Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity”

“The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning.” — Simone de Beauvoir

Existentialism had an ethics problem, that is to say it inherited an ethics problem that had been festering since antiquity.

Particularly in the period after World War Ⅱ, existentialism appeared to be taking questions of ethics very seriously — to be a philosophy that was earnestly grappling with responsibility, value, conscience, taking sides, and the like — and yet if you tried to pin it down about what its ethics were based on, or which particular ethical decisions were the right ones and why, you were likely to run into a lot of obscure hand-waving.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity attempts to make existentialist ethics intelligible — and to refute the caricature that since to an existentialist nothing is true and there is no God, everything is permitted and anyone’s values are as good as any others. Today I’m going to see if I can summarize this book, largely as an exercise in trying to understand it better myself.

De Beauvoir starts off by describing our delicate position. We want to be in the way that the objects around us exist, but instead we seem to be made of ephemeral stuff, becoming and evaporating, dangerously able to be first one way and then another at whim without any core identity to call our own.

To the extent we ever succeed in having a being, it is only in retrospect: we look back at the decisions we make and see patterns that resolve into virtues like patience, courage, or fidelity.

Our existence that strives for being and perpetually fails is a way of describing human freedom. Because we cannot successfully resolve it into something more solid, our best choice is to embrace this never-ending failure and choose it as our life-long path, acknowledging that our natural home is in this constant unresolved striving. This choosing of freedom is, according to de Beauvoir, the cornerstone of existentialist ethics.

Other possible choices include suicide, which has its obvious drawbacks, and various forms of dishonest hiding from our freedom: such as making believe that we have solidified into a being and that our choices are determined by this being’s nature, not chosen by us.

If you decide that your choices are not yours to make, that they don’t matter (or more precisely, that they don’t matter to you), you are acting in “bad faith” in existentialist terminology. De Beauvoir identifies this with the origin of evil because dishonest decisions are decisions nonetheless and they betray your values rather than represent them.

“Not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place.”

Part Ⅱ

In Part Ⅱ of Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir takes a closer look at temptation.

We start in the innocence of childhood. As children, we at first believe that grown-ups have got it all figured out, and that we too will eventually emerge from the chrysalis as fully-formed beings. As human larvae, we feel that our choices have no real significance — everything important about the world and our place in it was established before we got here, and we have merely to grow into our place and understand our part. Adults seem to have no trouble instinctively identifying certain of our behaviors as “bad” or “good,” and we expect that we too will grow to develop this sixth sense.

But in adolescence doubt creeps in. This sixth sense fails to develop, and there are hints that the grown-ups might be faking it. It dawns on children that they are not simply going to fit into a place ready-made for them, but that they will have to forge themselves into something of their own choosing. Different children confront this emerging awareness with different levels of generosity, good will, and attentiveness; those traits in turn emerge as vitality, intelligence, and sensitivity; and those virtues shape the values and goals that the child ends up choosing in their project of attempted becoming.

But there’s always the temptation to back away from this frightening project with its existential vertigo. The child is frequently invited to instead adopt ready-made values and roles and to lay down the burden of choosing his or her own. These ready-made values de Beauvoir calls “serious” values. To the serious world, people do not have to choose values and roles because these already exist for everyone: they are to be discovered, not invented, and the initial discovery has already been made.

People who give into this temptation to adopt the serious values without choosing their own never mature. They become “sub-men,” and they are worthy of contempt because they have chosen not to choose, have freely denied their freedom. They are also dangerous:

In lynchings, in pogroms, in all the great bloody movements organized by the fanaticism of seriousness and passion, movements where there is no risk, those who do the actual dirty work are recruited from among the sub-men. This is why every man who wills himself free within a human world fashioned by free men will be so disgusted by the sub-men.

“Serious” people never abandoned the illusion of finding those permanent, real, universal values that they assumed as children would eventually be revealed to them. Part of what makes serious people dangerous is that they don’t make much of an effort to choose wisely which values to subordinate themselves to: this is because it’s not the particular values they care about, but the ability to use those values to relieve them from the burden of choosing and being responsible for their own choices.

