Simone de Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity: Personal Freedom and Others

In the last part, de Beauvoir outlines the general conditions of humans and their project of freedom. Man is stuck in the “lack” between pure facticity and complete subjectivity, but it is in this lack that freedom arises. But man can try to escape that freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, which is the subject of the second chapter.

The problem, de Beauvoir asserts, starts in childhood. When human beings are children, the world appears ready made for them. There is the world of adults, who have all the answers and live in a stable world where he does not have to be responsible for anyone or anything else: ‘They can not make a dent in  the serene order of a world which existed before him, without him, where he is in a state of security by virtue of his very insignificance. He can do with impunity whatever he likes. He knows that nothing can ever happen through him; everything is already given; his acts engage nothing, not even himself.’

This sense of childhood might also extent into adulthood when people are never allowed to assume responsibility or freedom, such as in conditions of subjugation or slavery. In order to get along with the power that subjugates them, they align themselves to their “masters” like children align themselves to adults.  But barring such external pressures, and even within them, this illusion of a stable ready made world starts dissipating soon enough. De Beauvoir describes the awakening of a child into adolescence as such: “From childhood on, flaws begin to be revealed in it. With astonishment,  revolt and disrespect the child little by little asks himself, “Why must I act that way? What good is it? And what will happen if I act in another way?” He discovers his subjectivity; he discovers that of others. And when he arrives at the age of adolescence he begins to vacillate because he notices the contradictions among adults as well as their hesitations and weakness. Men stop appearing as if they were gods, and at the same time the adolescent discovers the human character of the reality about him. Language, customs, ethics, and values have their source in these uncertain creatures. The moment has come when he too is going to be called upon to participate in their operation; his acts weigh upon the earth as much as those of other men. He will have to choose and decide. It is comprehensible that it is hard for him to live this moment of his history, and this is doubtless the deepest reason for the crisis of adolescence; the individual must at last assume his subjectivity.”

So when a child suddenly realizes the weight and consequences of their existence, ethical action is possible. This realization is both joyful, because now the person is able to feel himself free and no longer “defenseless before obscure powers which directed the course of things,” and anxiety-provoking, because they now have to face the world without the safety net of their childhood, which they might become nostalgic for. To see how this anxiety and nostalgia can be a denial of freedom, de Beauvoir makes a hierarchy of various types of escape from freedom.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is what she terms the “sub-man.” This person refuses outright to have any positive engagement with the world, he takes no responsibility for himself, and his only desire to make himself into a pure facticity in the world. Out of fear- fear of taking on projects, of the future, of engaging and being thrown into the possibilities around him- of the world, he rejects it completely. “He discovers around him only an insignificant and dull world. How could this naked world arouse within him any desire to feel, to understand, to live? The less he exists, the less is there reason for him to exist, since these reasons are created only by existing.” His commitment is only halfhearted, he will take on whatever ready-made idea comes his way, “One day, a monarchist, the next day, an anarchist, he is more readily anti-semitic, anti-clerical, or anti-republican. ”

So it’s wrong to think of the sub-man as the lovable slacker, because the sub-man’s apathy can turn dangerous. First, because the world appears as an uncontrollable force overwhelming him, he will fall prey to any form of evil going on around him, “He realizes himself in the world as a blind uncontrolled force which anybody can get control of. 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.”

The sub-man’s relation to the world is ultimately one of terror: “The sub-man experiences the desert of the world in his boredom. And the strange character of a universe with which he has created no bond also arouses fear in him. Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful specters, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.”

In order to alleviate those fears, the subman can decide to give away all his freedom to a single object, to devote himself to a Cause or an Idea. This is the situation De Beauvoir calls the “Serious Man.” Serious men give up their freedom by making this cause or idea their everything. It is almost an inversion of childhood: the child sees the world of adults as a complete ready-made, fact of existence; the serious man wants to be that adult world. Although some adults, because of economic or social conditions, cannot fully escape the restraints of this imaginary childhood, the serious man knows his freedom, but nonetheless chooses to remain chained, “he dissimulates his subjectivity under the shield of rights which emanate from the ethical universe recognized by him; he is no longer a man, but a father, a boss, a member of the Christian Church or the Communist Party.” And because ‘he is no longer a man’ he falls prey to “the political fanaticism which empties politics of all human content and imposes the State, not for individuals, but against them.” The inquisition and lynchings are two examples de Beauvoir gives.

