Digest of terms

Existentialist ethics

a label more readily brandished than defined. It can be understood partly as a rejection of an understanding of morality as revolving around set principles, values, or a fixed human nature (hence the slogan 'existence precedes essence'). It is therefore a radical approach which emphasizes human anxiety (in German, Angst) at finding oneself 'thrown' into existence without values and principles and yet having to come to grips with all the contingencies of life. The situation is one of radical freedom, in which the individual is called on to make what at root seem to be criterionless choices, but in being clear about the nature of this challenge, and in facing up to it, they live a life of authenticity. Others, by contrast - the vast majority - burdened by inherited moralities which function as ideologies masking the stark realities of our existential condition, live deeply inauthentic lives.

Existential ethics typically represents a rather extreme form of individualism. However, in the hands of Jean-Paul Sartre it came latterly to be blended with a form of Marxist ethics, while Martin Heidegger moved in the direction of Nazism. In sharp contrast Heidegger's existentialism was taken up into the Christian theology of Rudolf Bultmann as a vehicle for expressing the gospel message in modern terms. Other versions of Christian existentialism were also explored, although more widely known claims were made to see existentialist ethics as a form of Humanist ethics and conjoined with existential psychology.

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