Subjective Meaning and Objective Ethics – Why Existentialism Is Anarchism


Human beings have two natures. Physical and non-physical. Matter and spirit. Our physical nature necessarily obeys the causal laws of nature. But our spiritual nature contains something outside the realm of comprehension, and outside the realm of comprehensible causality. Our spirit observes the causal world, and finds comfort in its solidity and inertness, in its lack of spirit. Our spirit understands many laws that govern the causal world, such as the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology and it knows that as time passes it will unlock even more of these laws. It is the master of the causal world, existing, as it does, outside it. It loves its mastery of that world. Its mastery of the causal world is its source of pride. But our spirit gets frustrated because it inevitably runs up against something that it cannot master. That thing is itself. It finds that it can never satisfactorily understand itself in the same way that it understands the causal world.

When our spirit asks itself questions about the causal world, questions like: “Why does the earth spin?” “Why do we get sick?” “Why does fire burn?” and “How much weight can a bridge bear?” it discovers clear, objective answers. These answers satisfy it. They are definitive, testable, and provable. But our spirit has the capacity to ask itself other types of questions, questions about the spirit world. Some examples of these questions are “What is the meaning of life?” “Is there a God?” “Is there free will?” “What is the nature of the universe, and infinity?” and “Where was I before I was born and where will I go, if anywhere, after I die?” Our spirit can ask itself such questions, but cannot answer them. It cannot answer them because they are recursive – by asking them, it asks itself… about itself. It tries to move outside itself, and then look back and view itself from an objective perspective. It tries to conceptualize its own nature, to freeze it, and master it. But it becomes frustrated because it cannot do so. No matter how hard it tries, it discovers no solid, objective, and satisfactory answers to these questions. Like the mythical Tantalus, thirsty, but cursed to stand in a pool of water that receded whenever he attempted to drink, our spirit perpetually attempts to understand a phantom just out of its reach – itself.

In every person, the spirit perpetually tries and fails to understand itself. This dynamic generates psychic energy. A person can channel that energy into two distinct psychological phenomenon. I will call them the philosophic impulse, and the religious impulse. The philosophic impulse is characterized by a love of questioning and comfort with uncertainty. The religious impulse is characterized by a love of answers and discomfort with uncertainty. Under this paradigm, which will be elaborated below, some ostensibly religious people should properly be classified as philosophers. For example, theologians who encourage people to question their faith are more philosophers than religious (as the words will be used in this essay). Similarly, under this paradigm, some philosophers should be considered religious. For example, Karl Marx, who claimed to know what the future would bring, was more religious than philosopher (as the words will be used in this essay). The distinction is independent of a person’s profession. What matters is the attitude he takes toward his uncertainty about his spirit.

People manifesting the philosophic impulse embrace the incomprehensibility of their spirit. They understand that the wish to understand the spirit combined with the inability to do so is both the glory and the burden of being human. They embrace that glory, the condition that makes them different and better than the rest of nature, and they willingly carry the burden that accompanies it. They understand that how a person responds to his own spirit’s incomprehensibility is what makes him truly human. They contend that is not enough to be human in physical form. Each person must choose to be human by embracing the incomprehensibility of their spirit.

Philosophers believe that all humans struggle with this same universal, human paradox: they desire to understand a spirit that is incomprehensible. Each person attempts to formulate his own “best guess” resolution of that paradox. Each comes up with a different explanation of the spirit world. For example, one person claims life ends after death, another that there is an afterlife, another that there is reincarnation. There is no consensus. Observing the variety of viewpoints, philosophers become radical subjectivists. They realize that on the subject of the spirit, all is speculation. Nobody has the right answer. In fact, there might not even be a right answer.

Nevertheless, philosophers enthusiastically grapple with that paradox. They give license to their curiosity. They are interested in philosophy. They are interested in knowing what other humans have thought and written about the spirit, and they attempt to develop their own unique perspective. They hope to find better ways to “frame” the questions they have about their spirit. They seek words that will enable them to express… what they don’t understand about their spirit. They dig deep into the questions of their spirit nature, all the time knowing that they may never discover any objective answers, that there may not be objective answers.

