To children, the world is established, and human creations appear unchangeable, “as inevitable as the sky and the trees.” This is a serious world, in the sense that values appear as “ready-made things,” and the child sets up their own “happily irresponsible” world of freedom through play. They believe in adults’ being and the absoluteness of good and evil. And in turn they believe in their own being, while also imagining themselves as grown-up beings (“explorer, brigand, sister of charity”) during play time. And the child incurs none of the “risk[s] of existence,” including responsibility and “the anguish of freedom.” The child “is in a state of security by virtue of his very insignificance.”
De Beauvoir has given a theoretical picture of what genuinely free decision making requires, but she has still not concretely outlined what it looks like to live a genuinely free life. This part of de Beauvoir’s book is an attempt to show what moral success and failure—good and evil—entail for existentialists. De Beauvoir conceives of morality as a process of growth that takes place during individuals’ lives, so starts from the beginning of that process, with children who fail to see that values are constructed and believe that good and evil are set in stone.
Many people live their whole lives like children, such as slaves and women who do not understand their oppression, and so respect and confide in their oppressors. Of course, these people have chosen their childishness: they have not chosen their oppression, but there is a dishonest “resignation of freedom” in their refusal to pursue liberation.
De Beauvoir is not blaming people for their oppression, but is blaming people for embracing their oppression rather than recognizing it as oppression and fighting against it. To live like a child is to forever conceive oneself as incapable of serious moral action and always relegate responsibility to others one conceives of as truly mature.
But usually, people begin to question the world as they grow up, learning about their own subjectivity and the faults of adults. In adolescence, they realize that they are joining this adult world and that their “acts weigh upon the earth as much as those of other men.” This is an empowering change, but also a disillusioning one: people realize they are abandoned in the world, “the prey of a freedom that is no longer chained up by anything.” They are then forced to decide what to do with themselves and their freedom. It is possible to reverse one’s original decision, but generally the past conditions the future, and people act themselves into “a more and more rigorous circle.” Ultimately, people grow up to be nostalgic for childhood, when they did not understand their freedom.
The moral crises of adolescence—stories of “coming of age” in which people feel both radically free and completely lost—are a perennial theme in literature and art because they reflect people’s first confrontation with the inalienable fact of their freedom. From this point onward, people must choose an attitude toward morality, themselves, the future, and their fellow human beings. People’s nostalgia for childhood shows how easy it can be to run from one’s freedom and take shelter in ignorance, even when one’s freedom is the only thing in virtue of which one’s life can have value.
There is “still another aspect” of the misfortune of having been a child: although moral choices are completely free, they are also dependent on what one has been in the past. And children have no awareness that their actions will eventually have consequences by contributing to future moral decision making. Choice and freedom precede reason and reflection; people are predestined by their previous (childhood) selves, although they can always save themselves.
People’s inability to choose their childhoods contributes to the ambiguity of human life: people discover their freedom in the same moment as they also discover the limits of their power. When people realize their capacity for free choice, they are not only already in the world, but they have already been profoundly impacted by the circumstances of their childhoods and the actions they considered unserious and inconsequential during those childhoods.
In the move from childhood’s “contingent spontaneity” to adulthood’s moral freedom, people make themselves “a lack of being.” They take responsibility for “reinvesting [themselves] with human signification,” disclosing the joy of existence through any of a variety of ways of “casting [themselves] into the world,” like vitality (which is about “free generosity” with the energies of the body), intelligence (which is about adapting one’s actions to one’s abilities), and sensitivity (which is about attentiveness to oneself and one’s world). These qualities give people goals and “reasons for existing,” and also exert influence on others.
De Beauvoir shows that the move from natural to moral freedom can also be understood as the evolution from childhood to maturity. To trace this process of growth, she turns back to Sartre’s picture of a human as “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” Making oneself “a lack of being” means recognizing the arbitrariness of adult values, and therefore one’s own lack of a definite, singular identity (being). To give oneself a new “human signification” is to develop a mental image of what one wants to be and devote oneself to projects that lead one toward that image of the self. Disclosing the joy of existence means revealing the energy one puts into one’s free action in the pursuit of those ends—but without attachment to the ends themselves. For de Beauvoir, people choose goals for the sake of the joy they feel in free action, whereas intuitively people tend to think that they only undertake action for the sake of goals they are attached to achieving.
