‘Sartre and the Moral Limits of War and Terrorism’ reviewed by Rebecca Pitt

Sartre and the Moral Limits of War and Terrorism

Routledge, New York and Abingdon, 2010. 246pp., £75 hb
ISBN 9780415871402

Reviewed by Rebecca Pitt

About the reviewer

Rebecca Pitt is currently completing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Essex entitled ‘ …


Jean-Paul Sartre’s analyses of terror and violence have been revisited by a number of scholars post-9/11. In the wake of this re-evaluation, which often explicitly focuses on Sartre’s defence of anti-colonial violence and writings on political struggle, Jennifer Ang Mei Sze both extends and challenges these interpretations through a sustained assessment of Sartre’s oeuvre. Examining the legitimacy of violence within the context of emancipation, her primary focus is on the relationship between the political and ethical in situations of war, terrorism and revolution.

Sze’s analysis is based on two contentions: the integral relation between ‘ontology, politics and ethics’ in Sartre’s writings, and an alternative to the ubiquitous bad faith of Sartre’s early work: ‘the ethics of good faith as the basic motivation for engaging with one’s concrete situation through political actions’ (28) ‘where existentialism (freedom) merges with humanist ethics (responsibility)’ (23). This is the foundation for three areas Sze develops through the course of her discussion: the relationship between ethics and action, means and ends, and a rebuttal of the general contention that intersubjectivity in Sartre’s philosophy is necessarily ‘violent’.

However, in the case of good faith, Sze’s emphasis appears to create discursive imbalance and uncritically elevate a concept which is far from uncontentious. Supported by only a small section on good faith taken from toward the end of Existentialism and Humanism (EH), Sze makes no reference to either the discussion of good and bad faith in Being and Nothingness (BN), or the extensive existing literature on this concept. By underacknowledging the complexity of good faith, Sze misses a valuable opportunity to engage explicitly with and contextualise this concept within Sartre’s wider ethical theory. Moreover, as her own argument develops it becomes apparent that good faith is only one of many interconnected concepts in Sartre’s own developing ethics.

Sze begins her investigation with a challenge to readings of intersubjectivity which present the ‘violence’ and ‘conflict’ that characterise these relations in BN as inevitable. Claiming that non-antagonistic relations with fellow for-itselves are possible, Sze is particularly concerned with replacing a perceived overemphasis on the Hegelian master/slave dialectic with a more accurate ontological basis, namely: ‘intersubjective relations as circular between opposing attitudes’ (30, 59). However, it remains unclear whether this argument addresses the central question of why ‘attitude’ takes these ‘oppositional’ forms. Is Sze in fact just emphasising a different aspect of the same problem? The importance of addressing this question does not diminish as the book progresses, forthe Critique’s ‘group-in-fusion’ is later described in similar terms: ‘the attempt at breaking through the circularity in concrete relations in Being and Nothingness through positive and negative reciprocities’ (57). Further, although comparing the master/slave dialectic with Sartrean intersubjectivity is common in existing scholarship, it is questionable whether the nuances of such accounts are given their due here: Ronald Santoni’s account in Sartre on Violence (2003, 19), for example, is reduced to a single paragraph.

Sze next considers ‘violence [a]s a response in concrete relations aimed at breaking this cycle of opposing attitudes’ (59). Analysing oppression and society in terms of concepts such as ‘value,’ ‘willing,’ ‘abstract objective value’ (including an important discussion of rights), Ang’s argument focuses on the 1964 Rome Lectures (RL) in which Sartre ‘reveal[s] why violence used for revolutions is morally more tolerable than violence used with antagonistic aims’ (74). However, whilst Sartre’s criteria for ‘limiting’ violence (27, 120) and reducing its more unpalatable aspects are important, Sze also appears to overemphasise both RL and the concept of ‘impossibility’. In the former instance, and within the context of Robert Stone’s contribution to the New Orleans debate on 9/11 [2003], Sze attributes to RL three ‘limiting conditions’ for violence: whether it is a last resort, if its use is tempered (e.g. ‘restraint’) and its ‘origin’ (e.g. does it originate from ‘the masses’ or is it imposed from above, alienating or ‘ideological’) (106-7, 120-22).

Sze goes on to highlight the importance of ‘impossibility’ via a series of redefinitions, including ‘fraternity-terror’ and the relationship between the terms ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’. The discussion subsequently readjusts its focus to assess the ‘war on terror’ itself: rejected as ‘morally inexcusable’ on the basis of the criteria outlined earlier, Sze draws into sharp focus both the outcome of the ‘war on terror’, and the methods used by the U.S. government to both manipulate and gain support for the invasion. As Sze makes clear, the ‘alienating system [which] has been imposed on Afghanistan and Iraq’ (126) and the ‘impos[ition] of ‘Otherness’ on certain Islamic nations’ (127) is oppressive.

While Sze explicitly, and correctly condemns the creation of division and ‘otherness’, the problematic self/other dichotomy could have been used to fuller effect elsewhere. Earlier, during her discussion of ‘revolutionary violence’, Sze concludes that NE’s claim that ‘the act of violence in all projects of violence (antagonistic or revolutionary) entails the destruction of the other and therefore cannot be morally good’ (119). However, in the context of this quotation from NE and in BN, it is clear that ‘Otherness’ refers to alienation (which Sze alludes to earlier) and not to the destruction of fellow persons. As Sze describes it elsewhere, and is the case here, the ‘myth of the Other’ is a central part of the problem of Otherness. Distinguishing between the concepts of alienation and oppression would have benefited this and other discussions, by clarifying the concept of ‘attitude’ on which Sze founds her analysis of intersubjectivity.

