Living in bad faith, the idea put forth by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre helps us reflect upon the beliefs we hold true. The truths we use throughout our daily lives without ever being aware of them. Understanding the concept of ‘acting in bad faith’ is an essential tool for becoming aware of our own lives.
Now, Sartre is a popular existentialist philosopher, but you need not accept all the arguments of a school of philosophy to find value in their ideas. Various ideas in philosophy can still help examine your life, determining what you want out of life, a sense of purpose, and how you view the world. And maybe most importantly, understanding why you hold those beliefs of the world.
Part of the reason I find this concept of ‘living in bad faith’ so applicable today is a survey that I just couldn’t get out of my mind.
A Gallup Poll found that only 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers are engaged at work. From 2000 to 2018, only about 30% of workers have felt engaged with their work in the US.
Meaning, they are unhappy with some part of the work situation, the very thing they have to do for at least 40 hrs a week. They might enjoy what they do, but they face issues with their co-workers, their boss, their working conditions, or their economic situation.
We must be careful what conclusions we draw from polling statistics, but let’s explore something we could do about this major area of dissatisfaction we see. And life is short, we should reflect on why we are doing something that doesn’t give us a sense of purpose for much of our short lives. Although it might be hard for us to influence the cultural shifts we need(topic for another day), we can evaluate ourselves individually to make the most out of life.
So what is living in bad faith?
Quick Plug:): Journey into the Mind #2 - Ayahuasca — Bonus Episode
Many of us join political groups, holding the views of a said group while having a vile hatred of the other side. Why? Because it’s the will of the groups’ leaders. Us falling in line with the words of those of which we admire. Are we living in bad faith because of this?
Possibly. Ask yourself how many of those pledging allegiances to a particular political group actually understand that group’s viewpoints and the viewpoints of the other side?
So these couple issues I’ve mentioned that we face in life daily are where we can bring in Sartre’s idea of ‘living in bad faith.’ Let’s start with a quote from him:
“From the very fact, indeed, that I am conscious of the motives which solicit my action, these motives are already transcendent objects from my consciousness, they are outside; in vain shall I seek to cling to them: I escape from them through my very existence. I am condemned to exist forever beyond my essence, beyond the affective and rational motives of my act: I am condemned to be free.”
The idea of being condemned to be free, being thrown into existence, and forced to suffer in anguish.
So what does living in bad faith have to do with being condemned to be free?
First, the traditional idea of faith is putting your trust in something even though the evidence is not there, just believing without evidence. But the idea of being condemned to be free is pointing out just how free we are, with any choice you have in front of you there are many more alternative possibilities.
We just fail to consider them.
Thus, living in bad faith is when we live in denial of the amount of freedom we have.
For Sartre, many of us struggle to accept this freedom that we hold(me included).
According to Sartre, when you live in bad faith, you’re not living authentically.
Denying our freedom is easier, we don’t want to accept all the choices we hold, so instead, we choose to not genuinely consider those choices. Why? Well, we are in a state of fear. We cease to consider our freedom because we are afraid to make the wrong choice.
Sartre helps put this into perspective by saying:
“It is therefore senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”
So bad faith occurs when we lie to ourselves. Although this might prevent suffering in the short term, it’s harmful to us over the long term. Living in bad faith allows us to put the blame elsewhere. Placing it deep into our minds to avoid the thought itself—we further the lie to ourselves.
For example, saying I have to do this job; I had to go back to school; I had to buy that new device, but in every one of those decisions, we often fail to stop and consider all the possible choices we could have made.
We get this sense of negative ecstasy when we realize the choices we have. We suppress this idea, we subconsciously forget and stop thinking about it. This worry of uncertainty about the choice we ought to make brings us an anxiety that we work to avoid. However, it leads us into a state of constant suffering over the long term.
So living in bad faith keeps those negative thoughts out of our mind, disassociating ourselves from our actions, putting the blame elsewhere, as though you were forced to take that job you knew you would hate.
Now, most of the time we don’t even realize we are living in bad faith, so thinking about this and being aware of this reality is helpful in itself.
This idea of bad faith by Sartre is not about setting a standard for what is a good life or what is a bad life, it’s trying to force you to be aware of your lack of individual understanding of your own life. It’s about determining if you’re living in bad faith!
You determine the feeling of fulfillment.
So if you want to be a plumber and you found love in unclogging toilets, you want to do it every day for the rest of your life. You have thought about it, internalized it, and you have considered all the options honestly — you can decide to be a plumber in good faith, and more power to you. You’ve accepted your freedom and actualized who you are meant to be.
If you want to have a spouse, house, kids, and live the superb life. If you have genuinely determined you want this, you are living in good faith and you’ve accepted your freedom.