The serious man can only justify his absurd cause by denying the seriousness of others, making fun of their causes or their projects. Some will do it by cultivating a sense of humor which mocks the cause of others-“the fascist sense of humor”- others will devote their will entirely to their idol, and in all other aspects become a sub-man. Here she gives the example from Proust of a doctor who has great skill in his profession but “outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity.” When the Cause (or causes) becomes everything, everything is judged useful or useless within the reason for the cause. But the serious man does not see it, he thinks it is “useful” or “useless” period, and this situation leads to despair and disillusionment: ‘Transcending all goals, reflection wonders, “What’s the use?” There then blazes forth the absurdity of a life which has sought outside of itself the justifications which it alone could give itself. Detached from the freedom which might have genuinely grounded them, all the ends that have been pursued appear arbitrary and useless.’

A serious man who is frustrated by the inability to “be” anything can decide to become nothing. This stage de Beauvoir describes as nihilism. This attitude is different from the “lack” of existentialism which she described in the previous chapter. The nihilist feels this lack, and reacts to it negatively.  They might go for purely rejecting everything around them; where the serious man made following the object the source of his life, the nihilist makes destroying the object his goal. Or they might go even further and try and annihilate themselves, which can also mean annihilating others that give them existence.

Such a position cannot be sustained for too long, and their rejection of the world can be self destructive, a return to the sub-man, or become a new form of serious. She uses the historical example of Surrealism, which first started off as being a continuous rebellion against all values, and ended up being a new form of values. More dangerously, De Beauvoir describes Nazism as first a nihilistic move destroying old bourgeoisie values before itself becoming a new serious cause.

But within nihilism, as opposed to the sub-man or the serious, there is the first realization of the ambiguity or existence, and so the later stages de Beauvoir describes have a possibility of genuine freedom within them. From the nihilistic stance other possibilities arise, because within a nihilistic stance a person might still experience the delight in existing, he might throw himself in activity and take in all the delights of the world. De Beauvoir calls this person “the adventurer.”

The adventurer is the first to of these stages to experience freedom, and so the first to be able to make moral choices from the existentialist point of view. Because, “The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal. Whether he succeeds or fails, he goes right ahead throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardor. It is not from things that he expects the justification of his choices.”

The adventurer is much further than the nihilist or the serious man, but not quite there. De Beauvoir finds two faults in this figure: first, he might still be pursuing adventure in the name of a serious Cause, and second, he is completely indifferent to the freedom of others and the consequences of his action. Cortez and the conquistadors are used to illustrate both these points: while adventurers full of zeal and joy of life, they still find their cause of religion and empire, and their complete indifference to the freedom of the Indians whom they regarded as mere obstacles from their abstracted sense of freedom.

Insofar as a person  “can become conscious of the real requirements of his own freedom, which can will itself only by destining itself to an open future, by seeking to extend itself by means of the freedom of others,” then he has genuine freedom. But if others become mere instruments for his adventures and conquests, then the adventurer can easily become a tyrant. “And as he can not impose this tyranny without help, he is obliged to serve the regime which will allow him to exercise it. He needs money, arms, soldiers, or the support  of the police and the laws. It is not a matter of chance, but a dialectical necessity which leads the adventurer to be complacent regarding all regimes which defend the privilege of a class or a party, and more particularly authoritarian regimes and fascism. He needs fortune, leisure, and enjoyment, and he will take these goods as supreme ends in order to be prepared to remain free in regard to any end.” It only takes a favorable chance, de Beauvoir says, to make an adventurer into a dictator.

