On Modern Morality:
An Existentialist Response
I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace. And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone. I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that's the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death.
-- Camus: The Plague (252)

Generally, the fundamental questions remain the same. Does god exist? Does life have meaning? Why evil? With the rise of science, its methodology, and its practical applications, however, modern concerns shift somewhat from these historical meta-ethical questions to issues of a more normative nature. Modern morality tends toward a search for practical, overarching values – values supported, if not by a universal foundation or authority, at least by a dependable and persuasive authority.

Why the confusion now with ethical choices and moral standards? What basic societal changes have helped generate oftentimes heated debates and heart-wrenching controversy? Can any response provide a seemingly necessary foundation for creating or affirming moral absolutes?

Determining a solution to the current moral quandary requires first an examination of the present situation. One must grasp the seismic shift that has taken place over the last few hundred years, both in individual lives and in the concept of a worldview. Camus' existentialist response, then, helps give meaning to value choices and provides a certain amount of responsibility, if not authority, for those choices.

In the last few hundred years, from approximately the early 1700s to the dawn of the twenty-first century, several life-altering changes transpired. An incomplete list includes rises in literacy rates, more profound scientific influence and technology dependence, and increasing awareness of diverse cultures, societies, and religions.

In the early 1700s, literacy hovered at around five percent (Shields). Today, world literacy ranges from 13.6 percent to 100 percent, depending on the country, with the vast majority of countries at well over 50 percent (CIA). World literacy stands at 83.7 percent for men and 71.0 percent for women (Comparative, 749). Clearly, much greater opportunity exists for individual reading, learning, and researching for making choices. Individuals need not depend solely on the village teacher or religious authority for information and direction.

Certainly, scientific advancements have accelerated since the late 1700s, when the scientific method began making its mark, followed later in the early- to mid-1800s by, among others, Lyell's and Darwin's contributions (CRB). No longer must the world adhere to a theistic explanation; a natural explanation could now suffice.

Science and technology also contributed – and continue to contribute – at least metaphorically, to a shrinking of the world. Traveling great distances became commonplace. People learned of and experienced new cultures, races, religions, and societies. One's knowledge and opinions no longer remained confined to and solely dependent on the village or township where, often, all of life – birth, youth, marriage, and death – took place. The plurality of world religions, especially, confused moral choices and their authority.

For example, the confusion over ethical choices and religious authority arose partly from a closer, more widespread examination and criticism of the theistic arguments for the existence of God. Additionally, great historical periods of suffering from disease, famine, and plague, and genocidal episodes like the Holocaust presented problems with evil and heightened doubts about the definition and role of God. Today, God no longer remains a certainty. Modern arguments for God's existence – though rooted in historical figures like Pascal – even now assume a scientific twist, like Swinburne's probabilistic argument.

Another example of confusion about values, norms, and choices arises in the medical field. Genetic engineering, life-sustaining techniques, assisted human reproduction, and stem cell research have called into question the medical ethics of doctors as well as the ethical choices of their patients. "I will give no deadly drug to any, though it be asked of me, nor will I counsel such, and especially I will not aid a woman to procure abortion" (Richardson, 827). Doctors and society must, of necessity, now also question the centuries old, ethical guide of the Hippocratic Oath.

Camus' existentialist response provides a non-theistic position for addressing modern choices and moral values. It also provides a foundation and a level of responsibility for choices made. Exploring the existential underpinnings of Camus' response, examining the real meaning behind Camus' use of the term "plague," and connecting Camus' passage with other authors will help illuminate the appropriateness of his response to modern morality.

In Camus' passage, "one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken." Sartre supplies the existential first principle behind Camus' prescription: "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself" (CRB). According to Sartre, "man is responsible for what he is" and "makes himself . . . by the choice of his morality" (CRB). Moreover, says Sartre, "man is free, man is freedom" and "once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values" (CRB). This freedom to make subjective choices, personal commitments, continues Sartre, is how "every man realises [sic] himself" and, thus, realizes and prescribes morals for all of humanity.

Camus takes up Sartre's view of existentialism in his novel by giving us a figurative meaning behind the literal use of the term "plague." Acknowledging that "each of us has the plague in him; no one, no one on earth is free from it" (253), Camus forces the reader to dig deeper. To what is Camus referring? In this case, the reader can ascertain its meaning by detecting what the plague is not. Since one "needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses [of attention]" (253), the reader can ascertain that the plague refers to lapses of attention, a type of unconsciousness or sleep.