De Beauvoir suggests “a kind of hierarchy among men.” The lowest are those without “living warmth,” who spend their energies preventing freedom’s movement and withdrawing themselves from the world. They are fundamentally afraid of the world, the responsibilities that come with their freedom, and the passion that is central to human life. Such a “sub-man” sees the world as “insignificant and dull,” unable to provoke feeling. He never truly pursues his goals, acting indifferently or without deliberation. He hopes to be a “brute fact,” unconscious like trees or rocks, but in fact his lack of responsibility makes him worse still, worthy of contempt and stuck in a cycle of negative emotions, unable to engage in positive projects and frightened of the future. He gladly “take[s] refuge in the ready-made values of the serious world,” often jumping from one ideology to another and “do[ing] the actual dirty work” of political repression.
Beauvoir has already described what moral good looks like (willing one’s own freedom), so now she gives a taxonomy of different forms of moral evil. The sub-man is the worst kind of person because he sees his freedom as a curse and does nothing to resolve it—he denies his most distinctive human characteristic by wishing he were not free and did not have to make moral choices and hold himself responsible for those choices. He does nothing with his natural freedom. But the fact that he can easily accept serious values and turn into a serious man (the next figure in de Beauvoir’s taxonomy) shows that people are never simply one or another of these figures, but rather often combine their tendencies or move among them throughout their lives—in other words, people are always free to change themselves, and often do, although not always for the better.
All that the sub-man’s existence discloses is the fundamental nothingness of humanity, never humans’ ability to justify their existence. He easily becomes “the serious man,” denying his freedom by proclaiming his loyalty to absolute values that he believes in turn make him valuable. He invests himself in being, continuing to live as people do in childhood. It does not matter what values he chooses to cling to, only that he can find some values in which “to lose himself.” This is his only important act, “believ[ing] for belief’s sake,” claiming freedom only as the “freedom of indifference.”
Serious men mistakenly believe that morality can be absolutely defined and, more troublingly, that they have stumbled upon the perfect version of it. Crucially, this belief is a free choice, and an immoral one in so far as people freely choose to undermine their moral free choice. In serving an idea rather than humanity, serious people tend to sacrifice the latter for the sake of the former. De Beauvoir clearly thinks that most forms of conventional morality make these same errors.
While some people are forced to live seriously because they live in oppressive conditions they cannot escape, the serious man has to hide from himself the fact that he actively chooses his servitude to certain values or institutions. He chooses to become unable “to will freedom in an indefinite movement,” caring only about what is “useful” but never about what it is useful for. He also ignores this when it comes to other people, treating them as worthless and denying their freedom because he only cares about what is “useful.” In order to make way for his own serious values, he denies others’ serious values, or else turns into an indifferent and insensitive sub-man as soon as his values are no longer in question, becoming a “has-been” who cannot see any meaning in life outside of his specific ends.
Although the serious man freely chooses what values to follow, he simply chooses the path of least resistance precisely because it allows him to simply follow others’ orders and never make a free decision again. Unlike the child, the serious man does initially realize that values are relative and does see his actions as consequential; however, he chooses as quickly as possible to forget that values are relative and only thinks of consequences in terms of the value system he clings to. Unlike the sub-man, the serious man does take definite actions—he moves beyond natural freedom by taking a moral stance, but that stance is antithetical to freedom because it is too strict to ever change unless the serious man is forced to give it up.
The serious man is constantly afraid and anxious, guarding his “idol” because it is outside himself and his control, “constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events” and disappointed by the world’s refusal to “harden into a thing.” He “wills himself to be a god” despite knowing that he cannot be, often turning into a nihilist when forced to confront the limits of his power and the arbitrariness of his goals.
