Abstract: Matthew Bell defends Jean-Paul Sartre against Terri Murray. Murray’s rebuttal of Sartre is undermined by a failure to distinguish two senses of “cowardice” and “homosexuality.” This leads Murray to misinterpret Sartre. When the terms are carefully disambiguated, Sartre’s point is upheld and shown to apply equally to heterosexuality and homosexuality.
Heterosexuality, Homosexuality and ‘Bad Faith’? A Response to Terri Murray
Terri Murray gets many things right. Murray correctly notes that “bad faith,” for Jean-Paul Sartre, is the avoidance of responsibility for our actions and choices.
Additionally, as far-reaching as is our freedom to act, it does not range over absolutely everything about us. For example, I cannot choose to be constituted so as to be able to fly. There are some things about my makeup that I simply cannot alter. Murray reports: “These conditions which are not part of our freedom [Sartre] called facticity.”
For some people, their facticity might include elements of a cowardly disposition. Sartre asks us to consider whether a cowardly action, such as running away, can be suitably explained by the declaration, “Well, what did you expect? I’m a coward!” The question is whether the cowardly action can be accounted for by appealing to a cowardly “nature.”
Sartre thinks not. In fact, Sartre denies that human beings have any predetermining “natures.” Therefore, treating cowardly actions as unavoidably issuing from cowardly natures is “bad faith.” To use the contemporary slang for it, it is a cop out.
So far so good. However, Sartre proceeded to compare cowardice to homosexuality, and argued that the homosexual who explained away his homosexual actions as the unavoidable issue of a homosexual nature was displaying just as much bad faith as the coward who ran away.
Murray thinks that Sartre is mistaken in this comparison. For Murray, “[h]omosexuality is a part of some people’s facticity.”
Resisting Sartre’s comparison, Murray suggests a way to argue against Sartre. “Imagine for a moment,” Murray writes, “that instead of drawing the analogy between cowardice and homosexuality, Sartre had instead used cowardice and heterosexuality.” Murray adds that “most heterosexuals do not think of themselves as having any choice about their attraction to the opposite sex”. Murray expands upon this latter point, stating: “I submit that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a heterosexual who includes amongst his choices the mere fact of being attracted to the opposite sex.”
Murray wishes us to keep in mind the difficulty – if not the impossibility – of choosing (or, presumably, not choosing) to be “attracted to the opposite sex.” Then we are asked to contrast this difficulty with the “coward’s” difficulty in avoiding cowardly actions. Murray thinks that this juxtaposition is damning because, while we cannot choose our sexual attractions, “[c]owardice …is a choice.”
I’m afraid that it is here that Murray goes off the rails. In fact, the contrast is doubly flawed. Let us agree that homosexual attraction may be part of a given person’s facticity. It does not follow, however, that homosexual actions are likewise to be subsumed under the heading of “facticity.” In fact, to do so is precisely what Sartre labels “bad faith.”
Firstly, the word “homosexual” is ambiguous, that is, it is susceptible to more than one interpretation.
On the one hand, the designation might be applied to persons who have an attraction (whether professed or unprofessed) to persons of the same sex – whether or not this attraction is ever acted upon.
On the other hand, the designation might be applied to persons who actually choose to engage in sexual activities with members of the same sex, whether or not the actions were the expressions of any sort of same-sex attractions (whether latent or patent).
Actually, this cleavage between attraction and action yields four possible combinations. For completeness, I will enumerate them.
Number one, a person could feel a homosexual attraction and also act upon that attraction. Number two, a person could feel a homosexual attraction but not act upon it. Number three, a person could engage in a homosexual act without necessarily feeling any (overt or covert) homosexual attraction. (Think for example of certain, although by no means all, instances of “prison sex,” where the participants are plausibly opportunists without any felt “attraction” to one another – or to anyone of the same sex.) Number four, a person could both fail to experience a homosexual attraction and also refrain from engaging in a homosexual act.
It is important to realize that these four categories do not necessarily distinguish “personality types.” They merely describe the possible ways that instances of attraction can be matched with particular, associated actions.
However, this is just to say that the word “homosexual” is ambiguous. To put it another way, “homosexual” has at least two senses. Let us call one the homosexual-attraction sense, and let us term the other the homosexual-action sense.
Two things should strike the reader. In the first place, not only does homosexuality divide into these two senses, but heterosexuality does as well. To be exact, on this view we have no trouble distinguishing heterosexual attraction from heterosexual action.
One gets for “heterosexuality,” then, a perfect analog of the fourfold taxonomy earlier displayed by “homosexuality.” A person could feel a heterosexual attraction and act upon it. A person could feel a heterosexual attraction, but not act upon it. A person could engage in a heterosexual act without necessarily feeling any (overt or covert) heterosexual attraction. And a person could both fail to experience a heterosexual attraction and also refrain from engaging in a heterosexual act.
