither by God nor genetics but by rather by what our own free historical acts project as norms. Being thus defined by what we do, we re-make But whatis history and how do our acts make? Since those actsconstitute history, for good or ill, answers to such questions will help us do that better. But while the 1945 lecture called for making a new history it was silent on history and it’s making.

In 1960, Sartre diagnosed our difficulty that year in Critique of Dialectical Reason (CDR). We’ve produced ourselves up to now indirectly as “products of our product,” he held there, we serve systems like capitalism (and Stalinism) instead of directly making ourselves. How is that done? CRD in 1960 left that for the second ethics to say. It came along in 1964.

Meanwhile the 1960s began. Cuba’s 1959 revolution won and Algeria gained independence in 1962. For Sartre these major liberating events called for a new global ethics grounded in need. Resisters to Nazi and French torture (in Algeria) had unveiled the power of ethical conduct to history. They confirmed Kant’s insight that if we morally ought to do act x, then we can do it, since we can’t be duty bound to do the impossible.

At the center of the second ethics, our needs posit “integral humanity” as “unconditionally possible” end, and elicit human work as means to it. “The entire human group” by altering nature directly< restores integrity to all – that is it meets all – which can be done without subordination to a system. As end “integral humanity” (referring both to satisfied needs and all humans) is the “synthetic unity” of all the means to itself taken as parts or moments of an evolving whole or “totalization.” For a means to be accepted into that ongoing project it must also be aimed at humanity. This growing synthesis is therefore also a criterion by which revolutionaries can avoid anti-human means that would “explode” the unity they would enter. Terror is not ruled out but must never be used first, or excused, or used to govern. In this way Sartre built Camusian moral restraints into the revolutionary act.

To lay out in more detail for the philosophers in the audience Sartre’s entire work entitled “Morality and History” based on two previously unpublished lecture manuscripts describe the unfolding totalization of history as the dramatic development of morality. First examining moral phenomena such as imperatives, values, institutions etc. Sartre deduces their common structure of unconditional possibility. Any moral norm posits itself as unconditionally possible. That is not to say it is necessarily successful, like the Medieval Knight who dies while also saving honor. This human activity or praxis invents means to its end. Invention is thus the root of the unconditionally possible. This root comes from need which is always its own justification, and it posits the unconditionally possible invention founded in need as precisely what the human needs to meet its needs. Sartre calls this integral humanity. But the play we are in is, up to now, is in its second act, as it were. As such it describes our situation or conjuncture. The question is, what are we to do about it? We (and I mean we in the full sense of collective agency) must write or enact the third act as resolution. What we had observed must now be mere raw material awaiting our own intervention in order to have the meaning we give it rather than continuing to be observers to nuclear or climate catastrophe. Our situation today is that the drama is headed to omnicide Where are we and who is available to act with us to complete the moral drama up to now?

Sartre’s second ethics resonates with other fellow travelers among us. Take Silvia Federici’s analysis of women’s unpaid reproductive labor. Being excluded from the wage paid workers by owners, this free labor allowed capital accumulation to start and still today still makes profits possible. Federici instead favors sharing such labor since, by freeing us from imperatives to grow capital first, we would all make integral humanity.2 Systematic subordination of human flourishing to capital’s flourishing is traced by Tony Smith.3 Self-management and worker ownership as described in David Schweickart’s work shows concrete paths away from capital’s concentration. Focus on making humanity de-externalizes our catastrophic destruction of nature, as shown by Matthew Ally, Joel Kovel and others.4 Yaris Varoufakis’s recent advocacy of workplace democracy to Cuba’s parliament echoes Sartre’s opening of new roads to integral humanity.5 Were humans to recognize the moral primacy that Sartre awards to needs we’d end the Ukraine war so its rich soil could head off huge famines building in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Honduras. Given Sartre’s endorsement of Fidel Castro’s views on need in 1960, today’s closest fellow travelers with his second ethics may be the Cuban people whose personal practice of international aid in medical missions wherever needed - equal to the World Health Organization and despite an embargo of needed materials – demonstrates heroic human solidarity.6

Those familiar with Marx will recognize similarities between Sartre’s integral humanity and Marx’s communism. Both would structure social collaboration on the maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” But where communism envisions constructing a system of people’s control of the means of production and distribution, integral humanity envisions liberating long exploited capacities to flourish in unknowable and unpredictable ways. Where communism is a system to be built and managed, integral humanity is a task of creating ourselves “beyond all systems” - constantly sharpening our recognition of how tethering innovations differ from liberating ones.

Returning to the hopeful 1964-5 context into which Sartre inserted the second ethics, the Cuban and Algerian liberations were not followed by anything like global uprisings of 1968, as Sartre might have expected. 1968’s rotating uprisings zig-zagged round the planet sparked by the January Tet offensive in Vietnam, and led to a full year of global rebellion and giving the 60s their theme. In February 1965, Sartre may have discerned in President Johnson’s fierce bombing of North Vietnam a global< repression of uprisings like Cuba and Algeria. Sartre may or may not have been wise to cancel his Cornell lectures planned for that Spring in protest of the repression. He postponed work on them and ultimately abandoned them.

In 1986 Simone de Beauvoir wrote us that in her view the ethics of 1964-5 was “the culminating point” of Sartre’s ethical thought. In 1947, rejecting both U.S. capitalism and Soviet Stalinism, Sartre had called for a neutral Europe to lead the world to peace. To close class divisions he called for a new socialist humanism. Against anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism he emphasized such a humanism’s inclusiveness. In 1952 he traced de-humanization of gays to projection by fearful homophobes. And his many writings on colonialism and imperialism called for something like at least a global debate on realizing integral humanity.

Our presentation ends on that note. We now ask if we’ve told you enough about our book on Sartre’s second ethics for you to say whether coincidentally it appears just when its call for a global uprising to save human and other life on earth seems most pertinent. In fact, as the USA’s own global empire starts a decline like those of Britain and France, leaking moral credibility each day it continues to practice torture, we wonder if the second ethics may even be more pertinent than when it was written in 1964-5?