The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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The Ethics of Ambiguity: Part 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
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 of their deaths, or “the non-temporal truth of [their] existence.” Because of their consciousness, each person feels like “a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects,” but is also an object from everyone else’s perspective.
De Beauvoir opens by explaining the central ambiguity in human life: the fact that people are simultaneously acting subjects and objects acted upon, free to pursue their wills and confined by the circumstances into which the world thrusts them. By realizing that they will die, people come to gain an external (objective) as well as internal (subjective) perspective on themselves. De Beauvoir’s book is an attempt to reckon with the ethical implications of this split in the human condition.
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People have recognized this duality throughout history, and philosophers have largely “tried to mask it” by rejecting the distinction between mind and matter, and by arguing that people have an immortal soul or can reach eternal enlightenment. Their ethical thought tries to turn people into “pure inwardness or pure externality,” although Hegel tried to supersede this binary. All of this only makes “the paradox of [the human] condition” more obvious. The more people feel like individual agents in charge of their own will and able to shape the world, the more they realize how easily that world overwhelms 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.”
For de Beauvoir, the impulse to reject ambiguity is just as fundamental to the human condition as ambiguity itself. This desire to reject ambiguity is a will for being, meaning an attempt to define oneself in terms of a single, unchanging essence, whether the soul or the body. (The soul, or inwardness, implies that ethics is about one’s intentions, motives, and principles, while the body, or externality, means seeing the mind as the product of molecules rather than a genuinely free will, and therefore leaves little space for ethical thinking.) For de Beauvoir, in reality a human being is defined not by either their inwardness (the mind and will) or their externality (the body and one’s reactions to outside conditions) but rather the very tension between these two halves.
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This ambiguity is central to all existentialism, which gets attacked for giving people no principles on the basis of which to live. Sartre in particular declares that people inevitably try and fail to synthesize their will with the world. But even “the most optimistic” ethical systems have first focused on humans’ inevitable failures; if people did not have room for improvement, there would be no point in ethics. Indeed, acting ethically for self-improvement only makes sense for the kind of subject who “questions himself in his being.” And yet Sartre’s thought leaves no possibility of someone ethically improving, or “becoming the being that he is not.” He only briefly touches on ethics in the last pages of his central work, Being and Nothingness, but this does not mean that he totally “condemn[s] man without recourse.”
De Beauvoir gestures to her motive for writing The Ethics of Ambiguity: showing that existentialism can create an ethical system despite critics’ objections and Sartre’s relative disinterest in the issue. Because all ethics must come to terms with people’s moral failure, the existentialist principle that people will never be able to make themselves or their worlds conform to their mental images is an argument in favor of theorizing an existentialist ethics rather than a reason why existentialism cannot make space for ethics. In other words, people’s inability to be morally perfect is not a reason to avoid thinking about what moral perfection would mean.
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In his words, Sartre sees man as “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” First, this means that people choose their own passions, which can have “no external justification” but can still justify themselves. Indeed, the choice of passion “nullifies being” only in order to “disclose being,” to recognize the world’s presence (and allow the world to recognize one’s own). For instance, by contemplating a landscape a person expresses both a desire to merge with it and a pain at their inability to do so; but they “take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession,” which is a success rather than a failure. By trying to be God, in other words, one comes to one’s human existence. As “an effort to be,” one’s impossible attempt to be what one desires serves as “a manifestation of existence.” A person exists precisely in virtue of being a lack.
While de Beauvoir just suggested that Sartre’s thought does not let one “becom[e] the being that he is not,” she explains here that this actually just means that people cannot achieve definite being, meaning that they cannot become the ideal versions of themselves that they imagine. This does not, however, exclude the possibility that someone will change and improve, a process de Beauvoir calls transcendence. Thus, Sartre’s description of man as “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being” really means that people are entities who imagine themselves as being one definite thing. When they realize that they are not that thing, they become a lack. However, in realizing that they are a lack, people also set up a goal (being) toward which they can aim.
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Thus, in order for people to become their true selves, they must seek to realize, not overcome, their being’s ambiguity. Rather than denying that one transcends oneself, one must “refuse to lose [one]self in” that tendency to transcendence, or continue to recognize the gap between one’s being and one’s projection of oneself. The “existentialist conversion” must bracket away one’s “will to be” for the sake of analysis, looking at one’s relationship to one’s projection rather than hoping to genuinely achieve that projection.