In the second place, cowardice seems to divide similarly. Here we also find the second flaw in Murray’s contrast.
Secondly, “being a coward” is arguably also ambiguous. A person can have a “cowardly thought.” For example, in a suitably scary context, I might imagine running away from danger, or I might wish to be someplace else. These “cowardly thoughts” seem sufficiently analogous to having sexual thoughts that I am able to compare feeling “cowardly” with feeling sexual attraction – whether heterosexual or homosexual.
However, these “cowardly thoughts” are surely distinct from cowardly actions. For example, it is one thing to imagine running away from danger, it is another thing to actually, physically run away.
For all we know, “Old Blood and Guts,” United States Army General George S. Patton, might have continually imagined hightailing it out of whatever sticky situation the Third Army and he found themselves. What we know for sure – at least as well as we can know anything about history – is that he did not, in fact, run away. This is to say that he did not display cowardly actions, even if he harbored cowardly feelings. (I am not suggesting that he was plagued by such feelings.)
We see, then, that “cowardice” likewise divides into “cowardly thoughts” and “cowardly actions.”
Given all of this, we can suggest that Murray’s criticism is malformed. Murray follows Sartre in defining “bad faith” in terms of actions and choices, but then unceremoniously slides into talking instead about “attractions” and “orientations.” “Homosexuality” is thus represented only in what I have termed the “homosexual-attraction” sense. Subsequently, Murray contrasts the homosexual-attraction sense against an action sense for being “cowardly.” This runs contrary to the proverbial wisdom that warns against comparing apples with oranges.
Of course, Murray seems correct that, when we consider cowardly actions, we are dealing with choices. However, we need to compare actions to actions and choices to choices. We cannot responsibly compare homosexual attractions to cowardly actions.
The more apt comparison, which also makes for a more charitable reading of Sartre, would be something like the following. Homosexual attractions and cowardly thoughts are similar in that people sometimes misconstrue them as inevitably issuing in homosexual actions or cowardly actions, respectively. To put it another way, there is a misguided temptation to argue that because one has cowardly thoughts, therefore, one must inevitably choose to perform cowardly actions.
This is precisely what Sartre warns against. As Murray recognizes, it is an “attempt to shirk [the] burden of freedom – to misrepresent ‘what we are’ as inevitable, to attribute what we have become to the agency of a secret self, an unconscious self that controls the conscious one.”
We are inveterate free agents. Harboring cowardly thoughts neither excuses nor necessitates the performance of cowardly actions. While a cowardly disposition might be part of my facticity, I remain a free agent. I retain the freedom to choose whether to act according to my cowardly thoughts, or against them.
Construed this way, Sartre’s comparison is not only reasonable, it is also arguably correct. It is entirely understandable that Sartre should warn us against thinking that homosexual attraction must inevitably issue in homosexual action.
This is no one-sided attack upon homosexuality. The consideration generalizes beautifully. There should be no difficulty for an honest heterosexual to endorse a corollary formulation; heterosexual attraction does not inevitably issue in heterosexual action. Regardless of whether my facticity includes a heterosexual or a homosexual orientation, my sexual actions are not determined. I freely choose my actions despite my orientation, whatever it is.
Having a particular sexual “orientation” does not guarantee the performance of any particular sort of sexual action (or even any sexual actions at all) any more than having a “cowardly” disposition compels a person to run away.
This point is made equally well using heterosexuality as the example. Both homosexual attraction and heterosexual attraction are similar to cowardly thoughts in that people sometimes misconstrue these as inevitably issuing in various sexual or cowardly actions. There is no orientation-bias in the application of Sartre’s principle of “no excuses,” properly understood.
Perhaps the Sartrean “moral” is this: There is no inevitability connecting, on the one hand, feelings or thoughts and, on the other hand, actions. Between the two is also and always a free agent.
Murray’s criticism thus appears to melt away, and Sartre is arguably vindicated. It would be bad faith for anyone – heterosexual or homosexual – to abdicate their concrete sexual choices to an abstract sexual “orientation.” We might rightly suspect that such an “orientation” is merely a euphemism for the sort of “nature” that Sartre eschewed.
In the end, things are as Murray relates: “For Sartre, there are no excuses.” While we may not hold sway over our attractions or “orientations,” we always have a choice about whether to act upon, or in accordance with, them or not.
© Matthew Bell 2015
Matthew Bell has a B.A. in theology from William Tyndale College and an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
 Terri Murray, “Is Homosexuality ‘Bad Faith’?”, Philosophy Now, vol. 39, Dec.-Jan. 2002-2003, pp. 26-27 and online at <https://philosophynow.org/issues/39/Is_Homosexuality_Bad_Faith>.