In the wake of poststructuralism, with its glorification of the libidinal play of unaccountable, fragmented subjectivities, the concept of personal responsibility has been rehabilitated. From the French fascination with various forms of neo-Kantianism to the American interest in homey (albeit demagogic) books on the virtues, personal responsibility is regaining currency. But what, exactly, does it mean to be personally responsible? When Albert Camus suggested in “Neither Victims Nor Executioners” that non-violence was the “responsible” position for intellectuals to take on the Algerian crisis, he was reproached for legalistically evading responsibility by his erstwhile friend Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, who offered up the concept of “absolute responsibility,” and viewed any attempt to obscure the nature of this ontological burden for oneself as “bad faith,” regarded Camus’s position as just such an attempt: “If you’re not victims when the government which you voted for, when the army in which your younger brothers are serving . . . have undertaken race murder, you are, without a shadow of a doubt, executioners.” 1 For Sartre, who tentatively advocated revolutionary violence, taking responsibility meant acknowledging that “bloodying one’s hands” is unavoidable.
The concept of personal responsibility is well considered within the context of French existentialism, which made it one of its hallmarks. In this essay, however, I shall approach personal responsibility from the vantage point of its opposite, personal irresponsibility. Towards this end, I shall consider Meursault, the protagonist in Camus’s The Stranger, whom I take to be one of the most irresponsible characters in literature. The depths of Meursault’s irresponsibility can best be appreciated, fittingly enough, within Sartre’s psychoanalytic framework. [End Page 60]
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre offers up the ontologically rooted phenomenon of bad faith, which, for present purposes, can be explicated as follows: consciousness, which is intentional (nothing more than that which it is conscious of), reflectively reconstitutes the Self, which does not exist in consciousness but as an object in the external world. There is no intrinsic Self, and the Self that does exist is perpetually being transcended. Despite this state of unremitting transcendence, however, at any point in time there are the undeniable facts of our particular existences, which (however we choose to interpret them) define the range of our possible projects. These brute facts, which are inexorable, constitute our facticity. Thus, Sartre tells us, there is a “double property of the human being, who is at once a facticity and a transcendence” (B&N, p. 98). 2 It is in a person’s approach to the relationship between these two properties, which is marked by an irresolvable tension, that bad faith arises: “Bad faith does not wish either to coordinate them or to surmount them in a synthesis. Bad faith seeks to affirm their identity while preserving their differences. It must affirm facticity as being transcendence and transcendence as being facticity, in such a way that at the instant when a person apprehends the one, he can find himself abruptly faced with the other” (B&N, p. 98).
Sartre provides numerous illustrations of individuals who flee from either their facticity or transcendence. For example, there is the homosexual and his interlocutor, the “champion of sincerity.” The former, despite repeated homosexual encounters, refuses to draw the conclusion that he is a homosexual; instead, he sees both his past behavior and his present inclinations as part of a “restless search.” Conversely, the latter demands that the homosexual sincerely avow what he is, “a homosexual.” Both are in bad faith. The homosexual denies responsibility for all that he has done by perpetually pushing his conception of Self into the future, and thus perpetually beyond the reach of his ability to make judgments about himself—he makes a mockery of his past and present choices. The champion of sincerity, on the other hand, pushes the homosexual’s conception of Self into the past in order to make it a thing—he denies the homosexual’s (and perhaps his own) freedom to make future choices, which is what enables us to transcend what we presently are. The former flees facticity; the latter, transcendence.
All persons in bad faith fall...