Ethics of Ambiguity Part III: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir starts the chapter by criticizing an attitude that she calls aesthetic, which is an attempt to purely contemplate the world without trying to change it. She claims that this attitude works when looking at the past, because since the past is over there is no way to engage or change these events, but not in the present. A contemplative attitude in a sense is trying to make the present into a past.

Rather she calls for action. This action is the disclosure of being through free projects that she has referenced before. But then she acknowledges a concrete situation people face themselves in. Due to unnatural impositions, which she calls oppression, their future and ability to choose is denied to them. Freedom in this case can only be expressed negatively (freedom from rather than freedom to, to borrow a concept from another philosopher); it becomes revolt.

One of the tools of oppression as de Beauvoir sees it is mystification, taking the situation to be a natural one and keeping the oppressed in the dark about their possibilities. The oppressor has other arguments to justify their oppression: that being denied their rights over others they are in turn oppressed. De Beauvoir denounces this as a sophism: “I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.” Rather, she argues, what they are actually doing is playing the role of the Serious Man and making their own freedom subservient to an Idea or Cause, like an institution or the idea of culture. She gives the absurd example of Salazar, so obsessed with recreating history that the houses he developed became completely unlivable

De Beauvoir does not want to deny the importance of the past, since it adds to the thick richness that is lived existence. Attempting to deny people’s freedom in the name of some abstract past does not do. Likewise, the second argument that the oppressive regime is useful is also rejected on the grounds that it tries to give usefulness an absolute value.”Neither in the past nor in the future can one prefer a thing to Man, who alone can establish the reason for all things.”

The final argument of the oppressor, that liberation is hard, Simone de Beauvoir actually agrees with. Because action itself is fraught with issues.

Here she brings up the issues with violence: they require an incredible sacrifice, not just of the enemy but of your own group. And to ensure that their followers follow on those sacrifice, tyrants throughout history have adopted a two pronged approach: either to reduce the person to his absolute present, his facticity, where he is nothing more but an object among others; the other is to empower their followers by making their sacrifice a sacrifice towards a higher cause, it is a mix of nihilism and seriousness. But de Beauvoir does not want justification by an Idea or Cause to diminish the truth of what it means to sacrifice.

And de Beauvoir will not even let people accept that sacrifice is useful. She criticizes the ends justify the means mentality by first saying that humans are the end, but in sacrificing humans, it is not humans but the false idol Humanity that becomes the end. Moreover, she distinguishes two different meaning of ends by bringing up two kinds of futures. There is the future which is the expanding and continuation of the present, then there is a concept of a messianic future, an eternal End where being fulfills itself. If you are waging a war to achieve the latter kind of future, it seems de Beauvoir is telling us, then your war will never end, because that future will never come.  “The tasks we have set up for ourselves and which, though exceeding the limits of our lives, are ours, must find their meaning in themselves and not in a mythical Historical end.”

Unable to ground itself in a cause, or define the ends in absolute terms, is action doomed to absurdity?

De Beauvoir makes sure to distinguish the ambiguous from the absurd. “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” To point out the antinomies and paradoxes of action is to make one aware of this tension and not try to deny it, just as in the previous chapters she points out the different ways people tried to escape their freedom. To act in full light of ambiguity “requires that each action be considered as a finished form whose different moments, instead of fleeing toward the future in order to find there their justification, reflect and confirm one another so well that there is no longer a sharp separation between present and future, between means and ends.”

She compares action to art and science. It is impossible to ask a priori which hypothesis is true, or what is the surest way to achieve Beauty, since these things have to be lived and experienced, acted and experimented on. She says rather there are methods that can be proposed, such as the idea of treating man as an end rather than a means. A person must be regarded in his freedom and existence:  “the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness. If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy.”

There are some men which will evil and oppression, and against them violence may be justified, but what of people who are not doing harm to others but harming themselves? This is a situation that is more complicated, for on the one hand there is a feeling of wanting to help the other, especially if one is in a situation that calls for care-taking. But de Beauvoir rejects that this kind of care taking is like a gardener cultivating his garden, to use a common metaphor. The freedom of the person in your charge has to still be taken as absolute. “We object to the inquisitors who want to create faith and virtue from without; we object to all forms of fascism which seek to fashion the happiness of man from without; and also the paternalism which thinks that it has done something for man by prohibiting him from certain possibilities of temptation, whereas what is necessary is to give him reasons for resisting it.”

And in the case of conflict and revolt, where sacrifices may be necessary, what are some of the criteria for deciding on the best course of action?

The first point is always to consider what genuine human interest fills the abstract form which one proposes as the action’s end. Politics always puts forward Ideas: Nation, Empire, Union, Economy, etc. But none of these forms has value in itself; it has it only insofar as it involves concrete individuals. If a nation can assert itself proudly only to the detriment of its members, if a union can be created only to the detriment of those it is trying to unite, the nation or the union must be rejected. We repudiate all idealisms, mysticisms, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.

The problem appears when a cause is for the good of man, but involves sacrifice. This is when accepting the tension of the antinomies of action is important:  if, in  order to avoid the risk of killing one innocent man, one runs the risk of letting ten innocent men die, it is reasonable to sacrifice him. We can merely ask that such decisions be not taken hastily and lightly, and that, all things considered, the evil that one inflicts be lesser than that which is being forestalled.”

 

Conclusion

To give the final word to Simone de Beauvoir:

 […]Let men attach value to words, forms, colors,  mathematical theorems, physical laws, and athletic prowess; let them accord value to one another in love and friendship, and the objects, the events, and the men immediately have this value; they have it absolutely. It is possible that a man may refuse to love anything on earth; he will prove this refusal and he will carry it out by suicide. If he lives, the reason is that, whatever he may say, there still remains in him some attachment to existence; his life will be commensurate with this attachment; it will justify itself to the extent that it genuinely justifies the world.

This justification, though open upon the entire universe through time and space, will always be finite. Whatever one may do, one never realizes anything but a limited work, like existence itself which tries to establish itself through that work and which death also limits. It is the assertion of our finiteness which doubtless gives the doctrine which we have just evoked its austerity and, in some eyes, its sadness. As soon as one considers a system abstractly and theoretically, one puts himself, in effect, on the plane of the universal, thus, of the infinite. That is why reading the Hegelian system is so comforting. I remember having experienced a great feeling of calm on reading Hegel in the impersonal framework of the Bibliotheque Nationale in August 1940. But once I got into the street again, into my life, out of the system, beneath a real sky, the system was no longer of any use to me: what it had offered me, under a show of the infinite, was the consolations of death; and I again wanted to live in the midst of living men. I think that, inversely, existentialism does not offer to the reader the consolations of an abstract evasion: existentialism proposes no evasion. On the contrary, its ethics is experienced in the truth of life, and it then appears as the only proposition of salvation which one can address to men. Taking on its own account Descartes’ revolt against the evil genius, the pride of the thinking reed in the face of the universe which crushes him, it asserts that, despite his limits, through them, it is up to each one to fulfill his existence as an absolute. Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite. And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive. There is a very old saying which goes: “Do what you must, come what may.” That amounts to saying in a different way that the result is not external to the good will which fulfills itself in aiming at it. If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death.

 

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