The serious man’s anxiety and fear are really about the prospect of having to confront the ambiguity of human morality and his own responsibility for his actions (including his very decision to subjugate himself to someone else’s values). Yet de Beauvoir also compares him to “a god” because he thinks that his values apply to everyone and cannot admit that there is any other equally valid way to see the world.
The nihilist is one who actively decides and strives to become nothing, the opposite of being. Nihilists tend to be adolescents overwhelmed with “the lack which is in [their] heart[s]” or older people who fail to become the being they wanted to be. Unlike the sub-man, nihilists initially embrace their existence before giving up on it. Some are demoniacal men, who maintain their serious values only so that they can ridicule and reject them. Some go further, actively sabotaging projects and “following a strict injunction to commit disorder and anarchy.” Nihilism requires “contradict[ing] constantly the movement of existence” through every action, for the very act of negation shows the truth of existence and freedom.
Nihilists combine the sub-man’s despair at the world’s lack of definite values with the serious man’s relentless commitment to a particular set of values. Nihilists seriously think that values are supposed to be absolute, and decide once they realize that there are no absolute values in the world that everyone else’s values are falsehoods (and, often, must be publicly revealed as such). In actuality, however, the subjective nature of people’s values does not make them any less valuable.
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, but “all mankind,” so as to avoid confirming his own existence. This means it is a will to destruction, which requires a taste for power (de Beauvoir gives Nazism and the French fascist writer Drieu la Rochelle, who committed suicide, as examples).
The nihilist’s attitude is even more unstable than the sub-man or serious man’s; the only logical conclusion of negating life and its freedoms is to completely destroy it. But this betrays a secret belief in power and destruction behind the scenes, proving that the nihilist is never free of values, but rather takes far too seriously the notion that values should not exist unless they are absolute.
The nihilist, de Beauvoir insists, is correct to see “the ambiguity of the human condition.” But nihilism does not see that people are responsible for defining themselves and building their own lives; it rejects and tries to destroy the world, including people’s freedom within it. Fundamentally, the nihilist fails to see “the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is.”
It is also possible to “take delight in living” despite not understanding freedom, using things one does not accept or believe in as “a pretext […] for a gratuitous display of activity.” A person who does this is an adventurer: one who takes on projects energetically and zealously, but cares more about conquest and “action for its own sake” than actually achieving any particular end. Like the nihilist, he scorns the serious world, yet he sees nothingness and ambiguity as a positive potential rather than a negative lack.
The adventurer is the flipside of the nihilist in that he sees only the positive side of ambiguity; whereas the sub-man and the nihilist are generally opposed to action, the adventurer is just as devoted to action as the serious man, but shares the nihilist’s taste for power and domination. Willing to lie, cheat, and steal for the sake of a good time, the adventurer fails to understand the responsibility that accompanies his freedom.
The adventurer is “very close to a genuinely moral attitude,” choosing to become “a lack of being” in order to “aim expressly at existence,” having a clear goal but not being too seriously attached to it. “If existentialism were solipsistic,” like its critics insist, then it would love the adventurer. However, the adventurer often has a serious underlying goal (“for example, fortune or glory,” or in the case of seducers the “taste for possession”).
The figure of the adventurer helps de Beauvoir distinguish her philosophy from the image of it assumed by its critics. The adventurer makes himself “a lack of being” by scorning serious values and refusing to pin himself down to one thing. He “aim[s] expressly at existence” in the sense that he acts freely precisely because he enjoys his own freedom, except when he secretly has a serious goal; again, de Beauvoir’s characters are archetypes that, in reality, spill into one another, like the adventurer with a serious attachment to glory.
A more significant problem for the adventurer is that he has to deal with other people who confront him along his path. He may start respecting others’ freedom and working for “the liberation of himself and others,” which would make him no longer an adventurer, but rather “a genuinely free man.”
This is the missing feature in the adventurer’s moral character: a concern for others and sense of responsibility. It becomes clear that a genuinely free person must combine the adventurer’s refusal to take received values too seriously with a willingness to take their own actions, responsibility for those actions, and effects on the world very seriously.
