The dilemma encountered by one of Sartre’s students is frequently analyzed in works on ethics and philosophy (Statman 17; Detmer, Sartre Explained 169). The problem is that a young man is torn between the desire to revenge for his brother’s death and fulfilling his duty as a son (Statman 17). As Sartre argues, morality is focused on the notion that individuals are free to make decisions (Peters 203). Also, the philosopher remarks that every person should make a clear distinction between values and facts (Detmer, Freedom as a Value 161).
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Thus, Sartre does not think that the student can appeal to a religious doctrine when making his decision. Sartre mentions that according to Christian doctrine, people are advised to act with charity and choose the way that is the hardest (6). In this particular case, according to the philosopher, religious doctrine cannot help the student to decide because it is impossible to identify which of the ways is the hardest (Sartre 6). The student has three crucial issues to consider: brotherly love, patriotic feelings, and devotedness to his mother (Sartre 6). As Sartre remarks, no one can say which of these problems is the greatest one, and which decision would be the noblest (6). Thus, Christianity is not considered by the philosopher as a helpful approach to solving the dilemma.
Another option the student could resort to is writing a list of pros and cons to solve his dilemma. However, Sartre does not regard such a possibility as a viable option. He argues that feelings are formed by individuals’ deeds (Sartre 6). Thus, as he mentions, people can’t guide their actions by opinions since actions always occur first. Even if a person goes to someone for advice, he or she most likely knows the answer that advisor will give (Sartre 7). Swedene also thinks that it is impossible to solve the student’s dilemma (39). According to Swedene, in this case, there is no dilemma as such since “dilemmas require that there be two mutually exclusive and non-overridden oughts” whereas student’s concerns are not mutually exclusive (39). Also, the student’s remorse disables him from making a clear distinction between the issues he is evaluating (Gill 184). Therefore, Sartre does not consider it feasible for the student to appeal to a religious doctrine or make a list of pros and cons to solve his dilemma (6-7).
Detmer, David. Freedom as a Value: A Critique of the Ethical Theory of Jean-Paul Sartre. Open Court, 1988.
Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity. Open Court, 2008.
Gill, Michael B. Humean Moral Pluralism. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Peters, Ian M. “Choosing Sides: Occupation or Resistance?” Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked up? edited by Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin, Open Court, 2008, pp. 201-210.
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Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. 1946, Web.
Statman, Daniel. Moral Dilemmas. Rodopi, 1995.
Swedene, Jason K. A Philosophy of Moral Dilemmas: Why We Should Not Feel Guilty About Things We Have Done. Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.