The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Ethics of Ambiguity can help.

The Ethics of Ambiguity: Conclusion Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
De Beauvoir asks if her ethics is “individualistic.” On the one hand, it puts the individual at the center, as the justifier of their own existence. On the other hand, “it is not solipsistic,” for one’s freedom depends on others’, and one cannot genuinely pursue one’s own freedom without also pursuing others’. People are free but there is no “anarchy of the personal whim,” for people’s freedom gives them a “law.” People must assume and pursue their own freedom, building positive projects and negatively rejecting oppression wherever possible. In “taking the given […] as something willed by man," one turns apparent facticity into genuine free existence. But this is a constant and unending process, inevitably doomed to failure, against which one must continuously struggle.
De Beauvoir returns to the main criticism of her philosophy—that it is individualistic and solipsistic—in order to offer a complete picture of what makes individual life ethical according to her philosophy. Existentialism’s critics have confused an ethics that starts from the perspective of the individual but forces that individual to think about the collective with an ethics that refuses to make people answer to anyone else. This misunderstanding stems from other philosophical systems’ tendency to think about ethics only in relation to the universal, collective traits of humanity, and then map the collective picture onto individuals. This leads to viewing people in terms of their facticity—in this case, their membership in the human collective—rather than their distinctive trait: their freedom.
Themes
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
De Beauvoir asks whether the continuous struggle against failure is genuine progress or merely “turbulent stagnation,” a “lying enterprise” that lets people play “a game of illusions” and imagine they are free. Yet this objection relies on opposing such “illusions” to an objective truth that no one can access; people make the truth and bestow things with value, so their “illusions” are the reality of what is valuable. People’s lives are their attachment to the world, and they justify themselves by “genuinely justif[ying] the world.” This justification bears on the “entire universe through space and time” but is itself finite, since any individual’s work must be limited. This is probably why people see existentialism as gloomy—they are used to ethics being considered from a comfortingly inhuman perspective: “the plane of the universal, thus, of the infinite.” But in real life, such universal ethical systems (like Hegel’s) are useless.
The second uncomfortable aspect of de Beauvoir’s philosophy is that she thinks that morality is impossible to achieve; rather, there are only degrees of failure, and the very fact of human freedom means that it is always possible to improve. Here, she asks if improvement is really improving at all, or if everything is meaningless because values are constructed. But this view is backwards: meaning is constructed, too, and things are meaningful because they are constructed by human freedom. There is no “plane of the universal,” and so blaming existentialism for failing to reach it makes  no sense.
Themes
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Existentialism, on the other hand, refuses to evade the truth of people’s finiteness in life but affirms their potential to make a definite contribution and define themselves in the world. By willing their existence in “a finiteness which is open on the infinite,” people can claim their absolute freedom. No one 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 fulfills itself in aiming at it.” If everyone pursued their freedom, there would be no need to dream grand illusions of utopia.
De Beauvoir closes her book by emphasizing the liberating aspect of existentialism: it does not expect people to fit the same mold or take a certain path in every decision. Rather, it affirms people’s right to decide for themselves, their constant ability to improve, and the inalienable character of freedom. Instead of making individuals decide based on an idea of the collective—asking them to wait for ethicists, politicians, or religious leaders to tell them how to act—de Beauvoir thinks people should make their own decisions, which is precisely what can create a better society.
Themes
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
Related Quotes