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.”



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.


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.


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.