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Macgregor on Existential Ethics

Joaquin Sanchez Macgregor’s (1925-2008) contribution aims to answer the question posed in his chosen title, “jHay una moral existencialista?” (Is there an existentialist morality?). The urgency to locate an existentialist morality somewhere in the existentialist literature is due in large part to the common opinion that, taken to the extreme, existentialism would ultimately lead to rampant irresponsibility. If Mexican thinkers are going to offer existentialism as a conceptual matrix for the reinterpretation of their reality and, on this basis, prescribe transformative action for the sake of its future, then the assumption of responsibility for self and circumstance must be a cornerstone of that offering.

As expected, Macgregor locates the sought after moral program in Sartre’s brand of existentialism. While both Sartre and Heidegger “oblige us to live philosophy in a radical and complete manner” and “animate thinking, turning it into the great business of our lives,” it is Sartre that offers a “practical existential philosophy” (1948, 267-268). This practical existential philosophy is a necessary addendum to an existential description that finds us all in a state of absolute freedom and solitude without God, or lacking a determinate anchor in anything stable and certain. “Every person [hombre],” writes Macgregor, “in arriving at this valley of tears, can make of himself what he likes; no one else is responsible for him [sic]” (274). Alone, thrown into a miserable existence, the person can very well chose to avoid responsibility. Thus, an existentialist ethics boils down to this: every person is responsible for herself. Macgregor, with a poet’s pen, paraphrases the Sartrean insight: “If the person is abandoned to her own will, it is best that she aims to rise up and care for her health. She must assume responsibility, and an authentic being- in-the-world will reveal itself to her in an instant. Recognizing her latent will power, she will begin a new ‘existence’ whose capabilities will be seen emerging in the very instant of self-choosing” (278). We see here a faith in an existentialist description of human life. The revelation of throwness and facticity carries with it a promise of liberation, as those idols (ideologies, institutions, self-perceptions) that control and oppress us are seen for what they are, post facto constructions superimposed on our facticity. Recognizing our “latent will,” we begin to dismantle these idols and reimagine a world for ourselves more conducive to our own human flourishing—to our “health.” And this is the ethical program that Macgregor finds in his reading of Sartre.

Morality, and with it the political project of saving the circumstance, of empowering the intersubjective complex that history and violence have defined, comes with the assumption of responsibility: “Wanting to be free, but free to realize his liberty in the midst of a concrete situation, always caring for the freedom of the other, man negates his constitutive negation and brings it to bear on a tireless process of liberation that, if he wishes it to be effective, must be for life, since he is the bankrupt debtor of himself” (Macgregor 1948, 278). In this way, the Mexican existentialists address their generation. If there is a future to be had, it must begin with taking on a vital responsibility for oneself and the care for others. The solemn picture of humans alone in the “valley of tears” is a caricature; the value of existentialism lies in the revelation that one is responsible for one’s future and that one’s future is tied, inescapably, to the future of others, that assuming this responsibility is an act of freedom and a vital necessity. As I will show below, Emilio Uranga, Luis Villoro, and Jorge Portilla focus their readings (their enfoque) on this insight. Against critics who charge that existentialism can only lead to radical individualism and nihilism, the Mexican existentialists find an orientation toward a vital project worth having, an insight that can still hold true today as we travel with philosophy farther and faster, more violently yet more sympathetically, into an age of suspicion and terror.

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