Unless you are actually in a hopelessly subordinate political position (such as a prisoner, slave, or schoolchild), you are not actually forced to adopt serious values as your own. The attempt by serious people to deny their freedom doesn’t actually work; the best you can do is to make-believe it’s working: You constantly choose the serious values and constantly pretend that it’s the values doing the choosing, not you.

Some people stick with serious values because the only alternative they can imagine is a nihilism in which there are no values at all. But de Beauvoir says that in fact nihilism is itself a form of seriousness — “disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself.” Whereas serious people pretend to find values written on the fabric of the universe and so give up on the frightening project of choosing the values they will live by; nihilists pretend that when they discovered there are no such ready-made values they also discovered an excuse for not having to choose any values whatsoever.

The serious and the nihilist also can form an alliance of sorts. Serious people can use nihilist arguments to deny the existence or validity of competing values, thereby further insulating themselves from having to question the serious values they have chosen to hide behind.

Heretics are also not the opposite of seriousness so much as they are equal and opposite forms of seriousness. So for instance Ayn Rand’s iconoclastic attacks on altruism were in the service of her own serious virtue of selfishness. Anton LaVey’s church of Satan, or (de Beauvoir’s example) Baudelaire’s contempt for churchly morality are mirror-images of what they oppose, and only survive with reference to their opposing seriousnesses.

It’s only existentialism, and not any of these things, that really drives a stake into the heart of seriousness.

But there are also some other, more subtle ways in which people can go astray:

For example, the man who gives himself to a cause which he knows to be lost chooses to merge the world with one of its aspects which carries within it the germ of its ruin, involving himself in this condemned universe and condemning himself with it. Another man devotes his time and energy to an undertaking which was not doomed to failure at the start but which he himself is bent on ruining. Still another rejects each of his projects one after the other, frittering them away in a series of caprices and thereby systematically annulling the ends which he is aiming at.

This adoption of values that are null-values was taken to artistic extremes (or perhaps was well-satirized) by Dadaism. (Post)modern deconstructionism strikes me as a more earnest and more ridiculous version of this same pathology.

Another dodge is that of the “adventurer” — “He throws himself into his undertaking with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end at which he aims; only to his conquest.”

Adventurers have almost figured it out. “[I]f existentialism were solipsistic, as is generally claimed, it would have to regard the adventurer as its perfect hero.” Adventurers do not deny their freedom, but this “freedom… [is] indifferent to its content.”

Adventurers are dangerous, too, because their grand plans (sometimes with hidden “serious” goals like fame and fortune) encourage them to seek out and make alliances with sources of concentrated power. How do you raise an army to become the Napoleon of your dreams without becoming symbiotic with a tyrannical state?

De Beauvoir asserts that the adventurer fails because freedom cannot genuinely be exercised with indifference to its effects on other free people. Unfortunately, this assertion, which seems so crucial to de Beauvoir’s purpose, isn’t justified so much as it is presented as self-evident. Sounding suspiciously like a “serious” person, de Beauvoir says “the freedom of other men must be respected and they must be helped to free themselves. Such a law imposes limits upon action and at the same time immediately gives it a content. Beyond the rejected seriousness is found a genuine seriousness.” But what makes this seriousness “genuine” and how do we know this — where does this “law” come from? De Beauvoir does not yet say.

The “passionate man” tries another mode of false freedom. Whereas to the adventurer it’s all about the doing, without regard of what is getting done to, the passionate man puts some object on a pedestal, wraps it in subjective robes, and then worships it as a sort of private altar. Like the case of the adventurer, the passionate man almost gets it right — he correctly sees himself as what creates values, but he incorrectly deifies those values and locks himself inside of them, excluding everyone else from a weird, private world.

The passionate man is unpleasantly monomaniacal: “The whole universe is perceived only as an ensemble of means or obstacles through which it is a matter of attaining the thing in which one has engaged his being.” And for this reason also, the passionate man can be dangerous: “If the object of his passion concerns the world in general, this tyranny becomes fanaticism.”