De Beauvoir has criticized most philosophy for trying to eliminate ambiguity, or define people solely through their will or their world (their “pure inwardness or pure externality”). In contrast, she proposes seeing ambiguity as the solution and not the problem. Here, she re-explains this in terms of transcendence, which essentially means overcoming one’s current self and becoming something new. Viewing human life in terms of internality or will is equivalent to “los[ing one]self in” transcendence, or defining oneself through one’s fantasies and not one’s realities. Viewing human life in terms of externality means denying transcendence: forgetting about one’s capacity for willful change and improvement. The “existentialist conversion” is an allusion to the phenomenological thought of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, but what she essentially means is that ethics is not about whether one achieves what one imagines, fantasizes, or projects oneself to be, but rather about what people do with their projected imagined versions of themselves when they realize that these are mere fantasies.
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This “existentialist conversion” means that one must, first, reject external standards and recognize that genuinely existing only means “being right in [one’s own] eyes.” The idea of external values actually denies people’s freedom—in fact, people’s free existence is what creates values. This is not about optimism or pessimism; existence is a brute fact, with no reasons or justifications for or against it. It “make[s] no sense” to ask whether or not human life is worth it, only how to go about living.
This argument is de Beauvoir’s restatement of a basic tenet of existentialism, an argument Sartre famously explained as “existence precedes essence.” Rather than trying to pin down human nature or the nature of the absolute Good, existentialists think that people create their own values and shape their own identities through free choices made in circumstances they do not freely choose. This is a central reason why existentialism’s critics think it cannot define what is ethical: it lets people choose (and can even defend opposite choices as equally ethical) rather than telling them to follow a set of absolute moral laws or commandments. Such law-based morality, for de Beauvoir, is itself unethical because it tramples on people’s fundamental freedom.
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De Beauvoir next asks whether this human freedom implies that people can do whatever they want, that there is no true ethics. But actually, she says, it is the opposite: people are the ultimate measure of their own actions, completely responsible in a moral world they create. They cannot legitimately take recourse to God, or say their life inherently matters or not, because it only matters depending on what they do.
De Beauvoir is addressing a related, more exaggerated version of the argument against existentialism: that, because it does not provide specific moral commandments, people can do whatever they want without being judged as good or evil. Rather than escaping judgment, she thinks, people should constantly reflect on their actions and character from a moral perspective. Ultimately, she sees the impulse to consult external commandments and authorities on moral questions as a sign of people’s refusal to accept their responsibility for determining (in addition to doing) what is right and wrong.
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Many people accuse existentialism of making morality meaningless and subjective—but it is a universal, objective truth that everyone is a subject unto themselves. Indeed, existentialism continues the tradition of major Western philosophers (like “Kant, Fichte, and Hegel”) as well as “all humanism” by arguing that moral laws and individual consciousness are inextricably tied to one another. Yet whereas Kant and Hegel saw this in the fact that each individual expresses a universal human experience, will, or consciousness, existentialists ground morality not in the abstract “impersonal universal man” 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 as all the same.
De Beauvoir agrees that existentialism makes morality subjective, but she does not think this is a problem. The critics’ implicit argument is that morality must be founded on an objective principle or truth, but for de Beauvoir, subjective freedom is precisely this principle. By citing previous philosophers, she shows that existentialism is not an anomaly but rather another step in a long-term trend toward grounding morality in people themselves rather than abstract laws. She simply does not see how one set of rules could be expected to apply to all human beings across history, living with such a diverse range of circumstances, problems, abilities, and technologies.
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De Beauvoir insists that “we are coming to the real situation of the problem” at the center of her book. Given the notion that “there is an ethics only if there is a problem to solve,” or that ethics is about improving an imperfect reality, other ethical systems have jumped the gun by assuming that people are bound to the same moral laws rather than recognizing that, initially, they are separate, and that universal moral laws are an idealized abstraction of what perfected individual morality would look like. Conversely, “an ethics of ambiguity” must leave open the possibility that “separate extants can […] be bound to each other” and each individually “forge valid laws for all” through their freedom.
De Beauvoir suggests that existentialism can conceive of a shared morality even though that is not its starting point, as well as introducing the questions of collective good and political action (“valid laws for all”) on which the last part of her book focuses. Because morality is created by living, breathing people, a universally valid morality is the impossible perfection toward which individual moral actors should strive, but most philosophers are wrong to flip the equation and think that there really is a universal morality that can be applied to particular individuals. In doing so, in fact, they hold the whole world  to their own impossible individual projection.
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De Beauvoir notes that Marxism shares existentialism’s “notion of situation” and the “recognition of separation which it implies.” Marxism is founded on the concrete needs of the class struggle, not an abstract concept of the just or good. It requires a revolutionary movement founded on this class struggle, which “an intellectual or a bourgeois” can only appreciate in the abstract (because it does not emerge from “the very impulse of his life”). And yet, whereas Marxism thinks that the individual will is the mere product of “objective [economic] conditions,” existentialism thinks it is fundamentally free. Indeed, the proletariat (working class) can adopt various attitudes to class, and Marxism does emphasize freedom in so far as it is necessary for revolutionary action (which is the whole point of revolutionaries’ moralizing political speeches).
