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Freedom and Responsibility: Unpacking Existentialism's Core Tenets

Written by Jir Dara Akcan

Starting as a philosophical movement that had human existence at its core, Existentialism first made its appearance in the 20th century and delved into the dilemma of freedom and the responsibilities that came with it.

What is freedom?

Existentialism declines the idea of external influences affecting one’s life. Instead, It says that individuals possess ultimate freedom. every act and every choice is dependent on this freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher, famously declared, “Existence precedes essence,” implying that humans exist first and then gather an essence through their choices.

This concept of freedom can be liberating, offering one a chance to shape their future and life themselves. However, this freedom comes with heavy responsibilities. 

Navigating the weight of choice

Existentialists argue that with freedom comes an inherent responsibility for the outcomes of one’s actions. The decisions we make do not come arbitrarily but rather with moral significance. Sartre's notion of "bad faith" suggests that individuals often deceive themselves to avoid the anxiety associated with the weight of their choices because accepting the consequences means we are going to face the sometimes uncomfortable truth that our decisions shape our identity and the world around us.

In the existentialist framework, responsibility extends beyond the individual to encompass the broader implications of one's choices on society and the collective human experience. The interconnectedness of human existence implies that our freedom is not isolated but woven into the fabric of a shared reality, demanding a heightened awareness of the consequences our choices may have on others.

Existentialism in Action: Case Studies of Personal Freedom and Responsibility

To illustrate the practical application of existentialist principles, let's consider real-life scenarios that exemplify the interplay between freedom and responsibility. Take the example of an individual who, having discovered a passion for environmental sustainability, chooses a career dedicated to promoting eco-friendly practices. In this case, the person's freedom to pursue their passion aligns with a responsibility to contribute positively to the well-being of the planet and future generations. Similarly, a business leader faced with ethical dilemmas exemplifies the existentialist struggle with responsibility. Balancing the freedom to run a profitable enterprise with the responsibility to uphold ethical standards requires a careful examination of the consequences of business decisions on employees, customers, and the broader community.

Sartre's Bad Faith: Unraveling the Phenomenon of Self-Deception

Sartre's concept of "bad faith" sheds light on the psychological mechanisms individuals employ to evade the weight of their choices. Bad faith occurs when someone deceives themselves into believing that they are not truly free or that external circumstances dictate their actions. This self-deception serves as a defense mechanism against the anxiety associated with acknowledging the full extent of one's freedom and responsibility. Breaking free from bad faith involves embracing the discomfort that comes with acknowledging our agency and the moral implications of our decisions. By confronting the existential responsibility inherent in our choices, individuals can live more authentically, aligning their actions with their true selves.

In conclusion, existentialism invites us to ponder the profound connection between freedom and responsibility. The freedom to shape our destinies is a powerful gift, but it comes with the weighty responsibility of recognizing the moral implications of our choices. As we navigate the complexities of existence, we must confront the challenge of living authentically, acknowledging our freedom, and embracing the responsibility that accompanies it. Existentialism's exploration of freedom and responsibility is not a mere intellectual exercise but a call to action. It prompts us to reflect on the ethical dimensions of our choices, fostering a deeper understanding of our impact on both individual lives and the collective human experience. In the dance between freedom and responsibility, existentialism encourages us to step into the spotlight of our existence and, with eyes wide open, embrace the profound journey of self-discovery and ethical living.


  1. Existentialism (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). (n.d.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  2. Existentialism | Definition, history, characteristics, examples, types, & facts. (1999, July 26). Encyclopedia Britannica.

  3. Existentialism. (n.d.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy | An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

  4. Jean-Paul Sartre. (1998, July 20). Encyclopedia Britannica.


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