Simone de Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity I

“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,” and so Simone de Beauvoir devotes the first chapter of Ethics of Ambiguity to describe the board, players, and rules of this game.

De Beauvoir first starts off by describing the human condition. A human is freed from being a pure object in the world through his consciousness, and yet can never escape the world fully. He can both assert himself and be crushed by the weight of other things. He is a subject in a world of objects, but also “nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.” In a word, his condition is ambiguous.

The fault in other philosophies as de Beauvoir sees it is that they try and deny this ambiguity by denying one of the two aspects of existence. They either emphasize the pure objectivity of the world, or deny the world as an illusion or as something the mind or spirit can overcome. And the result is that the ethics proposed either make “oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it.” But, since that feeling of ambiguity is always around, these ethical steps are ultimately unsatisfactory. And de Beauvoir sketches her world after the second World War where this ambiguity is felt more sharply than ever: “Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted.” De Beauvoir calls for a tough mindedness, an attempt to live with this ambiguity and make something of it, rather than attempting to deny one side or the other. That is where existentialism comes in.

De Beauvoir attempts to answer some objections to existentialism, namely that it is a philosophy of despair and nonaction. The objectors use Sartre’s declaration that “man is a useless passion” to prove that existentialism is an anything goes philosophy, purely negative, incapable of an ethics. De Beauvoir counters that almost every ethics starts with a negative statement of human affairs (man is fallen, but he is redeemable; people are irrational animals, but instincts can be curbed or sublimated, etc.). She invokes Hegel’s idea of displacement to further clarify this idea, and concludes that “this means that there can be a having-to-be only for a being who, according to the existentialist definition, questions himself in his being, a being who is at a distance from himself and who has to be his being.” It is this distance which makes ethics possible.

So for an ethics there has to be a lack, a gap, or a separation. How does this fit with the idea that man is a useless passion? The “useless passion” that Sartre describes is the failure of humans to completely coincide their in-itself [objective being] with the for-itself [reflexivity, self consciousness], to be a being whose will and desires is perfectly in sync with the world around it. Such a being would be the ground of their own existence, a God. So Sartre’s “useless passion” is that passion of trying to be God. This is the failure of human beings. Simone de Beauvoir wants to make us look at this from another perspective so that it is not so much a failure, but the possibility of success.

Simone de Beauvoir quotes another line from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness which she takes to be the positive aspect of the ethics, which describes man as “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there may be being.” De Beauvoir highlights those two lines to emphasize the linear sequence of the project. First, man makes himself the lack, which implies that the passion is his own choosing. Lack here refers to the separation which makes all desire, action and passion possible. I want something because it is something I do not have, or am not, and this wanting the is determined by the humans themselves without being compelled from the outside.

And because in the beginning it does not have a relation to the external world, it can’t be talked of as useful or useless. “The word “useful” has not yet received a meaning on the level of description where Being and Nothingness is situated. It can be defined only in the human world established by man’s projects and the ends he sets up. In the original helplessness from which man surges up, nothing is useful, nothing is useless. It must therefore be understood that the passion to which man has acquiesced finds no external justification.” According to de Beauvoir, that the inability to fully be at one with the world isn’t a failure. On the contrary:

By uprooting himself from the world, man makes himself present to the world and makes the world present to him. I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat. This means that man, in his vain attempt to be God, makes himself exist as man, and if he is satisfied with this existence, he coincides exactly with himself. It is not granted him to exist without tending toward this being which he will never be. But it is possible for him to want this tension even with the failure which it involves. His being is lack of being, but this lack has a way of being which is precisely existence.

         This change of perspective, from wanting to be a stable, fully grounded being to accepting the ambiguity, is called by de Beauvoir a conversion, and this “existentialist conversion does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions. It merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up as absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them.”

          And since this lack, which positively described is called freedom, is the grounding of human action and desires, de Beauvoir argues that there can be no external justification of values. By rejecting these absolute values, pessimism is also rejected, since pessimism implies a failure measured from an objective point of view. But there is no absolute condemnation of human existence, for “man exists. For him it is not a question of wondering whether his presence in the world is useful, whether life is worth the trouble of being lived. These questions make no sense. It is a matter of knowing whether he wants to live and under what conditions.”

          De Beauvoir answers Dostoevsky’s challenge that “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.” She reverses that by saying that if there is a God to forgive and pardon, action loses its meaning. “If it is claimed that, whatever the case may be, this earthly stake has no importance, this is precisely because one invokes that inhuman objectivity which we declined at the start. One can not start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure.” And if it is objected that a person is free to refuse to give his life importance, de Beauvoir argues that in even in the religious worldview, a person is free to sin. There are the saved but there are also the damned. This does not only apply to religion. De Beauvoir will argue later, that in a deterministic worldview like Marxism there is still room for not doing what is necessary, for having praise and blame. Freedom is constantly re-asserting itself.