Existentialism’s relationship with Marxism is complex and often ambiguous; de Beauvoir and Sartre both advocated and rejected various kinds of Marxism at various points in their lives. The “notion of situation” modeled on “separation” refers to the sense in which people act in an attempt to overcome the gap between the present and the desired future: for existentialists, the actual and the projected self, and for Marxists, the inequalities of the present and the projection of an egalitarian communist society. But while existentialists and Marxists agree that philosophy should be about concrete actions, Marxism insists that there is a single action—revolution—in relation to which every other action can be seen as more or less “correct” or “useful."
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So Marxism ends up with contradictory beliefs in both determination and freedom. And yet Marxists, like many Christians, often insist that acting freely means “giv[ing] up justifying one’s acts” and therefore “betray[ing] the cause.” While they insist on moral action, they also reject abstract morality and insist on absolute loyalty to the Party, or “having-to-be at the same time as being.”
Marxists end up fearing and repressing freedom, even though freedom is the ultimate purpose of their revolution. Abstractly, too, de Beauvoir is pointing to the contradictory character of insisting that people freely choose an option but only considering one option correct.
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De Beauvoir reminds the reader that existentialists “believe in freedom” and wonders whether this freedom means that people are “prohibited from wishing for anything.” Instead, she declares, whereas most ethics is about teaching people how to “win” at life, existentialism shows that people will always fail to be what they want to be, but always succeed to disclose their being, and therefore “win” when their wish is “to be a disclosure of being.” This makes one present in the world, but also implies a gap between oneself and the world (namely, freedom). And so freedom is its own, original moral justification, the foundation of all other values, which means it can never deny itself.
While the objection de Beauvoir addresses here might initially seem illogical, she is thinking about the sense in which desiring something means allowing that goal to determine one’s action (just as a Marxist acts so as to advance the revolution and therefore sacrifices their freedom to pursue other values). The solution is not to bind oneself to some impossible external goal, but rather to desire precisely freedom itself, the only ideal that action can truly achieve.
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De Beauvoir next asks whether “natural freedom contradict[s] the notion of ethical freedom” because we are born free, and so it makes no sense “to will oneself free.” She decides that this objection fails because freedom is not “a thing or quality” that people have but rather intrinsic to “the very movement of […] existence.” Existence requires precisely “making itself be” through continuous free action. Therefore, “will[ing] oneself free” can be understood as meaning turning natural into moral freedom.
It would not make sense for people to will their own freedom if they always have freedom from the start. But because human existence is meaningless without free action, people do not “have” freedom or simply get to hold on to it; they must rather continuously affirm their existence through free actions in order to keep their freedom. There are ways of acting that affirm and deny one’s own freedom (the subject of Part Two), and by distinguishing natural from moral freedom, de Beauvoir shows how people can be free without willing themselves free (or affirming their freedom).
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The natural freedom with which people are born is random, spontaneous, and always directed toward something, but never founded on a reflective principle or project. Through “laziness, heedlessness, capriciousness, cowardice, [and] impatience,” some continue living out this freedom and choose not to will themselves (morally) free (even though it is still impossible to affirmatively will oneself unfree). Conversely, by reflecting on one’s actions and their utility in bringing one toward one’s goal or object, one takes legitimately morally free actions. But this is a constant process—one’s project constantly “founds itself,” even though so many people try to hide in fantasy or serious dogmatism.
The distinction between natural and moral freedom shows how freedom can both be a fundamental condition of all human existence and a generalizable metric of moral good and evil. Acting with moral freedom is good; acting without it (with mere natural freedom) is evil. However, because it is impossible for people to ever completely become their mental projections, moral freedom is a continuous project that requires vigilant reflection on every act’s probable consequences and relationship to one’s goals.
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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 building a will over time, by developing a picture of one’s life in the past and future. And every act of willing implicates past actions’ relevance to one’s project and future acts’ continuation of it. This is a continual, limitless process: whenever one becomes what they wish to become, this self becomes a “point of departure” for the next goal, embracing the continuity of freedom.
As she has shown that it is possible to transform from natural to moral freedom, now de Beauvoir must show what it means to take that transformation itself as one's moral project. In the barest of terms, what she argues is that people must constantly push towards improvement and see their goals as stepping stones along a continuous path of development that has no ultimate destination.
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In Descartes’s words, however, “the freedom 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, but resignation is sad and dishonest, making people see genuine possibilities as mere past fantasies. And Stoic indifference simply leads people to give up on their own power to change and achieve things. Better, free action should aim at “precisely the free movement of existence.” A good example is how injured or outcast people can “renew [their] engagement in the world,” directing their energy to new projects and experiencing “both heartbreak and joy.” This shows that freedom is fundamentally about “plan[ning] new possibilities” and so “disclos[ing] being,” not trying to determine a particular future and “trap[ping] being.” This also means going “from being to existence.”