Critiquing Sartre’s theory of ‘responsibility’, Sze proposes a development of the conclusions reached by the New Orleans sessions on 9/11. Sze portrays Sartre’s ethics as developing in a straightforward manner from the ‘individual to the social’, whilst reflecting ‘an ethics of Humanity’ (151). Beginning with good faith in EH, and seemingly dismissing BN as ‘individualistic ontology’ (133), Sze argues that Sartre acknowledges the ethical importance of fellow for-itselves through NE’s description of authentic love (as opposed to the ‘possessive’ love of BN) before subsequently emphasising the need to transform the structures of human reality itself through RL’s ‘revolutionary socialist morality’. Here Sze is too quick to dismiss BN: in the course of her own discussion, she notes three, critical, interrelated, recurrent concepts – ‘passivity’, ‘repetitive morality’ and ‘abstract principles’ – which, although all broadly associated with inauthentic existence and present in Sartre’s later writings, are also criticised in Sartre’s early texts. Unfortunately, outside her analysis of intersubjectivity, Sze has little sustained analysis or inclusion of other important aspects of BN. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, but most pertinently because Sze appears to adopt, rather than question, the prevalent interpretation of Sartre’s oeuvre as only accounting for the ‘social’ or ‘political’ post-BN.

Sze’s concluding chapters assess ‘just war theory’, the role of international law and the theory and reality of democracy through the lens of Sartrean ethics and individual responsibility. In the former instances, Sze’s general argument for ‘a more moderate Sartre’ (123) is clearly reflected in her interpretation of ‘revolutionary socialist morality’: according to Sze, the aim of such an ethics is to ‘counter abstract freedom and check the excesses of the State’ (159). However, whilst Sartre is clear on the problem of ‘abstract freedom’ (for Sartre, ‘freedom’ is an ‘end’ which should be understood within its own unique context (159)), it is clear elsewhere that the role of ethics is not merely to act as a ‘check’ on the status quo – for Sartre this would be a clearly ineffectual course of action.

Sze’s analysis of democracy in the final chapter of the book continues her examination of the problematic concept of the ‘abstract’ through discussions of the individual and liberalism, ‘mystification’ and the role of ‘need’ in Sartre’s later writings. Contextualised by a variety of political events (e.g. 1968 and Tiananmen Square in 1989), Sze makes two concurrent claims: first that there is ‘an absence of ‘the People’ (165), and second, that there has been a ‘death of the Left’. Both of these ‘deficits’ are pointed up by the failure of democracies to respond to the demands of their citizens. However, whilst Sartre and Sze concur that there is something rotten at the heart of our so-called democracy, the basis for Sze’s analysis appears to lack real critical import. Sze’s claim that the categories of ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’ are outmoded, and central to the ‘failure’ of the Iraq and Afghanistan anti-war protests, is contentious.

Similar problems arise when Sze makes claims about ‘the Left’, but fails to clearly define who/what is understood by the term. Sze’s use of the term ‘institution’, moreover, is applied both to the reified structures criticised by Sartre in the Critique, but also, and problematically in light of this association, to ‘the Left’ (171). Yet it is clear from a citation that Sze herself accepts that matters are more complex than they first appear. When Sartre acknowledges that ‘the contradiction … inherent in the very nature of the party’ occurs because of the constant need for such groups to engage with and develop in relation to events themselves (170), it is clear that ‘the Left’ is not necessarily an ‘institution’ in the sense conveyed in Sartre’s later work. Despite evidence indicating a more radical position, Sze’s interpretation again appears to reflect her desire for ‘a more moderate Sartre’. Moreover, Sze interprets Sartre’s description of the revolutionary party as one in which ‘the Left’, whilst essential to the ‘post-9/11’ world, cannot be ‘spontaneous demonstration aimed at checking the increasingly assertive state presence and excesses of political institutions [as it] is unlikely to be effective’ (170-71). Whilst one should not diminish the role of ‘the Left’, and Sze does not deny that struggle itself is necessary, it is also quite clear that protest, even if it is perceived as failing, may have other outcomes. Thus although what Sze describes as the ‘failure of these anti-war protests’ provides evidence for Sartre’s contention that ‘freedom in a democracy is abstract freedom’ (159), such perceived ‘failure’ does not negate the potential for protest or direct action to develop spontaneously, and morph into something more radical than first intended. Moreover, the relationship between struggle and organised politics is more complex than Sze acknowledges.

It is well known that Sartrean authenticity requires us to take responsibility for both our own and others’ existence – whatever the outcome of our actions. Thus, although we can perhaps appeal to ‘existential humanist morality’ in order to limit and attempt to control the use of violence, as Sze suggests, there is no guarantee that we will not be ‘devoured by the very violence and terror we employ’ (160), or that, as indicated by Sze’s citation of Sartre, violence will fail in its aims (‘violence is not going to speed up the pace of history and draw humanity together’ (159)).

The scope of this book is impressive, and particularly good at highlighting lesser known, later texts. Sze discusses Sartre on Cuba and Sartre’s writings on Vietnam, none of which have (as far as I am aware) been referenced within the context of post-9/11 assessments of Sartre’s work. Whilst some issues are not fully explored, this appears problematic in relation to BN. As the ethical complexity of violence continues to be debated, Sze has written an interesting book that will undoubtedly be revisited in the coming months within the context of the ongoing struggles in the Middle East and North Africa. Sartre and the Moral Limits of War and Terrorism is yet another example of why Sartre’s writing remains relevant to the twenty-first century, and another reason why, to repeat Sartre’s The Problem of Method, philosophy is always ‘a social and political weapon’.

5 January 2012

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.