But the characteristic adventurer simply ignores his impact on other people, who (like the nihilist) he sees as instruments for his own power. To get power, he ends up supporting whoever will give it to him (usually the most authoritarian government around), and in fact “fortune, leisure, and enjoyment” become serious ends for him. His “abstract independence” actually “turns into servitude” toward those in power—and if he gets political power himself, he becomes a dictator or tyrant. He believes so strongly in his own independence that he refuses to acknowledge that he will have to give up his existence to others (through his reputation and legacy) when he dies. And, in refusing to acknowledge his dependence on others (as allies or as enemies), he turns his own independence into a serious goal he can never achieve.
While de Beauvoir still thinks the adventurer is “close to a genuinely moral attitude,” this section makes it clear that close is no good and paves the way for her consideration of the collective good in the final section of her book. Truly understanding freedom means not only understanding one’s own freedom from determinate values, but also the relationship between one’s freedom and everyone else’s. Because he views the world as a more or less zero-sum game—the more he tramples on other people’s freedoms, the more he enjoys his own—the adventurer embodies the danger of mistaking existentialism for solipsism (wrongly thinking that existentialists see individual freedom as the only thing worth pursuing).
The opposite of the adventurer is the passionate man. The adventurer achieves subjective freedom, but without directing himself to the right content, while the passionate man has the content, but not the subjectivity. The passionate man is like the serious man, but takes his absolute goal not “as a thing detached from itself” (as the serious man) but rather “as a thing disclosed by his subjectivity,” like passionate love, which is meaningless without the self’s subjective involvement (although seriousness and passion can certainly turn into one another).
If the adventurer exercises his freedom so zealously that he forgets to focus on morally meaningful projects, the passionate man is so fixated on a specific meaningful project that he loses his freedom because he forgets that he could choose to pursue other meaningful projects as well. The difference between passion and seriousness is that the passionate man focuses on a project while the serious man focuses on a value system (although, of course, the serious man also adopts projects prescribed by that value system). The passionate man’s project has a meaningful relationship with himself (like romance or a work of art, which would not be the same if this person specifically were not involved), whereas the serious person simply adopts someone else’s values and projects (which would look exactly the same if another person were carrying them out). In other words, the passionate man’s commitments depend specifically on his particular place in the world (and are hence “disclosed by his subjectivity”), whereas the serious man’s commitments are arbitrary, and he is only a pawn in relation to them.
There is maniacal passion, in which the impassioned person wants to possess the object of his passion in order to “attain being.” Everything else ceases to matter, and he becomes completely dependent on the idea of fulfilling his passion (which is, of course, impossible). The maniacally passionate man is admirable (because he so definitively choses a goal) and horrifying (because he cuts himself off from the rest of the world besides his object of desire). He, too, can become a tyrant, treating other people as instruments and things in his path toward fulfilling his passion.
Maniacal passion violates freedom in two ways. First, by making the passionate man direct himself completely toward one goal, it violates his own freedom of choice and action: he acts out of compulsive desire, rather than out of reflection and deliberation. Secondly, like the adventurer, the serious man, and the nihilist, the passionate man elevates his particular goal so high that everything else in the world suddenly appears meaningless, which means he will gladly trample on others’ freedom in order to achieve his goal.
There is also a way out of maniacal passion, however. This involves embracing the inevitable distance between the self and the object of desire. One famous writer of love letters insisted that she loved her unhappiness, that she loves her inability to possess the person she loves. By opening up to others’ freedom (the freedom of the person one loves 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 passionate person open up to others in order to achieve freedom, but all freedom requires acknowledging that one’s existence depends on others’ existence.
This solution—appreciating one’s passion precisely because it can never be consummated—is a version of de Beauvoir’s main theory of how to achieve genuine freedom: assuming rather than rejecting ambiguity, struggling with it rather than struggling against it. In recognizing that passion’s limit must be its effect on others, the passionate person can become genuinely free, just as the adventurer can transition to genuine freedom who begins to pursue collective liberation instead of just glory. Ultimately, then, the adventurer and the passionate man’s errors are one and the same: their solipsistic disrespect for others’ freedom.