          De Beauvoir then goes on to defend against the charge of solipsism. This charge only makes sense when one denies the ambiguous state of humans, because it assumes a pure interiority without an outside world. But the outside world exists, other humans exist, and it is the plurality of humans, as opposed to the abstract idea of a Universal Humanity, that values are created. This will be developed more in the third chapter where Simone de Beauvoir tackles politics.

         After discussing the initial conditions, de Beauvoir goes on to develop a theory of action in the context of freedom. She returns to the initial distinction of “wanting to be” and “wanting to disclose being.” In so far as action is trying to be something, it is doomed to failure. But “to wish for the disclosure of the world and to assert oneself as freedom are one and the same movement. Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself absolutely and above everything else.”

          If man is free, how can he will freedom? De Beauvoir argues that freedom is not something that one has or does not have, but there are differences in how the freedom is used. At first, there is spontaneity. “But if we consider this spontaneity in its facticity, it appears to us only as a pure contingency, an upsurging as stupid as the clinamen of the Epicurean atom which turned up at any moment whatsoever from any direction whatsoever.” For this spontaneous action to have any coherence and not fall into the absurd, it has to project itself towards something. For this project to have meaning, it needs duration. “One escapes the absurdity of the clinamen only by escaping the absurdity of the pure moment. An existence would be unable to found itself if moment by moment it crumbled into nothingness. That is why no moral question presents itself to the child as long as he is still incapable of recognizing himself in the past or seeing himself in the future.” And this project is indefinite, the will continuously engaged: “If I leave behind an act which I have accomplished, it becomes a thing by falling into the past. It is no longer anything but a stupid and opaque fact. In order to prevent this metamorphosis, I must ceaselessly return to it and justify it in the unity of the project in which I am engaged.” It does not mean that an action has to be repeated forever, but that each project, in disclosing being, opens up the possibility of new projects and relations. And all these projects are founded in the beginning conditions of freedom.

          Taking freedom as the foundation of the project, limits do not necessarily mean failure. Encountering obstacles, even insurmountable ones, does not mean we have to give up our projects. De Beauvoir claims that “there is hardly sadder virtue than resignation” because it gives up on realizing ones projects and makes freedom nothing but an empty abstract concept. It leaves a person passive, incapable of action. This is what distinguishes existentialist freedom from Stoic freedom, which recognizes only the “things which are in our control” as free and asks us to be indifferent to everything else.

         The opposite of this resignation is the willing of freedom, because when the project is based on freedom then movement is always possible. “Popular opinion is quite right in admiring a man who, having been ruined or having suffered an accident, knows how to gain the upper hand, that is, renew his engagement in the world, thereby strongly asserting the independence of freedom in relation to thing.” The renouncing of a project is not a failure of the human being, though it is bittersweet: “ In heartbreak, because the project is then robbed of its particularity […] But in joy, since at the moment one releases his hold, he again finds his hands free and ready to stretch out toward a new future.”

          The future is essential for the idea of freedom. Because without this future of possibilities, “he may not justify his existence positively and he feels its contingency with wretched disgust.” That is why “there is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him, as when one empties and fills the same ditch indefinitely, when one makes soldiers who are being punished march up and down, or when one forces a schoolboy to copy lines. Revolts broke out in Italy in September 1946 because the unemployed were set to breaking pebbles which served no purpose whatever. As is well known, this was also the weakness which ruined the national workshops in 1848. This mystification of useless effort is more intolerable than fatigue.” This part sets up the justification for revolt against those who try and deny one’s freedom- which is the basis of her chapter on politics.

          After talking about how willing oneself free is possible, de Beauvoir continues the discussion about how it is possible not to will oneself free. How can one refuse to choose? This goes back to the condition of lack. Unlike Kant, who saw humans as fully positive, meaning they are who they are, de Beauvoir argues that the negative aspect of the human condition makes it possible for a bad will. She says that this gives in existentialism a possibility of evil- which most humanistic philosophies cannot account for- that gives it an even greater urgency. “Yet, it is because there are real dangers, real failures and real earthly damnation that words like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance, and it is because man has something to lose and because he can lose that he can also win.”

          The conclusion of this chapter sets up the beginning of the next, where de Beauvoir talks about the variety of ones people can deny or escape their original freedom, and the consequences they can lead to.


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