Towards an Existential Ethics: Narrative Identity and Social Scripts

Victoria Emery, Fordham University


This project is an exploration and revitalization of existential ethics. The first chapter focuses on the existential concepts of freedom and situation or facticity inherent to the existential condition. I develop an explanation of existential subjectivity, turning to Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of nothingness in order to emphasize that it is each of our choices which create meaning in and for the world. The first chapter also includes a lengthy exploration of the concept of bad faith or those moments when we deny our responsibility and choice. I begin to explore why bad faith might be an ethical problem for the existential subject, as well. The second chapter is study of existential ethics. I trace readings of both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s more ethical texts. I also delve into a discussion of Michel Foucault’s work, in order to underscore the importance of testing those traditions or customs that one inherits. This chapter is meant to make clear that ethics for the existentialist should be thought of as a kind of care of and for the self and others, which occurs through an understanding of those social roles, which subjects play every day. To this end I develop a concept I call social scripts. Social scripts are defined as the internalization of certain patterns of behavior between people, as well as the actual stories, or myths, that shape what an individual sees as possible for themselves. I contend that understanding the social scripts that a subject enacts and is surrounded by can render a subject freer. In chapter three I explore how social scripts develop and function. I also claim that social scripts, if not renewable and open to reconfiguration, can actually inhibit freedom and autonomy. Indeed, if social scripts are inevitable, then in order to be autonomous we must contribute to their adoption, creation, or reconfiguration. In the fourth chapter I claim that the emotion of shame is one major inhibitor to our ability to write our own scripts. I contend that an understanding of the way that shame as an emotion pulls on our desire to fit in is one first step in being able to move on from given scripts and begin to shape one’s own. Finally, I clam that scripts are affected and changed by and through power and return briefly to Foucault for this analysis. Though it may be difficult for any one individual to shift a script permanently, the individual subject is charged with trying, and is best able to do so by developing a relation to specific projects throughout their lifetime. In order to engage in projects our social scripts have to find a home in some larger theory of identity. This makes narrative a useful tool in making sense of our scripts, and, perhaps more importantly, of changing, or rewriting those scripts we inhabit. In the fifth chapter I explore the ways in which narrative can serve as a kind of organizing principle for a human subjects actions, experiences, choices, and for the subjects themselves, as subjects make choices about who they want to be through time. By way of being an organizing principle I also wish to argue that narrative identity allows for experimentation with a sense of responsibility that carries through time and circumstance. Yet I claim, pulling on work by Hilde Lindemann, that narrative, if understood to be an entity which requires any high level of unity, can actually inhibit our ability to change. The sixth chapter uses trauma as a kind of limit or case study meant to test the theory presented thus far. I contend that Sartre largely assumes the existential subject is, to some extent, an ideal subject, able to make free choices quickly and easily. But what happens when a subject has faced systematic violence, or has undergone some other kind of trauma or aging process, which renders their past sense of self uninterpretable? In exploring these questions I turn to existential thinker Viktor Frankl’s work to explore what I am calling “provisional unity.” The goal is to find meaning in some short-term experience or project, while staying ready to let go or shift after some amount of time has passed. I close the work with a discussion of non-standard narrative forms, contending that postmodern literature may be one place to look as we attempt to make space for subjects with varying and non-standard life experiences. The conclusion to the project lists with some examples of subjects who maintain their freedom through this provisional form of unity.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Emery, Victoria, "Towards an Existential Ethics: Narrative Identity and Social Scripts" (2021). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI28495425.