Excerpt from a Conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre and B. F. Skinner

BFS: “Man is perhaps unique in being a moral animal, but not in the sense that he possesses morality; he has constructed a social environment in which he behaves with respect to himself and others in moral ways.”

JPS: “I can bring moral judgment to bear.”

BFS: “The essential issue is autonomy. Is man in control of his own destiny or is he not?”

JPS: “Man makes himself. He isn’t ready made at the start. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose. In that way, you see, there is a possibility of creating a human community.”

BFS: “Behaviorism does not reduce morality to certain features of the social environment; it simply insists that those features have always been responsible for moral behavior. Man continues to build machines which dehumanize him. He can remedy these mistakes and build a world in which he will feel freer than ever before and achieve greater things.”

JPS: “We do not believe in progress. Man is always the same. I am responsible for myself and for everyone else.”

BFS: “Why do people behave as they do? It became a matter of understanding and explaining behavior. It could always be reduced to a question about causes.”

JPS: “It’s all quite simple. He can’t start making excuses for himself. There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. We have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses. Man is condemned to be free. There are no omens in the world. No general ethics can show you what is to be done. This theory is the only one which gives man dignity.”

BFS: “Control is another matter. Refusing to look at causes exacts its price. The behaviorist has a simpler answer. What has evolved is an organism, part of the behavior of which has been tentatively explained by the invention of the concept of mind. No special evolutionary process is needed when the facts are considered in their own right.”

JPS: “There is no human nature. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Man is responsible for what he is. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. It is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.”

BFS: “A scientific analysis of behavior must assume that a person’s behavior is controlled by his genetic and environmental histories rather than by the person himself as an initiating, creative agent.”

JPS: “In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person. There does exist a universal human condition.”

BFS: “We often overlook the fact that human behavior is also a form of control. No mystic or ascetic has ever ceased to control the world around him; he controls it in order to control himself. We cannot choose a way of life in which there is no control.”

JPS: “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. What complicates matters is that there are two kinds of existentialist; first, those who are Christian, and on the other hand the atheistic existentialists, and then the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.”

BFS: “The major difficulties are practical. In any case we seem to be no worse off for ignoring philosophical problems.”

(This invented converstation was created with quotes blended from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” with Skinner’s “About Behaviorism.”)