Ethical Theory Summary – Existential Ethics

Existentialism sees the universe as an uncaring, often antagonistic place. Because of this, existentialists believe that it is impossible to know the reason and purpose of human life; without a divine presence, they feel that free will and personal responsibility govern the consequences of all people’s actions (Pierpoli, 2011). In an article that considers whether Existential Ethics are even possible, Jonathan Crowe points out that Existential Ethics are often seen as a form of moral subjectivism; the idea that morality is completely individual: “There is no objective way of judging one person’s moral preferences to be better or worse than those of another” (Crowe, 2004). Often criticized for this very sentiment, Existentialists believe that the individual, rather than the society or culture, is responsible for making decisions based on one’s own experience and judgements. Existentialism incorporates ideas of authenticity (being true to the self), absurdity (the need to create order in a chaotic world), alienation (often brought on by the absurdity of life), the idea that existence precedes essence (humans are born and then define themselves), and individualism (Existentialism, 2016). Often criticized for its “anything goes” attitude, existential ethics emphasize reliance on free will and personal responsibility. To quickly define existential ethics, existentialists reject the Aristotelian notion that one can see the good in mankind once one understands the ultimate reason for human existence, because humans define themselves after birth and have free will, and ultimately cannot be compelled into undesirable actions (Ethics, 2016).

Differing widely from other traditional Western philosophies, Existential thought came out of nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophy, and was focused on an examination of the solitary nature of human existence. Often seen to be a writing movement as well as a philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard is often considered to be the father of Existentialism, but other authors such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre were influential in creating the movement as well (Pierpaoli, 2011). These thinkers believed that rational consciousness is the only way to understand the human condition: “Sartre argues that one is morally obliged to recognize the value of both one’s own freedom and the freedom of others” (Crowe, 2004).  Existentialists argue that freedom itself is its own moral compass. People should be able to freely make choices that allow them to do what is best for their own self interests. Morality “becomes a function of individual preferences” and does not always point to one single course of action (Crowe, 2004). In early twentieth century Germany, many cited Existentialism as their rational for supporting Nazism. While not a popular ethic, Existentialism focuses on the individual need of the person enacting their own will on the world around them.

Existential philosophy was heavily influenced by the World Wars and Twentieth Century Imperialism. It seems fairly obvious why these events would have influenced philosophical thought. People were seeking answers to the conditions and horrors that were occurring in the world around them (Pierpaoli, 2011). The idea that God was dead and that we had killed Him was espoused in the works of Nietzsche, and characterizes the world view of existentialism.  Atheism is a major element of existentialism: when applied to an ethical philosophy, atheism, or the idea that we are not governed by a higher power, yields the driving notion that we are responsible for our own actions.

Twentieth Century United States militarism and industrialism lent an existential element to the works of authors such as Ayn Rand, whose work is characterized by the notion that personal responsibility is exemplified by a quest for power and wealth. This has become a staple of certain modern political movements and can be seen in the current political climate. But Rand’s views are also very different from Kierkegaard and Sartre, showing how truly differing the thoughts and beliefs of existential ethics really are. The idea that we are all ultimately doomed to failure is common: “all are on principle doomed to failure…it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations” (Bell, 1999). In stark contrast, some contemporary Existential ethics focus on personal freedom, and the idea that freedom of speech and thought is effected and enacted within the society of other free individuals. An exponent of this type of Existentialism, John Lennon, embraced Existential thought when as a Beatle he performed in Hamburg to an audience of ‘exies’ who influenced the band’s hair styles and dress. Lennon summed up his philosophy in what came to be his legacy lyric: “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky/ Imagine all the people/ Living for today…” (John Lennon, “Imagine”).


Bell, L. A. (1999). 2.5 Existential Ethics. In S. Glendinning (Ed.), The Edinburgh encyclopedia of continental philosophy. Edinburg, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.Retrieved from

Ethics. (2016). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Existentialism. (2016). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Crowe, J. (2004). Is an existentialist ethics possible? Philosophy Now, (47), 29-30. Retrieved from

Pierpaoli, P. (2011). Existentialism. In A. Andrea, World history encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Retrieved from