Summary: this philosophy paper absorbs the ideas of Sartre and connects it to Camus’ “The Stranger’: 1. There isn’t predefined human nature besides what man constitutes, and there aren’t principles that circumstances have to abide to, which leaves man has no control over anything except his own will. 2. Man has absolute freedom over his actions and being, as well as full responsibility for his choices and the corresponding consequences. 3. It doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want, because other people’s distinct being, feelings, and experiences are as real and valuable as ours.
The Stranger by Camus tells the story of a shipping clerk, Meursault, a detached man who lives an ordinary life and doesn’t follow social expectations. He attends the funeral of his mother, whom was sent to group home by him for their good, then makes out with a new girlfriend, Marie, the next day, befriends a pimp, Raymond, goes to the beach under Raymond’s invitation, confronted by some Arabs, one of whose sister is Raymond’s girlfriend who cheats on him and is harshly punished for this, eventually kills one man, and is sentenced for death after a trial where people judge his character more than his crime. This novel suggests the absence of superior principles that things and man must abide by and thus the absolute freedom of man over his actions and being, as well as the inevitable responsibility man has over his choices and the corresponding consequences, and further believes that the authenticity of other man’s beings and experiences and susceptibility to harm is what makes morality exist.
The underlying argument of this novel is that man always have a choice, for there aren’t any independent conception of any incidents or persons besides the reality that the persons involved are committed to. Meursault’s way of thinking reflects the public mind’s refusal to acknowledge or value the freedom of his actions. For the majority of the novel, Meursault seems to take whatever actions the surrounding events or people push him towards and don’t bother to see any other way: he goes to work every day, thinking it boring but does it as a routine; he passively agrees to be Raymond’s accomplice in his underground affairs because he feels like doing it—or at least neither disgusted, bored, or perplexed by the idea—and passively take part in bodily committing violence, which eventually leads to his crime, because that’s what Raymond asks from him as a friend. He plays along and makes the convenient choices because he “doesn’t see a reason not to”, and detaches himself from the responsibility of his actions; he thinks there are certain laws of how things would go, and the “things” include his own inner feelings.
It seems that Meursault would definitely follow Raymond even to hell because that’s what the depth of his friendship naturally pushes him too. This justification, however, implies a confusion of causal relations: the nature or depth of sentiments are constituted, fashioned and defined as certain actions are taken. Only his actions could put a value to his friendship, so the value of friendship shouldn’t be a reason for his actions. The novel’s narration of Meursault’s other similar psychological processes proves and reinforces the above point, that the nature or attributes of a man isn’t what constitutes actions, and could only constitute certain actions, but is rather constantly constituted by actions.
Throughout the book, just while Meursault could’ve had many chances to redefine his friendship with Raymond, he also has many chances to alter and strengthen his bonds with other people simply by allowing himself to act out what he feels. He could have shown interest in Marie’s plan for later after they part ways after a date-walk, which he is interested in, but instead feels like it’s not his place to ask; he could have shaken hands with the examining magistrate who questioned him after he found that man reasonable and pleasant, but he refrains from acting out such respect because, again, that’s out of place for a criminal. Assuming any underlying features of himself to prevent himself from being himself—if we describe what Meursault is doing as such, the implied idea that there is more of what one could be other than his exhibited nature just couldn’t be true because nature, by definition, means what one essentially and consistently is. So the resolution to this contradiction is: there isn’t any nature of human or a person, at least not a fixed and predetermined one. It doesn’t mean that man couldn’t be defined; instead, man is continuously self-defined by his actions. Man isn’t an actor of a script to watch his role being unfolded in actions; man exists and becomes as his actions.
In objection to the conventional wisdom that circumstances limit the possibilities of actions, this novel points out that regardless of what the circumstances are, no action is impossible. At the end of Part 1, Meursault sort of attains the realization of the freedom he possesses: when he meets the Arab again at the beach, he realizes that if only for safety case, he could simply turn around, and while partly blames the heat for driving him to do so—the heat actually means more than the literal—he also admits that doing whatever isn’t gonna change that, because the literal heat would remain, and the implication of heat. Shooting is not necessary for the circumstances, especially considering the complication of possibilities of the circumstances—Meursault doesn’t have control over anything besides himself and couldn’t predict any outcomes, and since he possibly couldn’t know how his actions would serve the circumstances or at least knows that the world around wouldn’t bend to his will, what he has and only has control over is his own will to act.
