What should we do about suffering? Jean-Paul Sartre on human responsibility

by Zelalem Amera, September 29, 2022

There is so much suffering in the world. Fyodor Dostoevsky explores this suffering in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, where he tells the story of three brothers, Ivan, Alyosha, and Dimitri. They each symbolize philosophically distinct ideas, and Ivan Karamazov, who embodies the voice of creeping nihilism, has a memorable conversation with his monk brother Alyosha (whom he considers naive). He goes on an animated rant, telling Alyosha the story of a five-year-old girl who is locked up in a shed by her parents covered in excrement; Turk soldiers who ripped out a baby from the mother’s womb and impaled it with their spears for sport; parents who physically abused their seven-year-old girl and were acquitted by a jury to continue their horrific antics; and a man who let loose a pack of dogs on a young boy and forced his mother to watch because the boy had hurt one of his hounds (Dostoevsky). 

This is only a small excerpt of the accounts of human suffering that Ivan describes. His speech on the problem of evil is one of the most moving sections in Dostoyevsky’s novel. By the end of Ivan’s tirade, we have a bleak depressing picture of what human suffering is about. Even Alyosha, the ever optimistic and faithful character, seems to doubt his own beliefs by the end. 

The world is full of injustices that offend us in ways that other things don’t. This kind of injustice is personal. It puts a void in our peace and makes us see the brutality of life. Perhaps for the sufferers it’s normal, but we cannot ignore this reality in good conscience. Turning a blind eye won’t make this fact go away. What are we to do with human suffering?

The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tries to address this question in his book Being and Nothingness, where he lays out an entire ontological framework for human reality. In the end, all Sartre says to conclude is, “All of these questions refer us to a pure, and not complicit, reflection. They can be answered only within the domain of morality, to which we will devote a future work” (Being and Nothingness 811). What an anticlimactic way to end such a profound work! Despite the immense scope of his book, which covers everything from consciousness and bad faith, to love, relationships, and society in general, we will try to simplify and explore one common theme which runs throughout, the relationship between freedom and facticity. Sartre argues in his book that human reality is structured in such a way that we are all free even in the midst of terrible circumstances. We must be free even when we don’t get to choose our reality. 

To get our readers on the same page with some of the jargon used here, freedom is simply the fact of being responsible for a choice. Sartre defines humans as fundamentally free beings. Consciousness is always consciousness of a choice. We all live in the context of a possible future, and it is through our projecting of our own possibilities that we bring a new reality, or being, into the world. You plan an action in your mind before it becomes a reality. You think about eating a sandwich before you actually get to the task of eating it. This is an example of your freedom in action. Naturally, freedom is what allows you to be happy. Happiness is being able to do what you want. To be free is to be happy. 

Facticity is what someone or thing is. It is essentially the meaning we associate with the physical manifestation of reality. “Black hair” is the facticity of the thing on your head.  

For Sartre, the idea of freedom coincides with the concept of nothingness. It is only because humans are nothing that they can bring about being. It’s a rather cryptic concept to understand, but it is not important for our discussion.

What we are interested in answering is the above mentioned question, how do we deal with suffering? We live in a time when we are hypersensitive to injustice. We are trying to create a world where everybody has an equal chance at happiness and success, but this often leads to an overwhelming amount of conflict between political parties, countries, and even among family members. In a way, we are all vulnerable to the implications of this question.

Actually, we must first take a few moments to examine why this question matters to us so much. Why does suffering matter so much? How does it affect you personally? 

Have you ever looked at someone else and wondered to yourself how it was unfair that they are prettier, taller, wealthier, or smarter than you are? It’s not like they deserved to have these things more than you did. How are you to blame for your genetics or your family? Not only that but it seems like these things ultimately affect where they end up in life. For example, if you are born to a rich family, your odds of living a more successful life are higher. If you are attractive, people will probably pay more attention to you, and it’s going to be easier for you to find friendship and love. If you are a citizen of a powerful country, it is easier for you to find employment, education, and build a life. We can even take this a step further and say that these people with natural advantages can solidify and secure their position in society, ultimately making it so that other members of society can’t be happy even when the natural conditions are leveled out. However, that is another discussion.  

This unfairness is at the essence of being in a minority group. You want to have the same fighting chance as someone else, but you are limited by your situation. If you’re from an immigrant family, you want to get into Harvard just as much as everybody else. But if due to factors outside of your control this is not possible, then obviously this would make you frustrated! Why should you be punished for something that is not your fault? How are you to blame for your financial or social circumstances? Whether or not we are on the privileged side, we can relate to the frustration of not being able to get what we want despite all our efforts. We all want to be free to pursue our happiness, but are we all free? 