In other passages, Camus tries to direct the reader toward his existential response to modern morality. For example, "since all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clear-cut language," always resolve "to speak – and to act – quite clearly" (254). Try to be "an innocent murderer" (254); "know how to live" (307); "squeeze all one can out of life" (150); avoid "marking time" (185); and "contrive not to waste one's time . . . [b]y being fully aware of it all the while" (26).

Potok echoes Camus' emphasis on awareness, conscious living, and deliberate choices as a prescription for obtaining "some peace or, failing that, a decent death." Introducing the reader to God's remark to Moses as Moses was about to die – "You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest" (204) – Potok continues:

. . . a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. (204-05)

Camus' similar passage went thus:

. . . it's a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it's still more wearying to refuse to be it. . . . that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death. (253)

Another teacher espouses a similar point of view. John G. Bennett quotes G.I. Gurdjieff as having said this in one of his talks:

Everyone must have an aim. If you have not an aim, you are not a man. I will tell you a very simple aim, to die an honourable death. Everyone can take this aim without any philosophising – not to perish like a dog. . . Only he can die an honourable death who works on himself in life. He who does not work upon himself in life will inevitably, early, lately, perish like a dirty dog. (vii)

In addition to the interesting connection between Potok, a Conservative Rabbi and Camus, a non-theistic existentialist, Potok also brings God back into the existential equation with his earnest choice to quit waiting for God in establishing the post-Holocaust state of Israel. "Reb Saunders sits and waits for the Messiah. I am tired of waiting. Now is the time to bring the Messiah, not to wait for him" (207).

Camus and Sartre, though non-theists, do not consider proofs denying the existence of God as important. Their concern lies with man's freedom to choose his morality, to make himself. In fact, Sartre states that existentialism "declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view" (CRB). The emphasis, then, in an existential response to the problem of modern morality lies in the freedom of choice.

However, Maimonides, mentioned in Potok, provides a contrast to Sartre's complete emphasis on man's total control in making himself. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides attributes any moral disposition to one or a combination of three influences:

Between any moral disposition and its extreme opposite, there are intermediate dispositions more or less removed from each other. Of all the various dispositions, some belong to a man from the beginning of his existence and correspond to his physical constitution. Others are such that a particular individual's nature is favorably predisposed to them and prone to acquire them more rapidly than other traits. Others again are not innate, but have been either learned from others, or are self-originated, as the result of an idea that has entered the mind or because, having heard that a disposition is good for him, and should be cultivated by him, one trained himself in it till it became part of his nature. (1.2)

This traditional concept of ethical conduct seems to reflect the modern confusion over nature, nurture, or choice when reasoning about morality.

Whether ascribing to Sartre's completely existential emphasis on man's freedom to choose always, or to the somewhat more traditional theistic authority which still assigns at least the initial burden of choice to man, Camus' existential response, provides an honest, relevant, and dependable answer to the modern dilemma of meaning and morals, ethical values and responsibility. If man's first choice is to go with God, then his life may be a little easier "on the side of the angels" (Camus, 163), though a struggle remains in knowing God's will and making it ours. At least God has not taken away our freedom to choose by providing irrefutable proof of His existence. All told, though, this writer sides with Camus' world shaped by death, where it might "be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death" (128). Such a struggle inherently, instinctively seems more worthy of a final rest, of a "hope for some peace" and a "decent death."

Works Cited

Bennett, John G. Talks on Beelzebub's Tales. Boston: Weiser Books, 1988.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). World Factbook. Washington, DC: 2001. Originally accessed (but currently unavailable) at <https://www.bartleby.com/> and <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/>. Try these sites now: <https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/literacy-rate-by-country>

"Comparative National Statistics." 2000 Britannica Book of the Year. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2000.

Course Readings Book (CRB). Humanities 6361. "Literature of Religious Reflection." Southern Methodist University: Spring Semester, 2002.

Maimonides, Moses. "Book One: Knowledge." Mishneh Torah. SCCL 6310. "Science, Ethics and Societal Concerns." Southern Methodist University: Course handout, Fall Semester, 2001.

Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967.

Richardson, Robert G. "History of Medicine." The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia. 15th ed. 1981.

Shields, Kenneth. Humanities 6361. "Literature of Religious Reflection." Southern Methodist University: Class notes, 15 January 2002.

Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. 1979. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.