For other people, the psychic energy generated by their inability to understand their spirit drives the religious impulse. People manifesting this impulse demand clear answers to their questions about their spirit. They find it insufferable to have questions that never get answered. They ask themselves one of these questions, such as “What happens after I die?” and they insist on an answer. Having such questions is a burden, one that they do not want to carry. They do not understand that carrying that burden is what makes a person human, and that there is a payoff. Instead, they insist on something solid against which to lean. They want calmness, certainty, and the ability to rest. They want to staunch the psychological “bleeding” that accompanies uncertainty. They do not want to spend their life perpetually seeking, never finding the answers for which they seek.

Their discomfort with uncertainty is so great, that they become willing to accept falsehoods as answers. “Could someone please explain to me what I am?! Just tell me what my purpose should be! Lie to me if you must! Anything is preferable to the torture of not knowing!” But to permit themselves to believe falsehoods, they need an excuse. So, they hack their own minds and build a backdoor. They deny the philosophers’ contention that nobody understands the spirit world. They deny that uncertainty about the spirit is the universal human condition. Instead, they tell themselves that certain rare individuals are exceptional and do understand. They claim these individuals understand the spirit nature of man in the same way that most people understand the laws that govern the causal world. Having prepped their mind with this deception, they then identify particular historical individuals and call them “prophets.” They claim that these prophets were sent by “god”. According to them, prophets lived on earth in the past, and gave clear, objective answers to the questions that the spirit asks about itself. These prophets encoded those answers into a particular religious system.

Having convinced themselves that certain prophets had the truth, religious people join their particular religion. Joining gives them comfort. It allows them to avoid carrying the burden of uncertainty. It allows them to stop wondering about their spirit. It allows them to close their mind to new ideas and new ways of interpreting the spirit. But their evasion of uncertainty is not without consequence. By evading the thing that makes a person human, they choose not to be fully human. They become caricatures of human beings – human in form, but animal in spirit. They become a sort of thinking animal, a pack horse of the original founder of the religion, or of his living representatives on earth. They subsume themselves into that collective. They believe their religion contains the objective answers to the questions of man’s spirit nature. Therefore, they become radical objectivists.

The religious impulse can manifest in a different way. Sometimes a person of the religious impulse who is ambitious and talented decides that he has solved the riddle of man’s spirit nature. Like the person above, he does not like uncertainty, and does not accept that uncertainty about the spirit is the universal human condition. But unlike the person above who believes that others are exceptional, he tells himself that he is the exception. He tells himself that he has access to the mind of “god.” He is so certain of his answers, that he decides to profess them to the world, and seek followers. He starts his own religion, or perhaps joins an existing religion and becomes one of its leaders.

From the descriptions above we can identify three types of people. Each responds differently to the uncertainty of this spirit. First, are philosophers. They remain open to new ideas. Because they do not claim to understand the spirit, they do not seek conformity, nor do they conform. All ideas are welcome. They seek only to clarify their questions, not necessarily answer them. Second, are religious followers. They choose to be mental slaves. They are not interested in new ideas except as they can be contorted to fit their paradigm. They believe their faith explains their spirit and they demand conformity to that explanation. They reduce others and themselves into something less than fully human, into instruments of a larger plan, an unknowable plan devised by “god,” who has given them their answers through the prophets. They do not see other people or themselves as unique individuals and masters of their own lives. Third, are the religious leaders. They attempt to be masters. They use the slaves’ willingness to believe falsehoods to gain power and influence in the world.

As discussed above, the difference between these three types of people has to do with the way they respond to uncertainty, to not fully understanding their spirit. But there is a deeper explanation. How a person responds to uncertainty is itself a manifestation of how a person responds to fear. All humans fear others to some degree. Their fear is largely a consequence of the existence of the state. A world where most people permit the state to initiate violence is a world not governed by reason. A world not governed by reason is a scary place. It is a world where it might feel that only raw power can ensure one’s safety. The easiest way for the average person to gain power is to join a group, such as a religion. Strength comes from numbers. Therefore, the average frightened person seeks to belong. That is his most important priority. He might say:  “I don’t care what they believe! I just want a shield against the world. I need the comforting solidarity of large numbers of people, much more than I need the truth. I will adopt their dogma if it is the price of membership.”

This does not necessarily mean that he will actually be safe after joining the group. He may be safer not joining. But he feels safer, and that feeling is what counts and motivates his choices. Under this interpretation, humans choose to be slaves because it grants them a degree of protection. They choose to see themselves as part of god’s plan, not so much because they truly believe, at least not originally, but because they are frightened into doing so. “I will be a sheep, if it means my shepherd will protect me from the wolves.”

To restate this point: when a person is afraid, the impulse to join a religion, and accept its objective explanation of the spirit may overwhelm his natural uncertainty about the nature of his spirit. If he is not strong enough to master his fear, it will override his interest in philosophic contemplation. It will prevent him from developing his own unique, subjective understanding of his spirit. The stronger his fear, the more he will conform to the group, reject uncertainty, and insist on clear, unambiguous explanations of his spirit nature. His fear will make him reject the philosophic impulse, and pursue the religious impulse.

In the stateless future for which anarchists are working the dynamics will be different. People will be psychologically stronger and less fearful. They will not fear other men nearly as much (if at all), because they will live in a world governed by reason. They will have no need to seek shelter in large groups. In that world, the religious impulse will be much weaker, and more people will chose to express the paradox of their spirit in the philosophic impulse. More people will bear the burden of uncertainty, and embrace what makes them human.

The idea that each individual human must bear the burden of not understanding his spirit, that he must choose to be a philosopher, and not adopt someone else’s religion is not new. It is the central idea of existentialism. As Sartre wrote, “existence precedes essence.” Each individual exists, plans, and acts in the world. “But why?” a person might ask. “For what purpose do we exist, plan, and act?” The existentialist replies that there is no objective answer. Each of us must struggle and attempt to bring our own meaning, our own purpose into the world. Nobody has an objective essence, as such, that can be discovered, which could then guide their path through life. We have evidence of no mind in the sky that has created us to be an instrument for his ends. The only mind we have evidence of is our own, and other people and animals. We are instruments only to our own ends. Each human, therefore, must create their own essence. We must decide what we will be, take responsibility, and direct our own lives. Each of us does this by choosing. This is the burden I described above. Some people embrace that burden. Many people run from it or ignore it. But nobody can escape it and remain human, and the more a person embraces it, the more human he becomes.

Sartre called this burden “freedom,” although I’m not sure I like that word, since free will is an open question. I’d prefer to say that the incomprehensibility of our spirit nature imposes on us the burden of asking certain questions related to the spirit world, but not being able to comprehend their answer. We don’t know if we have free will, or even what it would mean if we do. We don’t know if there is ultimate justice, or how it would work if there is. We don’t know if there is a god, and couldn’t comprehend its nature anyway. We don’t understand infinity, but we cannot imagine a universe with limits. Questions related to the spirit world are the great sources of wonder and frustration that inherent to our spirit nature. They are questions that we can frame but whose answers our minds are literally unable to comprehend.

Sartre explored this paradox. What does it mean to have a spirit? According to him, human beings possess the ability to negate the world. He called this negation “nothingness”. The more we want something that doesn’t exist, the more we negate that which does. I enter a bar looking for my friend. The bar exists. The people in the bar exist. But all I see is the absence of my friend. Everything else, I negate. I turn it into nothing. I have a home, a family, a good job, but the more I want something that I lack, the more I negate these things. Our spirit nature is a perpetual nothingness generating machine. We constantly pump nothingness into our world. This is a uniquely human characteristic. It might seem like a curse, because it means we have the capacity to not appreciate good things in the world. But consider the alternative. We could be inanimate objects. A rock does not negate. It cannot negate. But it also has no ability to create. The ability to negate what is is the price of the ability to create what isn’t. It is our evolutionary advantage. It allows us to tune out that which is less important, imagine what could be, and focus on making that “could be” become a reality. Negation allows creation.

However, as Sartre noted, there is a problem with this ability. It has to do with other people. When we encounter other people, this human tendency to negate can become intolerable. When others look at us, they attempt to negate our existence. They attempt to view us as an essence, an object, a thing, something in their world to be contained. They view us as an instrument toward their ends. We do the same. We caricaturize other people. We put them in a box and attempt to negate everything else. “This is who Bob is.” We tell ourselves. And Bob doesn’t like that we do that. Bob has an existence. He has a non-containable, non causal spirit nature, something that we try to negate. He doesn’t like when we reduce him, label him, or treat him as a definable, solid thing. Nevertheless, he does the same to us. So according to Sartre, all human interaction is characterized by conflict, the struggle of each person to contain the other, and free himself from the containment of the other. As a character in Sartre’s most famous play, No Exit, declares: “Hell, is other people.” But the tendency to negate the existence of others has serious implications, particularly when combined with the existence of the state. How easy it is for a politician to negate the existence of those they rule, to force them to be instruments of that politician’s will, to force them to live for the purposes of someone else, instead of allowing them to be free to pursue their own ends. The concept of the state permits some people to act on their negation of others and destroy what makes those people human.