We cannot choose what we are. We don’t choose our race, sex, parents, economic and social background, and country of origin. From the moment we are born, we are labeled with meaning that doesn’t come from us. How can any of us be responsible for all of it? We can’t even hold the people in power responsible for the fact that they were born to it. This is why the question matters. Are we still responsible for our happiness even though we don’t get to choose our circumstances? Can we hold people who are born in terrible conditions and live short lives accountable? Are they still free to choose? Jean-Paul Sartre would definitely argue yes. In fact, he would say that we have no choice! We will use a simple example to explore his answer.      

Imagine a tall man and a short man. They both want to be good at playing basketball. Obviously, the rules of the game discriminate against shorter people. We can all agree that from the start that the tall guy has a natural advantage over the short guy, because he has a better vantage in relation to the hoop. Neither of these two men are responsible for the facticity of their height. The tall man is not responsible for the fact that he is tall, and the short man is not responsible for his shortness. However, if we put both of them in an arena with zero experience and all other factors accounted for, we should expect to see the tall person outperform the short one.

Now, you may object to that and say, “what if the short person has better eyesight?” or “better hand eye coordination?” Well, let us assume for the moment that all these other traits have been accounted for and the short and tall person are both equal on all levels except their natural height. Besides, if height was not an important selecting factor for prowess in basketball, the NBA would not be so full of tall people. Over a period of a few months, one would expect the tall person to vastly outperform the short one, given the same amount of practice and training. The game would be significantly easier for him simply because he is taller.

But let us digress here and say that somehow that doesn’t happen. Actually, from the moment those two are put in the arena, the short man seems to perform way better than the tall person. And a few days later, the short person is even better than the taller person, to the extent where he is making most of the shots he attempts and is humiliating his opposition. So how do we explain this counterintuitive situation? 

We must imagine that when the short person went into the arena, he was thinking to himself, “I know I’m at a natural disadvantage, so I must try harder to win this game. I can’t afford to make mistakes.” Whereas the tall person was thinking to himself, “well, I’m taller than him so how hard can it be to beat him? Really, I don’t have to be that worried.” Of course, he could have thought to himself, “I should probably use my natural advantage to win against him,” but he didn’t have a reason to.  

The short man, knowing that he must try harder, plays less carelessly; he doesn’t attempt shots that don’t work; he second guesses himself more; he thinks about the best path to winning; he is more devoted to the task of winning; he finds more options; more possibilities open up to him and he exploits these possibilities. An observer might conclude that he is a “natural,” but that is not the case. He is just much more devoted to the task of winning than his competition. He is more desperate. So, the short man practices for longer hours. He works harder at getting better than the tall man and that is why he is unexpectedly better at the game than his naturally gifted competitor. It’s the classic “The Tortoise and the Hare” story we heard as children. 

So what? Have we answered the question then? Can we conclude from this that despite your natural advantages, if you don’t work hard you will lose, and despite your natural disadvantages, you can still win if you bridge the gap through your commitment and hard work? No, there is still something off.

What if we weren’t dealing with a tall person and a short person. What if that is too fair? “The Tortoise and Hare” story suggests that our freedom can bridge the gap between our natural differences. Presumably, we are all free to pursue happiness and able to get it at least in theory. If you are born in a poor country, then all you have to do is work extremely hard and you will be just as successful as someone from a wealthy country. If you are short, just make up for it by being smart or strong or something else. But this seems a bit naive, doesn’t it? 

What if the tall man was competing with a cripple? 

Ah! You might balk. Life would never be so unreasonable! Actually, life is exactly this unreasonable. A person who is born from a poor dysfunctional family in an obscure country is not just a short man, he is a crippled man. We must emphasize this point for some members of our audience who have not been outside the country. There are places in the world where people live in abysmal conditions. There are kids who are born in the middle of civil wars, who live very short, miserable lives. Surely, they can’t be expected to compete and win, right? What about people who are born with serious medical conditions that prevent them from moving or talking? And what about the people Dostoyevsky described in Ivan’s speech? No, we must hold the position that some people are indeed born cripples. 

But doesn’t this mean that we are not all free? “The Tortoise and the Hare” story does not hold up to scrutiny. Sometimes, hardwork and commitment are not enough to bridge the gap between our circumstances. Sometimes, we can’t get what we want no matter how hard we try.  

So what now? Is freedom a lie? Is it an arbitrary thing that only the privileged have? The question is now even harder to answer; how does a cripple compete in a basketball competition and expect to win? How is he responsible for his inevitable failure? How are you responsible for your happiness even though you aren’t responsible for your circumstances? 

This is where Jean Paul Sartre breaks the bad news: “We should not confuse my freedom to choose with my freedom to obtain” (Being and Nothingness 658). What does this mean? Is he trying to dodge the question with some sort of sophism? What is the use of a freedom that is stripped of its content? What’s the use of being free if you can’t be happy?

What Sartre tries to emphasize in his book is the absolute necessity of freedom for being. Nowhere in the description of his idea of freedom does he permit that a freedom necessarily has to get what it wants. In fact, the absurdity of freedom is that it’s not even free to choose itself. 