The passionate man is less in love with what he values than with his valuing, and so he does not really respect others’ freedom but instead sees others as obstacles or means-to-an-end (as with the adventurer) or as idols.

But it’s risky and frightening to try to live out your own free life and also to affirm the freedom of those around you. It’s mind-bogglingly complex and full of possibilities for hurtful failure.

Another way to try to escape from this complexity is the path of the “intellectual.” Intellectuals, “instead of building their existence upon the indefinite unfolding of time, propose to assert it in its eternal aspect and to achieve it as an absolute [and] thereby, to surmount the ambiguity of their condition.” The intellectual tries to stand outside of messy reality and to adopt a point of view where it can be viewed objectively. But this disengagement is ultimately impossible — we are hopelessly entangled with the reality we perceive and cannot successfully adopt as our defining worldview an “objective” one.

The “artist” tries another approach. Rather than trying to transform their own ephemeral existences into concrete beings, artists try to capture existence itself into lasting works of art — to give form to the churning maelstrom of becoming or to commemorate the ongoing project of existence. But the artist can fall into the same trap as the passionate man if art becomes an idol.

There are many varieties of tempting evasions like these, but when it comes right down to it:

There is no way for a man to escape from this world. It is in this world that — avoiding the pitfalls we have just pointed out — he must realize himself morally. Freedom must project itself toward its own reality through a content whose value it establishes. An end is valid only by the freedom which established it and which willed itself through this end. But this will implies that freedom is not to be engulfed in any goal; neither is it to dissipate itself vainly without aiming at a goal.

De Beauvoir then tries to explain more carefully why it is that the values and projects we choose must take into account other freedoms like our own, and must respect, choose, and defend those freedoms as freedoms. In part, she does this by imagining the solipsistic worlds the adventurer, passionate man, intellectual, artist, and so forth try to retreat into as though they really were worlds empty of other free individuals worthy of consideration: who would the adventurer be trying to impress? what would the passions of the passionate man be any good for? who would admire the profundities of the intellectual or the achievements of the artist? “If I were really everything there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty. There would be nothing to possess, and I myself would be nothing.”

So: “Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men.” And thus ethics is necessary, and is necessary to the existentialist project.

To will oneself free is also to will others free. This will is not an abstract formula. It points out to each person concrete action to be achieved. But the others are separate, even opposed, and the man of good will sees concrete and difficult problems arising in his relations with them.

Part Ⅲ

In part Ⅲ, de Beauvoir tries to make clearer what “this positive aspect of morality” entails.

She reiterates that we must avoid the temptation to look at life purely aesthetically — to contemplate it from without as though it were a finished thing being presented to us for our appreciation. Life must be lived actively, and contemplated only retrospectively: “the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action… to put onesself ‘outside’ is still a way of living the inescapable fact that one is inside; those French intellectuals who, in the name of history, poetry, or art, sought to rise above the drama of the age, were willynilly its actors; more or less explicitly, they were playing the occupier’s game.”

Although its critics accuse existentialism of demanding that we urgently make choices without giving us any guidance as to how or what for, de Beauvoir insists that the same freedom that prompts our need to choose also gives us the primary value our choices ought to defend: freedom against the oppressor and against ideologies that bolster oppression. “To want existence, to want to disclose the world, and to want men to be free are one and the same will” — “the supreme end at which man must aim is his freedom, which alone is capable of establishing the value of every end.”

Oppressive ideologies rarely forthrightly demand the “freedom” to oppress; after all, if the oppressor were really concerned with freedom, he or she would want to defend it for everyone. Instead the oppressor usually shows him or herself to be trapped in a mistake of seriousness: “rather than make an unvarnished demand for freedom to oppress he is more apt to present himself as the defender of certain values. It is not in his own name that he is fighting, but rather in the name of civilization, of institutions, of monuments, and of virtues which realize objectively the situation which he intends to maintain.”

