The Ethics of Ambiguity


Simone De Beauvoir

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The Ethics of Ambiguity: Part 3, Section 1 Summary & Analysis

De Beauvoir summarizes her argument thus far. People create the meaning in the world by exercising their freedom, which takes on “concrete content” when people direct it toward particular goals and affirm its own inherent value as continuous movement. But each individual must also support the freedom of others, on whom their existence necessarily relies.
The two halves of de Beauvoir’s argument show how deeply embedded ambiguity must be in a genuinely free life—one must both pursue one’s own will and honor others’ freedom, which means giving up one’s own will when it conflicts with that of others.
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De Beauvoir asks how people can will themselves (and others) free if they (and others) are born free. Similarly, if people everywhere are constantly disclosing being in various ways, why can people not merely take pleasure in “its different transformations” and consider any “reasons for acting” sufficient? This is the aesthetic attitude, in which a person tries to think from a perspective outside of history and humanity, without any individual preferences. Many try to see the present’s turmoil as the future’s history, attempting to withdraw from the necessity of action and their power to shape the future. There is no “purely contemplative” project, though; even art and literature have practical implications, and people are fundamentally actors in the world, not contemplators outside of it.
De Beauvoir’s discussion of the aesthetic attitude is closely related to her discussion of the critical attitude in the last section of her book. Like artists and critics who try to speak for all of humanity instead of expressing a finite truth, people who see themselves as contemplating (rather than participating in) the world forget that they can only see the world from a viewpoint inside it. De Beauvoir’s argument implies that there is no such thing as disinterested analysis, and that aesthetic pleasure cannot be a sufficient reason to engage with art, literature, and history.
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De Beauvoir asks specifically what this means for artists. For instance, many are inspired by suffering or injustice to create beautiful art, and this very beauty might undermine the goal of calling attention to the issue in question. But the past is past, de Beauvoir insists, and “all that we can do is to reveal it” and give it form through art. The world happens, then gets assigned meaning; artists experience, then create art. But freedom is “at the heart of [the artist’s] existence,” like that of everyone else.
True art, for de Beauvoir, cannot always merely be about beauty, since turning the ugly into the beautiful can often mean refusing to take the horrors of the ugly—and humankind’s responsibilities in relation to them—into account. Art is part of the inevitable process of making sense of things that have already happened—it is a means to deepen people’s understanding of the world and therefore a contribution to the collective struggle for freedom.
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