This dilemma is a version of de Beauvoir’s initial portrait of ambiguity: people feel that their own wills and imaginations are limitless but yet run up against the limits posed by concrete circumstance. Assuming the tension of ambiguity (as part of the process of achieving moral freedom) requires seeing effort as more important than achievement: one should do everything possible to achieve one’s goals, but recognize that this is valuable because it means acting freely and authentically, rather than because one’s goals are inherently valuable (or achievable, for the world can always block them). The example of injured or outcast people shows how a will to freedom must be built up over time, but that in doing so the substance of one’s goals is much less important than the way one pursues them.
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De Beauvoir argues that this “salvation” requires that people continue to see new, fruitful possibilities in the future—this is why the most “obnoxious” form of punishment is requiring people to do senseless work they do not understand (like a student copying down the same line of text over and over). Similarly, life imprisonment is horrible because it absolutely constrains people’s freedom, and freedom naturally rejects all such constraints on it, whether by resolving them (like illness), revolting against them (like a prison or unjust social system), or committing suicide, when there is no other option.
People’s ability to will and fulfill their freedom is intimately tied with their capacity to imagine a better future; this argument begins to gesture at the political implications of de Beauvoir’s theory of freedom, for it means that people can be so disempowered that it can become impossible for them to live well without overcoming the forces that disempower them. De Beauvoir’s examples of illness, revolt, and suicide show how human action in the most extreme circumstances always serves freedom, which attests to its fundamental place in existentialist ethics.
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So freedom always seeks to overcome obstacles to it, or “to realize itself as indefinite movement.” And yet there are also always obstacles 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 of others.”
Freedom’s character as an “indefinite movement” allows de Beauvoir to connect the revolt of the subjugated and the body’s drive to heal itself—responses to the most constrained circumstances—with the morally free person. All are pursuing the same thing: “indefinite movement,” the freedom from constraints and freedom to create new things through action. This shows how different people’s freedom is connected in a theoretical sense, and the notion that one might pass one’s freedom on to others—for instance, through perpetrating one’s art.
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De Beauvoir declares that, so far, she has shown “that the words ‘to will oneself free’ have a positive and concrete meaning.” This meaning is “original spontaneity” willing “moral freedom” in relation to particular goals, and thereby becoming that freedom.
De Beauvoir offers a condensed version of her complex thesis about what right action entails from an existentialist point of view. Essentially, she thinks people must transform their natural freedom into moral freedom by assuming their ambiguity in their actions.
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But this creates a problem: if there is “one and only one way” to affirm freedom, are people ever truly free to choose it? Can they instead choose “a bad willing?” This 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 error, because she argues that humans create all morality through their will.
It would be contradictory to say that people have to choose freely, so de Beauvoir must show that people can (freely) choose to deny their freedom. Whereas older philosophers could hold that all people are closer or further from the absolute human Good, de Beauvoir cannot, because she thinks good and evil are human inventions rather than timeless truths built into the universe. Accordingly, she needs a way to show that people can act evilly without defining evil through some value external to the subject who does the willing.
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Like Kant, de Beauvoir thinks that people cannot positively decide not to be free. However, existentialists “do not see man as being essentially a positive will,” but rather as foundationally negative, based on the gap between the self and the projection. One can be oneself only by “agreeing never to rejoin” the projection, but indulging the “perpetual playing with the negative” means escaping the self and one’s freedom. So existentialism can have an ethics because it leaves room for an evil will, and indeed is the only philosophy that seems to leave this room and create the possibility of ethics, while so many other philosophies equate evil with mere error.
De Beauvoir also cannot explain evil by saying that people decide to give up their freedom, because that is a free decision. However, they can decide to deny their freedom by refusing to turn their natural freedom into moral freedom. Such a person is still free, but they live in denial of their freedom, either because they think they really can attain perfection or because they give up on action altogether.
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This might help explain why people think of existentialism as “gloomy”: there are real ethical consequences to people’s will; people can win and lose; nothing is decided in advance. There are many ways to refuse to make oneself “a lack of being so that there might be being.” One can hesitate, give up, falsely insist that one 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.
The popular opinion of existentialism as a “gloomy” philosophy stems most of all from existentialists’ refusal to embrace traditional (mostly religious) ideas of morality; people imagine that, without commandments telling them what to do, there is no good and evil in the world. Existentialists do not actually think this: they just think that people are in charge of good and evil. The “gloomy” part is not the lack of morals but rather the fact that people must actively take charge of their own moral formation and cannot blame anyone else for their failures.
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