Question: Sartre says that no ethical system or advisor can tell the student in his example what decision to make. Is he correct about this? If he is, then can there be any such thing as an ethical theory?
With this case being made for the individual, we find that the different options the student has are reflective of an accumulation of different ethical questions. This is reflective of existentialism itself, with the emphasis on the individual’s perceptions, ideals and ideas. The ethical questions he faces, namely rationalized killing in war, taking care of his mother, not forgiving the enemy for killing his brother, etc. In doing so we shape this idea of the student’s character-one dominated by a grudge and a selfishness to serve his own needs, unless that is, he is part of a sect which promotes vengeance.
So I see ethics as more of an accumulation of different ethical views one has, this obviously makes the decision very complicated but not impossible. Maybe to describe it better, we read books, for example, these books all influence our perceptions in ways that we will forget but may remember later on when our consciousness is provoked by our thoughts. Our big choices are dominated by our code of ethics, and the individual’s code of ethics is just that, a grouping of different smaller ethical perceptions, which can help one to make more complicated decisions. Ethical problems arise which require us to make decisions distinguishing at least two options. If we can make an easy decision like killing or not killing, we can find a way to make a more complicated ethical decision. So no, one individual ethical theory cannot answer this difficult problem. But if this individual takes his own ethical code, (which has hopefully also been crafted by his cultural code-to promote harmony within his group) all of the “smaller” ethical decisions he has made in his life should help him to make this important decision.