Oppression tries to defend itself by its utility. But we have seen that it is one of the lies of the serious mind to attempt to give the word “useful” an absolute meaning; nothing is useful if it is not useful to man; nothing is useful to man if the latter is not in a position to define his own ends and values, if he is not free.

…if one wishes to give the word useful a universal and absolute meaning, it is always a question of reabsorbing each man into the bosom of mankind…

De Beauvoir says that although the genuine interests of the oppressors lie in freedom for everybody, there’s little hope of convincing them of that. She dismisses the idea of a Gandhian conversion of the oppressor:

In order for a liberating action to be a thoroughly moral action, it would have to be achieved through a conversion of the oppressors: there would then be a reconciliation of all freedoms. But no one any longer dares to abandon himself today to these Utopian reveries. We know only too well that we can not count upon a collective conversion.

Instead we must bite the bullet, dehumanize the oppressors so as to treat them merely as obstacles, and crush them. If you are not the unflinching enemy of the oppressor, you become an unwitting collaborator. It’s just an unpleasant fact “that one finds himself forced to treat certain men as things in order to win the freedom of all.”

And it’s even worse than this. It’s one thing to be forced to acknowledge forthright oppressors as subhuman things — “[a] freedom which is occupied in denying freedom is itself so outrageous that the outrageousness of the violence which one practices against it is almost canceled out” — but it’s another thing to practice violence against good people who get in your way. Apparently, though, this is a necessary thing as well:

In order to win an urgent victory, one has to give up the idea, at least temporarily, of serving certain valid causes; one may even be brought to the point of fighting against them. Thus, during the course of the last war, no Anti-fascist could have wanted the revolts of the natives in the British Empire to be successful; on the contrary, these revolts were supported by the Fascist regimes; and yet, we can not blame those who, considering their emancipation to be the more urgent action, took advantage of the situation to obtain it. Thus, it is possible, and often it even happens, that one finds himself obliged to oppress and kill men who are pursuing goals whose validity one acknowledges himself.

Even worse, sometimes you have to consider your allies and even yourselves to be mere things — mere armaments to be deployed against the freedom-threatening foe.

“Thus one finds himself in the presence of the paradox that no action can be generated for man without its being immediately generated against men.” This paradox is so unpalatable that those who undertake it often lie to themselves about what they are doing. They make up euphemisms for the sacrifices they demand, they create a seriousness out of their cause and subordinate individual people to it.

Given that the world is messy, and that “in order to serve some men we must do disservice to others[, b]y which principle are we to choose between them?” De Beauvoir seems here to revert to a run-of-the-Mill utilitarianism, but with existentialist freedom in the place of the ultimate good. If we are genuinely and with good will trying to attain this good, we are justified in sacrificing the freedom of the few for the freedom of the many, or the less freedom-enhancing person for the more freedom-enhancing person, and so forth.

Is this just another form of the catastrophic utopian ends-justify-the-means thinking that has led to so many horrors? Not so quick: “The means, it is said, will be justified by the end; but it is the means which define it, and if it is contradicted at the moment that it is set up, the whole enterprise sinks into absurdity.” In other words: “Since the liberation aimed at is not a thing situated in an unfamiliar time, but a movement which realizes itself by tending to conquer, it cannot attain itself if it denies itself at the start; action can not seek to fulfill itself by means which would destroy its very meaning.” For example:

[T]he attitude of England in regard to Spain, Greece, and Palestine is defended with the pretext that she must take up position against the Russian menace in order to save, along with her own existence, her civilization and the values of democracy; but a democracy which defends itself only by acts of oppression equivalent to those of authoritarian regimes, is precisely denying all these values; whatever the virtues of a civilization may be, it immediately belies them if it buys them by means of injustice and tyranny.

And also, in more stark rejection of purely utilitarian calculations:

[W]e condemn a magistrate who handed over a communist to save ten hostages and along with him all the Vichyites who were trying “to make the best of things:” it was not a matter of rationalizing the present such as it was imposed by the German occupation, but of rejecting it unconditionally. The resistance did not aspire to a positive effectiveness; it was a negation, a revolt, a martyrdom; and in this negative movement freedom was positively and absolutely confirmed.