The antithesis of the adventurer is the passionate man. “In the adventurer it is the content which does not succeed in being genuinely fulfilled. Whereas in the passionate man it is subjectivity which fails to fulfill itself genuinely.” If the adventurer seeks to destroy everything that gets in the way of his own pleasure, the passionate man attempts to give himself fully to the realization of an object. There are a lot of similarities between the passionate and the serious man, and indeed de Beauvoir says that the one can often turn into the other, but at this stage, the person realizes his own subjectivity, and passion is about merging that subjectivity with the object of their passion. Whereas the Cause the serious man follows is ready-made, the passionate man sees at as a project, a quest.

It is a double edged sword, because the project the passionate man follows can disclose and give incredible meaning to the world, but a blind single-minded pursuit of this project means that he will withdraw himself from the rest of the world, his freedom is a separation from others.” He knows that his will emanates only from him, but he can nevertheless attempt to impose it upon others.” This can lead to a willing to destroy, or at least an indifference to, anything that is not his goal: Only the object of his passion appears real and full to him. All the rest are insignificant. Why not betray, kill, grow violent?  […] 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. Not intending his freedom for men, the passionate man does not recognize them as freedoms either. He will not hesitate to treat them as things.” This leads to fanaticisim.

But just like the adventurer has the possibility for authentic freedom, de Beauvoir sees the possibility for goodness in the passionate: genuine love. “Love is then renunciation of all possession, of all confusion. One renounces being in order that there may be that being which one is not. Such generosity, moreover, can not be exercised on behalf of any object whatsoever. One can not love a pure thing in its independence and its separation, for the thing does not have positive independence. If a man prefers the land he has discovered to the possession of this land, a painting or a statue to their material presence, it is insofar as they appear to him as possibilities open to other men. Passion is converted to genuine freedom only if one destines his existence to other existences through the being — whether thing or man — at which he aims, without hoping to entrap it in the destiny of the in-itself.”

At this point both ones own freedom and the dependence of others is realized. This is frightening because it implies the possibility the failure of any engagement with the world. One strategy to stop this is to take the position of an intellectual, who contemplates the world from a distance and refuses to take sides. “He does not have to choose between the highway and the native, between America and Russia, between production and freedom. He understands, dominates, and rejects, in the name of total truth, the necessarily partial truths which every human engagement discloses.” However, every person born is born to a particular situation, a certain time or place in the world, and so the judgement the intellectual makes cannot be universal. “If he does not assume the subjectivity of his judgment, he is inevitably caught in the trap of the serious. Instead of the independent mind he claims to be, he is only the shameful servant of a cause to which he has not chosen to rally.”

The last attitude is that of the artist or writer. Instead of taking an objective view of the world like the intellectual, the artist tries to realize their existence in the world through their work.  De Beauvoir does not spend a lot of time on this position, and merely states that as long as the artistic stance does not try to attain being, it is authentic; otherwise, it makes their work into an Idol, and falls back in the serious.

De Beauvoir describes these attitudes as pitfalls, in that they to varying degrees denies the original ethical movement of trying to disclose the world, mentioned in the last chapter. One common thread in all of those stages is a distorted relationship to others. Because, the existentialist asserts, there is no contradiction in asserting your freedom and willing the freedom of others, although it might appear otherwise. De Beauvoir here uses the concept of recognition. In Hegel, a consciousness sees another consciousness as something that can limit or deny, and so tries to destroy it. But this is a limited because in destroying the freedom of others he cannot assert his own freedom. Sartre illustrates this further in his play No Exit, where characters want their existence to be recognized by others, but want it to be recognized freely. De Beauvoir adds to this:” This truth is found in another form when we say that freedom can not will itself without aiming at an open future. The ends which it gives itself must be unable to be transcended by any reflection, but only the freedom of other men can extend them beyond our life. ”

So her conclusion is that “to will oneself free is also to will others free,” which is the beginning of the positive aspects of her ethics which she covers in the next chapter.



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