The Ethics of Ambiguity

The Ethics of Ambiguity Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Simone De Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Simone De Beauvoir

Raised by a conservative father and devoutly Catholic mother in Paris, Simone de Beauvoir grew up with her parents’ sensibilities but proved a brilliant thinker early on: she read the classics from a young age, taught her younger sister throughout their childhood, and decided in her teenage years to give up on religion entirely. Her family’s financial collapse during World War One meant her father could not afford to pay a dowry, but this actually delighted de Beauvoir, who hoped to pursue a career as an intellectual rather than being locked into a marriage. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, and placed second in the nation on the competitive agrégation exam in her subject, which she became the youngest person to pass. Jean-Paul Sartre came in first, and they struck up a friendship while studying for the exam. They became both actual and intellectual bedfellows, and remained so throughout their lives, although their relationship was famously open: throughout her life, de Beauvoir had various relationships with both men and women, including a number of prominent intellectuals. Sartre proposed marriage to her in 1931, but she refused. They both taught philosophy in schools throughout the 1930s, but they both lost their jobs in the early 1940s: de Beauvoir was fired by the Nazi-controlled government for her political beliefs, and Sartre was captured as a prisoner of war. She briefly returned to teaching but lost her job again, this time for allegedly seducing a female student, and went on to spend the rest of her life as a writer. She went on to publish eight books from 1943-1949, including three novels and her two most important works of nonfiction: The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and The Second Sex (1949). To this day, she is still best remembered for The Second Sex. The book is widely credited with jumpstarting the following decades’ feminist movements in France. Many of her novels, like She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954, and the book for which she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt), were fictionalizations of her real experiences. Because of her literary success, the scandal of her and Sartre’s relationship, and the popularity of Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes, she played a prominent role in the French public sphere for the rest of her life. During the 1950s and 1960s she continued writing prolifically, and in the 1970s she became a prominent member of the French women’s liberation movement (now better known as the second wave of feminism), playing an instrumental role in the fight to legalize abortion in France. She died of pneumonia in Paris in 1986.
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Historical Context of The Ethics of Ambiguity

Although The Ethics of Ambiguity does not address any political or historical events directly, a number of important developments lurk in the background of de Beauvoir’s ethical concerns and serve as important examples for her writing on politics in the final section of the book. In 1947, when the book was published, France was coping not only with the aftermath of World War Two—including the results of German occupation and the French population’s troubling tendency to collaborate with the Nazis—but also with the beginning of the end of its colonial empire. After the end of the war, France officially rebranded its Empire the French Union, renaming its colonies as “overseas departments,” “territories,” and “protectorates,” but in practice doing little to change the structure of government or the oppression of France’s non-European subjects. For de Beauvoir, this false gesture at restructuring—one largely enacted by powerful French people who maintained the same patronizing mindset toward non-Europeans as they had during the era of official empire—is a clear example of how oppressors justify their actions by denying the freedom and agency of the people they subjugate. A parallel set of developments concerns the Soviet Union, which had clearly turned from a possibly genuine socialist movement to a repressive authoritarian government under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. De Beauvoir ties this shift to Marxists’ demand for orthodoxy, which she takes as an immoral kind of seriousness: rather than acknowledging people’s freedom to question the party line, communists insisted on absolute loyalty and justified repression and atrocities by their belief that they were on the right side of history. This kind of thinking, according to de Beauvoir, sacrifices the present for an imagined future—a future which will never turn out exactly as any individual person or party can wish. In doing so, the Soviet Union actually undermined the precise reason they sought to shape the future: human freedom. A final important historical trend is the history of existentialism itself, which became incredibly controversial with Sartre’s rising popularity in France: many accused it of solipsism (locating all morality in the individual, and so making it permissible for individuals to trample on others’ rights) and moral subjectivism (claiming that morality is up to individuals, so people can choose to do absolutely whatever they want). In large part, de Beauvoir wrote this book in order to show not only that existentialism’s belief in individual freedom did not require it to reject ethics altogether, but also that in fact a reasonable ethical system requires human freedom as its most foundational value.

Other Books Related to The Ethics of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir published more than 20 books in a wide range of genres and formats during her lifetime. These range from the seminal study of patriarchy The Second Sex (1949) to straightforwardly philosophical works like Pyrrhus and Cineas (1944); novels about her own relationships (She Came to Stay, 1943) and her intellectual work and political activism during World War Two (The Mandarins, 1954), among various other themes; biographical works, travelogues, and even a feminist play set in the 14th century, Who Shall Die (1945). The most important influence on The Ethics of Ambiguity is Sartre’s seminal work, Being and Nothingness (1943), in which he lays out his existentialist philosophy in detail. Sartre and de Beauvoir in turn rely heavily on the notoriously complex Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (1927), often considered the most important philosophical work of the 20th century. Other prominent existentialist works include Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945) and Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). De Beauvoir also engages Hegel’s philosophical system, set out primarily in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1816/1830); Marx and Engels’ political thought, laid out in various works including Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) and Marx’s commentary on Hegel, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843); and Kant’s ethics, which he primarily explicated in the short Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir also cites various works of fiction as examples of different ethical attitudes. These include the writings of French fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle—including the novel Gilles (1939) and the short story The Empty Suitcase (1924)—which, along with Drieu La Rochelle’s eventual suicide, de Beauvoir sees as emblematic of the nihilist attitude; and John Dos Passos’s The Adventures of a Young Man (1939), from which de Beauvoir takes an important plot point as an example of the kind of difficult ethical choices that political revolutionaries face. In the book, a group of miners are arrested for striking, and their fellow partisans have to decide whether to fight for their liberation or turn them into political pawns in order to create media attention (they pick the former, and—accordingly to de Beauvoir—rightly so).
Key Facts about The Ethics of Ambiguity
  • Full Title: Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (English version: The Ethics of Ambiguity)
  • When Written: 1945-7
  • Where Written: Paris, France
  • When Published: 1947, parts serialized in 1946
  • Literary Period: Existentialism
  • Genre: Philosophy
  • Antagonist: Restrictions to human freedom
  • Point of View: Narratively third-person, but entirely about how to live from a first-person perspective of living in the world

Extra Credit for The Ethics of Ambiguity

In Death as in Life. Beyond spending nearly their whole lives as lovers and reading everything one another wrote before publication, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir chose to be buried together in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery.