The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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Simone de Beauvoir Character Analysis

The author of the work, de Beauvoir was a prominent 20th century French existentialist philosopher, feminist theorist, and novelist, still best known for her historical and theoretical study of women’s oppression, The Second Sex, as well as her political activism. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she aims to show how the existentialist philosophy developed most prominently by Jean-Paul Sartre can be the basis for an ethical system.

Simone de Beauvoir Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The The Ethics of Ambiguity quotes below are all either spoken by Simone de Beauvoir or refer to Simone de Beauvoir. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Citadel edition of The Ethics of Ambiguity published in 1948.
Part 1 Quotes

“The continuous work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” He quotes the Latin poets: Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit. And again: Nascentes morimur. Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 5-6
Explanation and Analysis:

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. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.”

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre, Hegel
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

For existentialism, it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete, particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself. How could men, originally separated, get together?

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Hegel, Kant
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

We think that the meaning of the situation does not impose itself on the consciousness of a passive subject, that it surges up only by the disclosure which a free subject effects in his project.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Marx
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

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. Now, we have seen that the original scheme of man is ambiguous: he wants to be, and to the extent that he coincides with this wish, he fails. All the plans in which this will to be is actualized are condemned; and the ends circumscribed by these plans remain mirages. Human transcendence is vainly engulfed in those miscarried attempts. But man also wills himself to be a disclosure of being, and if he coincides with this wish, he wins, for the fact is that the world becomes present by his presence in it. But the disclosure implies a perpetual tension to keep being at a certain distance, to tear oneself from the world, and to assert oneself as a freedom. 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.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

To will oneself free is to effect the transition from nature to morality by establishing a genuine freedom on the original upsurge of our existence.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing. Thus, a creative freedom develops happily without ever congealing into unjustified facticity. The creator leans upon anterior creations in order to create the possibility of new creations. His present project embraces the past and places confidence in the freedom to come, a confidence which is never disappointed. It discloses being at the end of a further disclosure. At each moment freedom is confirmed through all creation.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place. For, in a metaphysics of transcendence, in the classical sense of the term, evil is reduced to error; and in humanistic philosophies it is impossible to account for it, man being defined as complete in a complete world. Existentialism alone gives—like religions—a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which make its judgments so gloomy.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

Every man casts himself into the world by making himself a lack of being; he thereby contributes to reinvesting it with human signification. He discloses it. And in this movement even the most outcast sometimes feel the joy of existing. They then manifest existence as a happiness and the world as a source of joy. But it is up to each one to make himself a lack of more or less various, profound, and rich aspects of being.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Child
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Ethics is the triumph of freedom over facticity, and the sub-man feels only the facticity of his existence. Instead of aggrandizing the reign of the human, he opposes his inert resistance to the projects of other men. No project has meaning in the world disclosed by such an existence. Man is defined as a wild flight. The world about him is bare and incoherent. Nothing ever happens; nothing merits desire or effort. The sub-man makes his way across a world deprived of meaning toward a death which merely confirms his long negation of himself. The only thing revealed in this experience is the absurd facticity of an existence which remains forever unjustified if it has not known how to justify itself.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Sub-Man
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it. it. So much so, that the movement toward the object is, in fact, through his arbitrary act the most radical assertion of subjectivity: to believe for belief’s sake, to will for will’s sake is, detaching transcendence from its end, to realize one’s freedom in its empty and absurd form of freedom of indifference.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Serious Man
Page Number: 50-51
Explanation and Analysis:

The fundamental fault of the nihilist is that, challenging all given values, he does not find, beyond their ruin, the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Nihilist
Related Symbols: Suicide
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

It is obvious that this choice is very close to a genuinely moral attitude. 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. Considering such behavior at the moment of its subjectivity, we see that it conforms to the requirements of ethics, and if existentialism were solipsistic, as is generally claimed, it would have to regard the adventurer as its perfect hero.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Adventurer
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Passionate Man
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

If I were really everything there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty. There would be nothing to possess, and I myself would be nothing.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 76-7
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 2 Quotes

We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 3 Quotes

The only justification of sacrifice is its utility; but the useful is what serves Man. Thus, in order to serve some men we must do disservice to others. By what principle are we to choose between them?

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 4 Quotes

Society exists only by means of the existence of particular individuals; likewise, human adventures stand out against the background of time, each finite to each, though they are all open to the infinity of the future and their individual forms thereby imply each other without destroying each other. A conception of this kind does not contradict that of a historical unintelligibility; for it is not true that the mind has to choose between the contingent absurdity of the discontinuous and the rationalistic necessity of the continuous; on the contrary, it is part of its function to make a multiplicity of coherent ensembles stand out against the unique background of the world and, inversely, to comprehend these ensembles in the perspective of an ideal unity of the world.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre, Hegel
Page Number: 131-132
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 5 Quotes

We repudiate all idealisms, mysticisms, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Serious Man, The Tyrant
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

Indeed, on the one hand, it would be absurd to oppose a liberating action with the pretext that it implies crime and tyranny; for without crime and tyranny there could be no liberation of man; one can not escape that dialectic which goes from freedom to freedom through dictatorship and oppression. But, on the other hand, he would be guilty of allowing the liberating movement to harden into a moment which is acceptable only if it passes into its opposite; tyranny and crime must be kept from triumphantly establishing themselves in the world; the conquest of freedom is their only justification, and the assertion of freedom against them must therefore be kept alive.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Tyrant
Page Number: 167-168
Explanation and Analysis:
Conclusion Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 172-173
Explanation and Analysis:
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Simone de Beauvoir Character Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the character Simone de Beauvoir appears in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom
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Citing the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, de Beauvoir argues that humans are unlike other forms of life because they consciously understand the inevitability... (full context)
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...them. This has never been more apparent than now, and instead of avoiding this paradox, de Beauvoir insists on “look[ing] the truth in the face.” (full context)
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De Beauvoir next asks whether this human freedom implies that people can do whatever they want, that... (full context)
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...but rather in “the plurality of concrete, particular men” acting from their own particular contexts. De Beauvoir wonders how “men, originally separated, [got] together” in these other ethical systems, which see them... (full context)
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De Beauvoir insists that “we are coming to the real situation of the problem” at the center... (full context)
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De Beauvoir notes that Marxism shares existentialism’s “notion of situation” and the “recognition of separation which it... (full context)
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De Beauvoir reminds the reader that existentialists “believe in freedom” and wonders whether this freedom means that... (full context)
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De Beauvoir next asks whether “natural freedom contradict[s] the notion of ethical freedom” because we are born... (full context)
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Having looked at freedom’s “subjective and formal aspect,” de Beauvoir now wonders whether there is any way to “will oneself free.” First, this requires gradually... (full context)
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...of man is infinite, but his power is limited” because the world resists people’s actions. De Beauvoir asks what one should do about this; stubbornness makes no sense when success is impossible,... (full context)
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De Beauvoir argues that this “salvation” requires that people continue to see new, fruitful possibilities in the... (full context)
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...to freedom, no matter what. Thus freedom is always “a movement of liberation,” which (as de Beauvoir will later show) even tries to “surpass death itself” by “prolonging itself through the freedom... (full context)
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De Beauvoir declares that, so far, she has shown “that the words ‘to will oneself free’ have... (full context)
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...question pervades ethics, since virtue only makes sense given the possibility of “a bad willing.” De Beauvoir cannot accept the classical answer of philosophers like Plato, who think evil is just moral... (full context)
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Like Kant, de Beauvoir thinks that people cannot positively decide not to be free. However, existentialists “do not see... (full context)
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...is being or nothingness, or choose stubbornness or resignation. Often, people combine these tactics. Now, de Beauvoir will turn to the kinds of willful failures she has just outlined. (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
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De Beauvoir suggests “a kind of hierarchy among men.” The lowest are those without “living warmth,” who... (full context)
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Some nihilists commit suicide, and others give up and turn to different attitudes, which de Beauvoir illustrates by cataloguing the fates of surrealist artists. Nihilism must annihilate not only the self,... (full context)
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The nihilist, de Beauvoir insists, is correct to see “the ambiguity of the human condition.” But nihilism does not... (full context)
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...to refuse one’s love, and the freedom of others to love that person, as well), de Beauvoir argues, one can turn their passion into genuine freedom. In fact, not only must the... (full context)
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...others. And yet people’s relations to others pose ethical problems, which are the subject of de Beauvoir ’s third and final section. (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 1: The Aesthetic Attitude
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De Beauvoir summarizes her argument thus far. People create the meaning in the world by exercising their... (full context)
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De Beauvoir asks how people can will themselves (and others) free if they (and others) are born... (full context)
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De Beauvoir asks specifically what this means for artists. For instance, many are inspired by suffering or... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 2: Freedom and Liberation
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De Beauvoir addresses the objection that “to will freedom” is a meaningless phrase with “no concrete content... (full context)
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So, de Beauvoir summarizes, there are “two ways of surpassing the given”: one that incorporates it (innovation, art),... (full context)
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Accordingly, de Beauvoir argues, the oppressor’s idols—virtue, civilization, history—do not justify oppression. Instead, these are “hardened and mummified... (full context)
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In fact, de Beauvoir notes, often oppressors do appeal to the future—for instance, by claiming that capitalist production is... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 3: The Antinomies of Action
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De Beauvoir suggests that, although oppressors are reluctant to acknowledge the freedom of those they oppress, this... (full context)
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De Beauvoir shows that she has reached a universally accepted paradox: “no action can be generated for... (full context)
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But De Beauvoir notes the resilience of hope in such circumstances—a child’s smile, for instance, shows that “the... (full context)
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This is “self-contesting,” however, which de Beauvoir explains with reference to Hegel’s philosophy. For Hegel, individuals subordinate themselves to an idea of... (full context)
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To determine the answer to this question, de Beauvoir starts again with freedom’s status as “the supreme end” of all human action. The real... (full context)
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De Beauvoir notes that, in this section, she seems to have come nowhere: she started and ended... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 4: The Present and the Future
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The future, de Beauvoir begins, “has two meanings corresponding to […] both being and existence.” First, considering the future... (full context)
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Even Hegel and Marx were skeptical of letting themselves conceive the future as static, and de Beauvoir insists that the idea of people “fulfill[ing] themselves as a pure positivity” in the future... (full context)
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But de Beauvoir ’s reconsideration of the future has done nothing to change “the antimony of action,” the... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 5: Ambiguity
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Saying that life is ambiguous (that its meaning is unfixed), de Beauvoir begins, is not the same as saying it is absurd (that it can never have... (full context)
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For de Beauvoir , these conditions of art and science reflect how humans must pursue their own freedom:... (full context)
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As de Beauvoir has already established, “this recourse to the serious is a lie.” Genuine positivity requires negativity... (full context)
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Nevertheless, de Beauvoir thinks she can still clarify the criteria of such ethical decision-making further. First, “the individual... (full context)
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De Beauvoir briefly considers the state of French politics from this perspective: a small group of elites... (full context)
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Through this analysis, de Beauvoir arrives at “point number one: the good of an individual or a group of individuals... (full context)
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Rather than trying to figure out which others to prioritize in the abstract, de Beauvoir decides that generosity is “more valid the less distinction there is between the other and... (full context)
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To answer this problem, de Beauvoir insists that she can “only indicate a method.” First, one must make sure one is... (full context)
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Making this difficult choice about the legitimacy of violence requires “long analysis,” and de Beauvoir offers a few examples. For instance, it is worthwhile to kick any traitors out of... (full context)
Conclusion
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De Beauvoir asks if her ethics is “individualistic.” On the one hand, it puts the individual at... (full context)
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De Beauvoir asks whether the continuous struggle against failure is genuine progress or merely “turbulent stagnation,” a... (full context)
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...needs any “outside guarantee,” as goes the saying: “Do what you must, come what may.” De Beauvoir interprets this as meaning that “the result is not external to the good will which... (full context)