This raises the important subject of human ethics. We have seen how a person’s understanding of his spirit nature is necessarily subjective. Human nature compels each person to reject any definitive answer on the questions of the spirit. But are ethics similarly subjective? Are they also open to interpretation? Must we, as philosophers, reject any formal ethical system in the same way that we reject any religious system? Or, are there discoverable, objective ethics? Are there hard ethical truths, that we can come to, that will clearly instruct us about the proper way for humans to act toward each other? Does our uncertainty about our spirit nature extend to ethics? Or could that uncertainty actually convert into solid ground when it comes to ethics? Could the philosopher’s radical subjectivity about metaphysical (spirit related) questions convert into radical objectivity on questions of ethics? To restate this critical question: Are ethical questions the domain of the causal world, possessing clear, discoverable objective answers, or are ethical questions similar in nature to metaphysical questions, ultimately unknowable and up to each individual’s interpretation?

Answering this question should lead existentialists to become anarchists. Anarchists do believe that there is an objective ethical system, one that is consistent with the duality of human nature. It is self ownership and the corollary ethical principle of non-aggression. The political system implied by this ethical system is anarchism. Anarchism does not permit anyone to act on their negation of the existence (in the existentialist sense) of another. If a person chooses to negate the existence of another, and attempt to see him as an instrument of another’s will, anarchism would prevent the harm of that negation from “spilling over.” Anarchism allows a person to shield himself against the negation of others by saying “You can negate my existence all you want, but we both know you cannot aggress against me.” Because anarchists promote this strict governing principle, everything else a person believes about his life: his meaning, his purpose, his understanding of the questions at the root of his spiritual nature, even his understanding of his reason for being remain protected, solely his own to determine. In an anarchist future, there will be no need for a person to run into the safety of a religion or a system that requires him to accept others’ false answers to the questions posed by the spirit, just to be safe. He will be free to explore them himself, unmolested.

Therefore, from the radical subjectivism inherent in trying to understand our spirit nature, anarchists construct a correspondingly radical objective system of ethics. Our ethics are objective and “true” exactly because they derive from our understanding of the extreme subjectivity that characterizes the human condition. We insist on protecting the subjective. That is why we insist on an objective ethics. We demand an ethical scaffolding that will protect what is unique in each person. We do not permit anyone to impose their answers to the questions of our spirit on anyone. Nor do we allow them to act on their negation of the existence of others. Nor, does our ethical system require any blessing from a mind in the sky to give it legitimacy. It is a system of ethics deducible by human reason, predicated on the uncertainty of the spirit nature of every human. Our ethics are the rock, on which we lean. Our ethics give us the only certainty we need to govern our relations with others. In the extreme subjectivism inherent to our spiritual nature, which can be difficult and frustrating, we do have something to which we can secure ourselves: ethics.

Like existentialists, anarchists claim that each human life is a trial. No human can evade it and remain human. Each person must struggle to try to understand themselves and their purpose. We cherish that struggle and want to protect it, and even amplify it. We know it is the source of all meaning in the world. It matters, as much as anything does. We want each person to realize that they are naturally philosophers. That is their nature. We want them to master the fear that drives them to believe that someone else knows better than they do what their purpose is. We insist that the only truth and absolute guide each person must respect is the integrity of the boundaries existing between themselves and others, particularly property boundaries.

Our future, the world we hope to create, will not be an immediate utopia. Human beings will continue to struggle to understand their spirit nature. That is inherent to being human. As long as we are, we will carry this burden. Because, if we ever did objectively understand our spirit, we would no longer be human. That knowledge would change us. In that case, we would transcend into something different.

Perhaps in some far off distant time, long after humans have come to anarchism, when all humankind has agreed on the harmonious respect for private property, when we have put aggression and coercion long behind us, and after we have colonized the stars, and conquered death, long after we have solved the comparatively simple problems presented by the causal world, when we have fully mastered the laws of causal nature, and when our species has luxuriated in its mastery long enough, maybe then human minds, now unified, and no longer distracted by the fear of others will turn in unison to apply their collective power to the great questions inherent to our spirit nature. Perhaps on that far distant day we will actually discover some final and absolute answers to the mysteries of the universe and our spiritual nature. But, if that day ever comes, we will no longer be humans. The knowledge we will have gained will transform us into something different. Will we, by embracing what makes us human have transformed ourselves into gods?


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