To bring it down to a practical level. What he is saying is that when it comes to happiness, nobody can get away from responsibility. Being born with advantages is not enough. You must act. It might be easier for you to get what you want, but you still need to do something. You are not free from challenges. If you are born a cripple, you will probably never beat someone at basketball (and yes, we can talk about how the modern world allows the possibility for prosthetics, but that is another arena with the same sort of problems to play out). You are still forced to play, and even if you refuse to play, that is still a choice you must be completely responsible for. 

Even if you never reach your goals because of your situation, even if you are in a position where you can’t because you are oppressed, you are still responsible for your happiness. Perhaps the absurdity in Sartre’s argument is that he suggests that a person is free to punch a brick wall continuously until his knuckles bleed. He is free to act towards a goal which he knows is impossible. If he quits, he is still free. There is nobody to blame but himself. There is no god to complain to. This is just the way it is. In fact, his oppression only makes his freedom more apparent to him. What an absurd thing to suggest! This is probably what Sartre means when he says, “nowhere were we freer than under the German occupation” (“The Republic of Silence” 1).

We cannot hide in our facticity and say, “this is my destiny.” Even the best of us need to act in order to make our goals happen. Facticity will not save you from choices. You can’t say, “I lost the game because I was short.” No, you lost the game because on a certain level, you chose to lose the game. 

Even if you lost the game because you couldn’t compete with someone taller than you, you were still responsible for winning it. Even if you have no chance at getting what you want, that still does not absolve you from the responsibility of acting. Who are you going to complain to? Who is going to fix this unfair and absurd situation? If you want to be happy, you have to try anyway. You could try to change the circumstances of course, but not every inequality can be leveled out. You don’t always have the power to level the playing field. But you always have a choice. Even if you give up on your happiness and commit suicide, it is a choice you are fully responsible for. There is no escape from freedom. As Jean Paul Sartre would put it, “I am condemned to be free” (Being and Nothingness 577).

This doesn’t sound very appealing of course! We started out with hopes of a reassuring solution to the problem of inequality but what have we concluded? That it doesn’t matter either way! Whether or not we are equal does not save us from this burden. We are all responsible for our happiness even if we don’t get to choose the playing field or what tools we have at our disposal. We are not responsible for our circumstances, but we have to be completely responsible for the outcome. This is the absurdity of life. We all must be free. Sometimes, we must be free even when our freedom is useless.

Now that we have established this conclusion, we must go off on a tangent and ask one more question: do the weak deserve to suffer then? If it’s true that human beings are completely responsible for their happiness and nobody is going to save them from choosing, doesn’t that mean people are responsible for their suffering? If you lose the game, make a mistake, or mess up your life, doesn’t that mean you deserve the outcome you chose? If you can’t blame your circumstances or your nature for your failure, and if you can’t blame God, then who else is there to blame but yourself?

The implications of this conclusion are obvious. We are not morally obligated to do anything about suffering. Everybody, even the most needy people, are responsible for their circumstances. Complaining is pointless. One must suck it up and make it work anyway. 

But isn’t this depressing?

This is the image that you get when you look at human reality from the perspective of the individual: an abandoned, lonely person, who is completely responsible for his life and must face forces way beyond his capacity to survive and be happy. Perhaps the implication of this conclusion is that to focus so heavily on the individual is unnatural. 

Human beings are social animals.We are always surrounded by people, and we will never escape from them. It seems absurd to construct a philosophy dealing exclusively with the individual. The individual is never alone in the world. He is not abandoned, he is abandoned together with the rest of human reality. It is not an I that defines human reality, it is a we. 

No, the weak do not deserve to suffer because if the individual is not powerful enough to fix his circumstances, and if there is no god who will make everything right, then that is more reason for us to take up the mantle. We did not choose to be here, so we must roll up our sleeves and get to the task of building the kind of world we want. 

But who is this “we” in all of this? Is it America? China? Russia? Is it the West or the East? Are women included in this “we?” We must refer to every conscious individual. We must somehow find a way to make a connection with everybody. You can see how this makes our task so much more difficult. Every human being working together under the same flag? That seems absurd doesn’t it? When “mankind” conquered the moon, whose flag was it that was planted on the surface? Was it really one small step for mankind? Does anything we do have this humanism in mind or are we all selfish on some level?

This is what we have concluded from our discussion on human suffering. On a fundamental level, we are all facing the same problem. We are all trying to be happy in a world we do not choose. Literally and metaphorically, we are in the same boat. There is camaraderie in that, and the injunction is to be kind to one another; not just some people, but everyone. We may never get to this utopia, but we must try, and to accept our radical freedom and responsibility is the first step. 


Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Routledge books, 1943.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. 1880. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Republic of Silence.” Lettres françaises, 1944.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s