In general, “[t]hose who project themselves toward a Future-Thing and submerge their freedom in it find the [deceptive] tranquility of the serious.” We instead have to accept that conflict will always be with us, and so we cannot justify our choices today by weighing them, Pascal’s wager style, against an infinitely just and peaceful future kingdom. “The tasks we have set up for ourselves… must find their meaning in themselves and not in a mythical Historical end.”

This also means we can reject the excuse for injustice that says that because we live in exceptional times, we must adopt measures that could not be justified otherwise. These times of conflict and injustice are normal times, and if we cannot justify our actions without resort to exceptions we cannot justify them at all.

On the one hand we have to aim towards a future project that we may never live to see realized, and on the other hand we must not expect the success of that future project to retroactively justify the choices we make today. And we must also occasionally pause to respect that if we are fighting for freedom to live, we ought occasionally to take our eyes off of our future goals and enliven the present moment which does belong to us — to prove that we know what we are fighting for. “[T]he movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness.… If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.”

“That is the reason,” de Beauvoir writes, “societies institute festivals whose role is to stop the movement of transcendence, to set up the end as an end.”

That is the modern meaning of the festival, private as well as public. Existence attempts in the festival to confirm itself positively as existence. That is why, as Bataille has shown, it is characterized by destruction; the ethics of being is the ethics of saving: by storing up, one aims at the stationary plenitude of the in-itself, existence on the contrary, is consumption; it makes itself only by destroying; the festival carries out the negative movement in order to indicate clearly its independence in relationship to the thing: one eats, drinks, lights fires, breaks things, and spends time and money; one spends them for nothing. The spending is also a matter of establishing a communication of the existants, for it is by the movement of recognition which goes from one to the other that existence is confirmed; in songs, laughter, dances, eroticism, and drunkenness one seeks both an exaltation of the moment and a complicity with other men.

The foundation of a mature ethics is a situation de Beauvoir calls “ambiguity.” We can never learn the meaning of existence, but must always be in the progress of generating this meaning, a process that never reaches its goal. In this way, “through failure and outrageousness,” we save our existence. “Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.”

Revolt against injustice is the purest form of action (its positive counterpart, establishing justice, is messier and more compromised).

We ought to strive not to do what we think is best for people, but to free people to seek out what they feel is best for themselves. Paternalistic coercion (except with actual children or in certain other limited circumstances) is unwise: considering that we each save our existences through failure and outrageousness, “[t]o want to prohibit a man from error is to forbid him to fulfill his own existence, it is to deprive him of life.” While “the good of an individual or a group of individuals requires that it be taken as an absolute end of our action[, ] we are not authorized to decide upon this end a priori.” Every case is a unique case, and you cannot simply use a formula.

The fact is that no behavior is ever authorized to begin with, and one of the concrete consequences of existentialist ethics is the rejection of all the previous justifications which might be drawn from the civilization, the age, and the culture; it is the rejection of every principle of authority. To put it positively, the precept will be to treat the other… as a freedom so that his end may be freedom; in using this conducting wire one will have to incur the risk, in each case, of inventing an original solution.

Conclusion

This is the second time I’ve tried to read The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not easy reading. Maybe it’s the translation, or maybe it’s the way people philosophize in French, but there’s a lot of stuff that seems unnecessarily obscure. It also doesn’t seem particularly rigorous to me. I tried to read it as an argument, and I think I should have tried to read it as more of an impressionistic vision.

I thought the first two parts of the book were the strongest, where de Beauvoir describes our precarious position, the various ways we try to hide from it, and the development of our sense of existential vertigo as we emerge from childhood.

I had a hard time distinguishing de Beauvoir’s chosen prime directive in a coherent way from the other “serious” values she criticizes, and an even harder time unraveling the utilitarian means she sometimes advocates from those she harshly criticizes.

But it may just be a fact about the world that ethics is messy and resists systematization, and books that try to tidy and systematize it must necessarily have a lot of loose ends.

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