The important thing for Sartre is understanding the reasons for your actions. Happily put faith in what you do — then passionately act upon your choice.
Now, the understanding of intention is important for internalizing Sartre’s concept of ‘acting in bad faith’. Intentions don’t matter for Sartre, meaning that if you understand what you want in life — the actions you want to take, but you always make excuses for your failure to act, you’re acting in bad faith. Your intentions to live the life you want doesn’t matter, it’s the actions you’re taking to make the life you want that truly matters.
The ‘Opportunity Friend’
For example, if you have a friend that’s always talking about their next great business idea they want you in on. They always express how this business idea will have them making it big — money, fast cars, and multiple properties. Yet, that friend never seems to have anything planned out for their idea. They always have an excuse for their previous business plan’s shortcomings. And always seem to have an excuse for not acting. But they have the intention of acting!
Their excuses for not acting are a denial of choice in the mind of Sartre.
The friend’s intent didn’t matter. Their intent to live the ‘high life’ didn’t matter. They are living in bad faith. If they were to take action, work toward that life they imagine, then they would be living in good faith. Even if they failed while acting, they can still be acting in good faith. It’s the failure to act and make excuses for inaction that is acting in bad faith.
The Daily Mundane
But let’s try to create a more personal example that faces millions of humans on this planet, the 9–5 office job. Imagine you have a job selling paper (The Office) where you live your life trying to sell this product. The office atmosphere is fragmenting your inner self, you constantly do the same mundane task daily, and you never really stop thinking about work. Even when you leave, you’re thinking about work. Your dread of coming into work the next day keeps your mind in a state of unease.
You become consumed by work. But for Sartre, if you never question the mundane work lifestyle you hold and you never question the possibility of switching jobs, you’re living in bad faith. Why? Because you are making excuses about why you have to do the job you do. You’re denying the freedom to do something else — or at the very least working toward something else.
Only you can realize you’re living in bad faith. And an extension of this problem is others around you can’t truly know if you’re living in bad faith. It has to be a self-reflective journey of understanding only you can make.
But why do we fail to act? To change? We are afraid of the despair of choosing, as choice opens the possibility for the perception of failure. But we must remember, the opportunity of choice is always right in front of us.
The point for Sartre is we should be aware of our acting in bad faith because denying freedom — not choosing to be aware of our personal meaning of life — is a choice in itself. That choice is a freedom that many of us deny.
Quick Plug:): Psychedelics and Alcohol — Bonus Episode
Become present and aware of the choices you’re making. Reflect on why you are at your job. What choices do you have from that understanding? Reflect on your relationships. What choices do you have after understanding them? Reflect on your goals, values, and perception of meaning. What choices do you have after understanding them?
But what are the results of living in good faith? Well, it doesn’t come without consequences. Once we stop acting in bad faith and turn towards good, we face the reality of our own personal existential crisis. However, the happiness, personal awareness, and the understanding of our choices on the other end is something worth striving for.
Once we face a period of questioning our perception of common sense, asking ‘why did I buy this house’, ‘why did I get married so young’, ‘why didn’t I wait to have kids’, and ‘why did I need to take that job.’ You first realize that ultimate responsibility is to ourselves and then understand you hold the power of choice. This brought me closer to a state of inner peace.
The decider for what is best for you is not the social world influenced by projections of others — it’s you. Those getting that expensive house, cars, and marrying into their dead-end relationship, could these people be living in bad faith? And then ask yourself what could change for them if they accepted their freedom, reflected on their choices, and began living in good faith.
Living in good faith can give us a better understanding of our lives, death, and our finite existence. This acceptance of freedom will allow us to choose more consciously about how we spend our time, what we prioritize, and the people we choose to develop relationships with.
We have many choices to face every day and some level of regret is unavoidable, yet we are forced to decide — that’s inevitable.
But remember, some level of uncertainty is certain, embrace it. Learn from it, recognize it, be with it, and then move on to the next choice.
Plot your course. Your own course. One reality all of humanity faces is choice, so go out and enjoy being part of the human condition.
Beyond Sex in Evolutionary Biology (Free Subscriber Preview)
As always I appreciate you all for the support in this project! You really help me keep the lights on while I do what I love…
Transcript (so excuse some weird wording:)):
I sometimes wonder if we don't doubt evolutionary biology enough. In that maybe it is overreaching in it's claims about sexual selection being the ultimate main driver of human action. Sure, it's a simple and clean explanation for explaining human behavior...it's the Occam's razor of evolutionary explanations…
My outside content:
Podcast - The Philosophy Guy
Chat soon! I hope you all have a wonderful day. Stay curious!