“Hell is—other people!” Thus, Jean-Paul Sartre dramatically summarizes the predicament of those condemned in the afterlife through one character in his play, No Exit. No pitchforks, no brimstone, no torture chambers, just the inescapable confrontation with ourselves through the eyes of others, subject to their merciless judgment and evaluation.
Sartre’s play offers a dramatic meditation on a familiar theme in European philosophy, at least since Hegel: the struggle between individual freedom and our manifest dependence on others. For Sartre’s characters, the struggle is literal. The room in which they have been condemned for eternity contains no mirrors or glass in which the characters can view themselves, so they are utterly reliant on their companions for any “reflection.”
Sartre’s play puts into sharp relief our familiar conscious experience. Human self-awareness and self-identity are determined in large measure by how others see us. This essential fact of human experience, being-for-others, strikes a profound challenge to Sartre’s ideal of radical human freedom that lies at the heart of his existential phenomenology. On one hand, we require others to affirm, validate, or define who we are because they occupy a point of view unavailable to ourselves but necessary for self-understanding. On the other hand, this imposes a constraint on our freedom and serves as a reminder of our finitude. In this context our fellow human beings are perceived as a problem to be overcome. Sartre’s misanthropic sentiment has become more prevalent in today’s culture because others seem constantly to thwart and frustrate our self-determination and threaten our individuality.
Pope Francis offers an alternative vision and evaluation of our relationship with others in his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. Drawing from Catholic social teaching and principles of integral human development, he reminds us that our relationships with others are an essential part of human experience and one that potentially is enriching:
“Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfilment except ‘in the sincere gift of self to others.’ Nor can they fully know themselves apart from an encounter with other persons. No one can experience the true beauty of life without relating to others, without having real faces to love. This is part of the mystery of authentic human existence.” (Fratelli Tutti 87)
Like Sartre, Pope Francis acknowledges that our identities are formed by and in relationship with other people, but rather than always being a source of struggle, these encounters are opportunities for genuine fulfillment.
The current crisis renders these insights all the more salient. In addition to the enormous toll on our economy, individual lives, and public health system, the COVID-19 pandemic also has exacted another, less apparent cost, even on those who have managed to avoid contracting the virus or losing employment. Physical distancing measures, though necessary and prudent to control the outbreak, have led to greater social isolation, anxiety, and even depression. In fact, according to a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau, 34 percent of adults now indicate having symptoms of anxiety or depression; this compared to 11 percent from a year ago. The Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of Americans who claim to experience nervousness or anxiety “most” or “all the time” has doubled since 2018 to 18 percent. More troubling, a team of researchers conducting a rapid systematic review of mental health research concluded that “children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends . . . be prepared for an increase in mental health problems.”
Our identities are formed in relationship with other people, but rather than always being a source of struggle, these encounters are opportunities for genuine fulfillment.
These adverse effects highlight what many philosophers and political theorists have argued for centuries and what is implicit in Fratelli Tutti—that humans essentially are social animals whose individual well-being is dependent upon a vibrant and healthy community. Unfortunately, many fail to acknowledge or appreciate this insight and rely on a false narrative that humans are atomistic, individual beings whose most important good is, in Justice Louis Brandeis’ words, “the right to be let alone.” Such a notion of freedom, however, “becomes nothing more than a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit” (Fratelli Tutti 103).
To the contrary, not only are self-identity and self-knowledge formed through encounters with others, but moral identity and education also occur within a communal setting. Cultural, political, and social institutions and norms are therefore inextricable from considerations of human development and flourishing. These norms and institutions give shape to individual values, commitments, and habitus that constitute one’s personal and moral identity. More than guaranteeing free and efficient exchange among persons, they reflect and reinforce human virtue—or vice. In contrast, “rugged individualism” diminishes the integration of our moral, psychological, and spiritual development by minimizing these essential associations.
To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, virtue is a tender plant that is easily killed, either by neglect or adverse influences. Individuals are nourished and sustained through moral education and positive association with others. Forces that threaten personal bonds and trust hinder this formation.
Institutions and organizations are as vulnerable as individuals to adverse influences; they too can be virtuous or vicious. Such formal associations operate according to norms and values and behave in ways that are either conducive or detrimental to their constitution and purpose. Communities and institutions, in other words, have aretaic (“virtuous” or “excellent”) properties that contribute to their well-being and excellence in the same way virtues are understood as characteristics or properties that lead to individual flourishing, a point Aristotle makes in Book 7 of the Politics.
Communal or institutional identity depends in part on the principles and related actions by which the group defines itself, just as an individual’s self-identity is constituted through action stemming from principles that define one’s self. A group that defines itself by a moral excellence it wishes to endorse therefore will have to understand the practical implications and impose demands on its members.
Disputes and disagreement about whether to wear face coverings in public highlight the endemic tensions and trade-offs between individual liberties and public goods.
These virtues, then, are collective in nature and so can be ascribed to the group as a whole without having all or even most members individually possess this virtue. Individual members of the group, however, are required to act or have a disposition to act in ways consistent with the collective virtue in order for the group to possess that virtue and for the individual to define herself as a member.
As communal beings, therefore, our identity is partly constituted through these associations and so we have an obligation to promote the moral good by ensuring that virtues are embodied by and passed on through these institutions “otherwise, what is handed down are selfishness, violence, corruption in its various forms, indifference and, ultimately, a life closed to transcendence and entrenched in individual interests” (Fratelli Tutti 113).
Disputes and disagreement about whether to wear face coverings in public come to mind and highlight the endemic tensions and trade-offs between individual liberties and public goods. Those who consistently refuse to wear face coverings fail to consider that communicable diseases sometimes require individuals to sacrifice personal comfort for the sake of promoting public health, especially given that, absent a vaccine or effective treatment, acting out of concern for others is the only way of mitigating this disease and its devastation. The right to be let alone does not entail the right to act as one pleases regardless of the consequences. Those who refuse to take precautions such as wearing a mask not only put themselves at risk, but risk the health and well-being of family, neighbors, loved ones, and our community.
Being-for-others is, as Sartre realized, a constraint on human freedom as his existentialist philosophy understood it, namely as being-for-itself, or free from others. Indeed, openness to others serves as a corrective to individuals’ propensity for self-deception, bad faith, and hubris. In serving as “mirrors,” the appraisal by others reveals that we often are blind to or in denial of certain facts about ourselves and our behaviors. Principles of integral human development, however, offer a resource for calling one another to account that is absent in Sartre’s philosophy, namely love as charity:
“Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society. That gaze is at the heart of the authentic spirit of politics.” (Fratelli Tutti 187)
Charity defuses our encounter with others and allows us to enter into a relationship of solidarity, where we can acknowledge an essential aspect of the human condition—that our interdependency is our common cause.
In truth, hell is other people, but so too is heaven—and everything in between.
Warren J. von Eschenbach is associate vice president and assistant provost for academic affairs within Notre Dame International. He supports the vice president and associate provost for internationalization in developing and implementing an academic strategic plan and vision for internationalizing Notre Dame and promoting global education.
This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.