Bad faith and the
unbearable heaviness
of freedom

Valeria Sokolova

Since mankind turns out to be captivated through bad faith, freedom plays a role of necessity in their lives, not the one of a primary capacity on which human existence is built.

Saturday evening. Warmth and sweet-scent imbues the air. A young girl walks down the street. She next stops at her destination. Tonight is her first date. Pulling down the scarf from her neck, she enters the bar where she is expected by her admirer. She sees him standing up from the table, gently waving to her. He helps her take off her jacket. In a couple of moments they are already at the table talking and sipping their drinks. He showers her with compliments. As the atmosphere gets more intimate, the man ventures to put his hand over hers. And now you would probably expect her either to consent to his action or withdraw her hand altogether? Oh no, not in this case! She prefers to think they are conducting a lofty conversation, in which she keeps pretending she doesn’t understand or notice his sexual advances. Our protagonist motionlessly rests her hand under his. We might get a feeling it doesn’t belong to her body any longer because in this instant her hand has become an object. An object as any other – a book, a pen, an inkwell [1]. This is what Sartre names bad faith.

Sartre brings the example of the girl on her first date as one of the manifestations of his concept bad faith. His attempt here is to demonstrate the human tendency in disregarding the freedom of choice. Such a simple example, isn’t it? But how broad is the multifarious spectrum of its pattern? In my opinion the girl’s behaviour in different forms and shapes is embodied in our day-to-day lives. I reckon that anyone of us who has ever been in a situation where he or she would take on a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude, in which according to Sartre he or she would simply let other individuals decide for themselves. This attitude of neglecting the liberty that humanity has demonstrated as “vital” throughout history. The 21st century is no exception, on the contrary it has become the rule, in which we are constantly looking for excuses. We delegate consequences for our choices and the quality of our lives to something other than ourselves: shifting responsibilities to parents or partners, blaming governments and at the same time being inactive; we endure domestic violence and give up on leaving violators, we experience some changes of our body while discovering them in new forms distinct from the ones obtained by birth, but terrified of admitting it. As a result, we have a heap of situations, in which we silently pass our liberty to choose around. By making excuses in bad faith we are describing our freedom as if it belonged to others. Interesting fact: one of the reasons Sartre denied God was due to his discontent stirred up by believers that had always tried to pin all their fortunes and misfortunes onto God and God’s will. In doing so, God, which according to Christianity has actually gifted humanity with freedom as the main manifestation of his love, has become an object upon whose shoulders they could zealouslessly store consequences of their choices. Slowly approaching the elucidative part we should so far note that it is ascertained that some of us sooner or later will have a chance of swallowing the bait of bad faith. But what still remains uncertain is why we fall for it?


The answer lies in nothing else but the weight of freedom itself. Sartre regards freedom as an inherent feature of the human being. The only remark in this phrasing would be that it never comes alone, but in fact with a certain set of responsibilities [2]. They, in particular, become a motive for our unconscious [3] endeavours to give away the ability of making decisions on our own. This is a moment where bad faith or otherwise self-deception, (fr. mauvaise foi), whose characteristics resemble theatre, kicks in. In the moments driven by bad faith people behave as if they were actors on the stage of an ongoing play named life, in which their partner would be freedom itself. Their role is to pretend they have never ever heard what freedom is. But what is the purpose of this theatre then? Apparently, we tend to distract ourselves and make ourselves believe we are not as free as we really think. As M. Heidegger would say, freedom is a facticity we are thrown into, and regarding its conditions we do not choose it [4]. We are condemned to freedom because we cannot escape from it. In this very condemnation, however, we want to be free but only to a certain extent. Although we want to have a range of certain opportunities to choose from, we still run away from them, for it is what causes dizziness and nausea in our minds [5]. Imagine for a second that you are more powerful than you actually are, and even more than you want to be. Nevertheless, such a gift never comes alone. A sort of disorientation and anxiety accompany it. It is as if a good two tons Bugatti car were given to you as a gift. Most likely you won’t reject this treasure piece, would you? But wait, just under one little condition – the keys for the car are not provided. Unfortunately, if you try to push it with your own strength it will not budge even a millimetre forward. So, the keys in this example represent the responsibilities we receive with freedom in order to be able to manipulate it. Certainly, there is always an opposite option alongside – choose to act like a puppet or a robot. Another point to remember, being disguised as a puppet is also a choice, but one that leads us into self-deception. That is what bad faith is about, a way of being dishonest to ourselves and to each other.

In Sartre’s fundamental treatise Being and Nothingness, which has become a substantial contribution to the world of philosophy and psychology, we find a particular dichotomy of Being that is essential for a better understanding of bad faith. Being in itself (fr. en soi)- a mode of existence which applies only to inanimate objects of the external world, not humans. As Sartre himself put it, it is “an object – that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone” [6]. As everything in this existence bears a shadow of certain duality, being in itself as if it were a flipped coin shows its opposite side, which is being for itself (fr. pour soi). Sartre defines it as our consciousness: human capacity of awareness, liberty, actions and power to negate. These two elements constitute the wholeness of human beings – the “I”.

The narrative of the young girl in this case illustrates how by indifferently resting her hand under the man’s, she turns it into an object (that is into Being in itself) that has nothing to do with her integrity as an “I” (Being in itself + Being for itself/ body and consciousness). It became an object that was not related to her consciousness. This kind of being was neither passive or active, to put in other words, it became inactive, as if it were a hand of a plastic mannequin laying on the table. Her choice was to give up on her own liberty to make decisions.

Desiring to obtain the plenitude, thus the totality of freedom is our human desire to attain the status of God in the sense of being able to take control over all aspects of our lives, seems to have been collapsing and is plainly unfeasible, for absolute freedom demands the effort we mostly fail to bear. A human being is merely a prisoner of their freedom. They are condemned to it, thrown into it. Instead of being a liberation, freedom suddenly becomes the prized two-ton Bugatti with no keys. Since mankind turns out to be captivated through bad faith, freedom plays a role of necessity in their lives, not the one of a primary capacity on which human existence is built. In Sartre’s words absolute freedom in bad faith feels like anguish and suffering. Therefore, here is the answer to the question that we posed in the very beginning – “Why do we fall for it?” – Bad faith is possibly a remedy that might temporarily prevent this suffering.

[1] One of the examples of bad faith, given by Sartre in “Being and Nothingness” p. 97 the translation by Hazel B. Barnes, published by Washington Square Press, 1984.

[2] Eric Dodson “Jean-Paul Sartre, Lecture 2: Bad Faith and the Horror of Freedom” by Eric Dodson, aired on April 12, 2020. Youtube. Online video clip.

[3] I call it unconscious, for as a rule in the moments of self-deception individuals do not admit or simply avoid admitting them being conscious.

[4] Martin Heidegger’s concept of facticity ger. “Geworfenheit”or “throwness” that describes human throwness into the world, into a particular family and life conditions within a given culture and at a given moment in human history.

[5] In the novel “Nausea” Jean-Paul Sartre exposes the nausea-effect humans are faced with when being in bad faith.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet,

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