Lesser Evilism and Bad Faith

Given that this corner of the web is named for Jean-Paul Sartre, I thought it would make sense to take a moment to address the ideas of the man himself.  One of Sartre’s best known and arguably most importnant concepts is that of Bad Faith.  Bad Faith is, at its core, a form of self-deception made possible by the very freedom it denies.  It is the use of freedom (freedom being inescapable) to deceive oneself into believing one is not free, and/or not responsible for a choice.  One of the favorite examples of existentialist philosophy professors is of a young man in occupied France who comes to Sartre to ask for advice: should he join the resistance, or stay at home to take care of his mother?  The young man acts as though he is earnestly seeking advice, but as Sartre points out, the young man is well aware that Sartre himself is a supporter of the resistance.  The young man therefore knows that Sartre will advise him to join the resistance.  He came seeking the advice he wanted in an effort to convince himself that his choice was not his, but Sartre’s.  Had he not wanted to join the resistance, he would have asked for the advice of a collaborator.  The young man has used his freedom to orchestrate a situation in which he can deny his freedom and his own inner knowledge that he has decieved himself.  In Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, the protagonist observes that all the works of man have been to convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key (ie that he is free, not determined, in his purpose).  In the case of Bad Faith, it is exactly the opposite; the individual seeks to convince himself that he is not free, but must use his freedom to do so.

If anyone reads the above and immediately thinks “Hey, that sounds a lot like the “lesser evilism” that characterizes American elections,” guess what – you’re exactly correct.  Lesser evilism, along with all the faux concern and hand wringing attached to it by the mainstream media, is a national exercise in Bad Faith.  By engaging in lesser evilism, we engage a two party duopoly that does not have our interests in mind.  This by itself is not Bad Faith; we even acknowledge the inadequacy of the two party system by noting that we seek the lesser evil.  There is no pretension that we are doing the right thing.  No, this practice becomes Bad Faith because by engaging in it, we implicitly deny that there are choices outside of the established system.  Acting on this self-imposed denial, we then throw our hands in the air and proclaim “Well, what can you do?”  We get to “admit” that the system is flawed, which only helps us convince ourselves that we have no choice but to go along.  Of course we have no choice, right?  If we did, clearly we wouldn’t choose evil at all!  We’ve constructed a national self deception by choosing to heed the advice, both explicit and implicit, of a system that offers us only evil options.  We act in Bad Faith just like Sartre’s young friend.  We use our inescapable freedom in an attempt to deny that we are free and responsible for the walking garbage for which we vote, then we refuse to admit it.  This is like asking a loan shark for financial advice, getting your legs broken when you can’t repay the loan he advised you to take, then asking him for another loan because he told you there was nowhere else to go.  Most people would easily recognize this as the behavior of a total moron, but in election years it’s “pragmatism.”  This is, of course, exactly the behavior our political elite loves to see.  How else can we maintain a plutocratic oligarchy in the skin of a representative government?

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