As what Meursault realizes: it’s his choice whether to shoot or not to shoot. When he finally shoots, it’s him making the decision for a reason he chooses: he doesn’t like the transpassing of other human beings into his solitude, and he actualizes this feeling by eliminating that human being. Just like there isn’t a superior conception of what a person’s being is, there aren’t undefiable principles that incidents are deemed to follow. It means (1) man has the freedom to act upon his will; (2) the only thing he could rely on is his will, for he has no control over anything external, and should disinterest himself from possibilities beyond the sole physical possibilities of carrying out his actions. That man’s being is defined by actions and the being prevails over any preconception and external conditions, leads to the conclusion which Meursault attains at the end of the novel and of his life, “I had lived my life one way and I could have lived it another”. Man, and only man, creates his own life and self; man must and could only possibly live up to his own will and be true to himself.
Man is condemned to freedom, but it doesn’t mean he could do whatever he wants: because he is also condemned to responsibility for the consequences of his actions, be it his future or others’, because now there aren’t predetermined ways that life would certainly follow and man’s actions are what makes real differences.
Meursault represents the kind of bad faiths that nothing matters because he’s and some of us have seen the irrelevant nature of the laws written by society, and then there’s nothing in place to guide right and wrong. His realization makes him understand that what most of the people do and follow is stupid—crying and refraining from sex for someone who’s dead and couldn’t know anything, etc., which contributes to his mistake of alienating himself from others. He doesn’t genuinely connect with others: in his mother’s funeral, he points out he doesn’t feel his mother’s friends “really exist” because he doesn’t know them, and he feels annoyed at the women crying out of their sadness, completely dismissing what they are going through; he sees Marie as only one of the woman, but never loves her for her Marieness.
A more obvious demonstration of this kind of objectification of other people is the trial of Meursault’s murder: when the prosecutor indignantly judges Meursault to be someone who “doesn’t have a soul and nothing human, not one of the moral principles within his reach” and therefore justice, instead of mercy, is what he deserves, he considers Meursault simply something foreign to the society he lives in and thus the threat, the enemy, but he forgets that Meursault is a living human being who has a mind, a life, and a world of his own. He and the jurors don’t bother to really know Meursault; most of them hear Meursault’s strangeness and then are not listening to Meursault’s friends’ description of his virtues. This is the mindset of the whole trial: it isn’t about the person whose fate it is concerned, but rather about themes and slogans—they block out the most direct side, the saddest fact about this decision, which is that the patient is to die after guillotine and there would be “no chance at all, absolutely none”, and instead they’re preserving justice, they’re preserving their society, and that it’s a painful yet honorable duty for them, instead of a much more painful loss, “an open-and-shut case, a fixed arrangement, a tacit agreement that there was no question of going back on” of the man standing and breathing right before them at this moment! Cruelty takes place not necessarily because of the sadistic intent to harm and destroy, but because of thoughtlessness: because people don’t see that others’ lives and feelings are as real as their own; because they turn a blind eye to the consequences of their actions as long as they are free of consequences.
In abandonment of superior commandments, what tells right from wrong would be whether harm is inflicted on other living human beings. The authentic ground of morality is the equal authenticity of others’ pleasure, pain, consciousness, and being as one’s own. The key is to care and see: regarding others as no means, but the end in itself. Meursault doesn’t like cops and thus won’t listen to them telling him that he shouldn’t write a letter for luring Raymond’s girlfriend to have sex with him and receive her beating at the last minute, but if he thinks about that it’s not only about him doing a favor for and not upsetting his friend, but more directly about a woman being tortured and her heart being broken, and if he sees the woman as a living, thinking, and feeling being of her own instead of a target of Raymond’s dirty trick, a dirty trick that he takes part in, he would see a reason not to.
In the last several paragraphs of the novel, Meursault feels the impending death to be very real and contemplates the heaviness of killing—because it would be him being killed. And he concludes, “Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife.” He calls others as privileged and condemned as him and thus his brother. He feels sympathy and empathy, because this time he isn’t free of consequences any more and he, not anyone else, would suffer, and that’s how he understands that others aren’t that different from him: all of the human beings have life and choices and feelings and sufferings, and what they each go through are equally real as one another’s and his. Furthermore, just as what Sartre says in his speech Existentialism is Humanism, if man defines and becomes himself through actions and he is up to be faithful to his own will, every action he makes would be what he thinks to be the best in terms of what a man could be. By committing oneself to certain activities, such as attending a party or getting married and having children, one chooses that it is the best thing to do as man, and thus decide that it is the best thing for everyone else to do, too: by committing himself to an action, he defines what it means to be man, which applies to every man.
Thus, the humanistic approach to morality would be: by recognizing that we are each one of the man race who strive together to define ourselves and whose respective actions have consequences on others, for an action to be right by anyone, it must be right by everyone.