Some intellectuals try to avoid their dependence on others by working in a separate creative or critical world cut off from people. While seriousness often turns to nihilism, critical thought inevitably turns from the negative rejection of other thought to the positive elevation of a universal truth, even though no critic can ever find such objective truth removed from their subjective experience and position in the world. While for the most part “the artist and the writer […] do not propose to attain being,” their work is still an attempt try to make existence absolute, and many do end up seeking to pin down being and locking themselves “in the universe of the serious” through their work.
De Beauvoir heavily implies that existentialism’s critics—those who advocate other moral theories and call existentialism too subjective—are doing so out of a fantasy of having a universal perspective that can get them to an absolute truth. Instead, de Beauvoir thinks writing must be engaged with others and the world, attuned to meaningful particular truths rather than trying to reach timeless, absolute ones.
It is impossible for people to escape the world, de Beauvoir writes, but it is also possible for people to achieve a moral attitude here in the world. Freedom aims toward its own ends without either letting any goal completely overtake it or losing sight of any goal whatsoever. Subjects must “desire that there be being,” which is the same thing as willing one’s freedom, but not the same as willing oneself to be. And this moral will requires a “bond” between individuals and all other humans. People do not always recognize this bond—young people often get caught up in egoism, seeing others’ excellence as a challenge to their own potential. But they must also realize that their will and projects only make sense in relation to all other wills and projects. Another way of expressing the same truth is to say that “freedom can not will itself without aiming at an open future.”
De Beauvoir returns to the definition of genuine freedom that she elaborated in the first part of her book, but now in relation to the forms of moral unfreedom she has explained in Part Two. Her complex statement that people must “desire that there be being,” without willing themselves to be, means that, in order to assume ambiguity, people must seriously engage serious values: they must have concrete pictures of what they want themselves and the world to become (hence, must “desire that there be being”). At the same time, however, because it is impossible for any individual to completely reshape the world in their image, they must also recognize that their desire for perfect fulfillment (being) is impossible to realize and, therefore, refuse to hold themselves to this standard (which is not willing themselves to be). The limit of any individual will, as de Beauvoir explains it here, is closely connected to the individual’s interdependence on others. Even though existentialism starts with the human individual as the critical moral agent, it also insists that it is impossible to change the world alone, and indeed to even survive as a human being without relationships to other humans and their own freely chosen values and life projects.
This “open future” shows why existentialism is not solipsistic: pursuing one’s own freedom requires engaging others’ freedom too. In fact, existentialism sees “passion, pride, and the spirit of adventure” as vices precisely because they involve imposing one’s own will on everyone else. In reality, the individual expresses his subjectivity through the indefinite movement of freedom, which ultimately surpasses the subject who initiated it; subjectivity requires other people to eventually carry it forward. Like any ethics, existentialism concerns what the individual can and should do, but this does not make it solipsistic, for it takes “the me-others relationship” as central and inevitable.
De Beauvoir explains what it truly means to respect others’ freedom while pursuing one’s own. She has already explained why “passion, pride, and the spirit of adventure” elevate the individual’s freedom at the expense of everyone else’s, but she adds a new argument here, one that she briefly touched upon in the first section: in order for any individual’s projects to succeed, other people need to take them up and propagate them. This can mean others choosing to give an artist their attention or a politician their energies, for instance, or carrying on someone’s work after their death, which is the ultimate limit to the individual subjectivity.
This also addresses the other main criticism of existentialism: that it cannot tell people how to engage their freedom. Clearly, people must do this concretely, depending on their individual places and relationships with others. And yet people’s relations to others pose ethical problems, which are the subject of de Beauvoir’s third and final section.
De Beauvoir thinks this final criticism makes no sense for the same reason she does not think that morality can be universal: people live in different circumstances, where the same actions mean different things and have different implications. Freedom means precisely that one ought not be told what actions to take from the outset. It is impossible to tell the artist and the politician to live the same lives; and yet they must still follow the same principles of freedom and respect for others.