De Beauvoir suggests that, although oppressors are reluctant to acknowledge the freedom of those they oppress, this is necessary for true moral liberation and the “reconciliation of all freedoms.” This is an impossible ideal, however—instead, the fight against oppression should fight for “the triumph of freedom over facticity,” the latter of which the oppressors exemplify. As they are “enem[ies] of man,” oppressors must in turn be treated as things in order to be defeated. This means that achieving freedom requires perpetrating evil against one’s oppressors. De Beauvoir even suggests that the oppressor’s “freedom which is occupied in denying freedom” is “outrageous” enough to easily justify this response.
Because the freedom of all human beings is inherently connected for de Beauvoir, oppressors do not merely trample upon the freedom of the people they oppress; rather, they are enemies to humankind as a whole. Since oppressors have power over the people they oppress and do not respect freedom, it is impossible to appeal to them on moral grounds, and the only solution is to disrespect their freedom in turn. In this way, evil perpetuates evil, but evil can also be necessary in order to open up a free future.
Similarly, people can be responsible but not guilty for perpetuating repression if they do so out of obligation and ignorance. Unfortunately, it can necessary to “destroy not only the oppressor but also those who serve him.” Likewise, one cannot take up every cause at once—sometimes, pursuing one “valid cause” requires opposing another, or even killing its adherents (like when anti-fascists during the Second World War found themselves forced to hope that anticolonial revolts failed). Further, violence can require people to sacrifice “those who are fighting on our side, and even ourselves,” because treating the enemy as a thing is in turn treating the self as a thing. Every war and revolution sacrifices a whole generation of innocents in this way.
Evil against the oppressor is not the only kind of evil that can be necessary in order to win freedom; revolutionaries must also sacrifice the innocent, and although in theory purely respecting human freedom would entail respecting everyone’s freedom, in practice oppression and disrespect for freedom is so widespread that the relevant calculation must be how to support freedom on balance. De Beauvoir’s example—that some hoped that the justified revolts against British colonialism failed so that this would not weaken the British and allow the Nazis to overtake Europe—shows how, in practical circumstances, it is not always possible to choose everyone’s freedom, and people must make difficult and uncertain calculations about the best course of action.
De Beauvoir shows that she has reached a universally accepted paradox: “no action can be generated for man without its being immediately generated against men.” But most “doctrine[s] of action” find this idea “so bitter,” because it means that ethical failure is inevitable, that they simply refuse to see what they are giving up as valuable. Both oppressor and oppressed end up willing to sacrifice individuals for the sake of an imagined common cause. It is easy to see individuals as meaningless, thingified, just like anyone else. Because “zero multiplied by any finite number remains zero,” this can easily turn into an absolute indifference to human life, especially when one encounters death or severe suffering. Throughout history, oppressors have consistently used the disillusionment and degradation of the oppressed to justify spreading animosity toward them.
This paradox is commonly accepted in ethics because of the notion that committing a moral violation against an individual is also violating the moral order of humanity as a collectivity. Accordingly, revolutionaries fighting for freedom must violate morality (humankind’s common freedom) in order to win that freedom. And yet this creates a troubling moral equivalence between the oppressor and revolutionary, which becomes manifest in the despair of the oppressed.
But De Beauvoir notes the resilience of hope in such circumstances—a child’s smile, for instance, shows that “the living affirmation of human transcendence” can persist despite tyrants’ attempts to reduce people to mere facticity. In losing their “zest for life and the readiness to risk it,” the oppressed also lose their tendency to struggle for liberation.
De Beauvoir thinks people must recognize that transformation and transcendence goes in both directions: it is always possible for people to reassert their freedom in the face of oppression, but it is also easy for the oppressed to gradually lose this taste for freedom and come to resemble their oppressors.
Tyrants also give their followers (whom they also consider as instrumental objects) an opposite message, emphasizing—much like Marxists—“that the value of the individual is asserted only in his surpassing,” or that their only value is their ability to subordinate themselves and their sense of purpose to the collective political project. The tyrant insists that people’s lives are valuable only because of their willingness to die for the cause.
Tyrants lack any consistent ethical attitude, but instead preach the value of individual human action when convenient, but despise the free action of those revolting against them, while consistently refusing to respect human freedom. They do not merely treat their enemies with an immoral disrespect, but actually take this attitude toward everyone, because of their investment in the serious goal of their own power.
This is “self-contesting,” however, which de Beauvoir explains with reference to Hegel’s philosophy. For Hegel, individuals subordinate themselves to an idea of the universal by recognizing their identity with others. But this cannot continue infinitely: it is impossible to “sacrifice each generation to the following one” without end. And yet Hegel also cannot clearly show what kind of subject the ultimate goal of all this sacrifice—“the absolute mind”—will be, precisely because subjectivity implies separation from an object (and so cannot be absolute, and indeed suggests that those who have been surpassed are objects, not subjects).
De Beauvoir’s parallel critiques of Hegel, Marx, and tyranny reaffirm her commitment to theorizing morality in terms of individual action (and its relationship to humankind as a whole), rather than allowing a theory of humankind to define the moral status of each individual. Although Hegel believed that generations of sacrifice would ultimately be worth it, he could not show how those sacrifices might lead to human unity, a principle he seemed to accept out of blind faith and optimism. For de Beauvoir, this is the epitome of dangerous, serious thinking, which elevates one’s faith over others’ freedom.
Hegel even realizes that change and struggle are inevitable, which means his vision of the future is as “an indefinite state of war.” But if people recognize that absolute unity and totality are impossible, why would they sacrifice themselves in an endless war? Hegel gets stuck with the same problem: “if the individual is nothing, society can not be something.” This shows how “only the subject can justify his own existence”—no external agent can ever do it for them.
Hegel is right to see “an indefinite state of war” in the human future, but only because a perfect society is impossible, and human freedom can always be expanded. Again, de Beauvoir insists that individuals make up the collective, which means philosophy must start with the individual.
Like “nihilistic pessimism,” the “rationalistic optimism” of thinking like Hegel’s ends up undermining itself. There is no point in sacrificing oneself to heal the world, because the world is only valuable insofar as people can pursue their individual freedom. This is the value of democracy: “the sense of the dignity of each man.” This is also precisely why sacrifice is meaningful in the first place, and what makes people heroes: they sacrifice themselves for fulfillment in a future where they will not be present.
De Beauvoir’s belief in claiming freedom through action in the present rather than deferring it to the future through sacrifice both supports and problematizes her theory of revolt and revolution: it supports the value of acting immediately for the sake of change but also reinforces the danger of sacrificing freedom in the present for the sake of a better world—and yet this is sometimes necessary. De Beauvoir is gesturing to the political question that takes up this last section of her book: what does a democratic revolution look like?
In a collectivist world, on the other hand, people are seen as identical to one another, and (since this reduction of individuality to facticity is the basis of all violence) violence inevitably tramples on the innocent. Unwilling to admit that violence inevitably causes arbitrary suffering, leaders prefer to justify their violence as necessary or, better yet, historically inevitable (which is why certain varieties of Marxist historical materialism are so persuasive).
Here, de Beauvoir’s critique of the tyrant has merged with her critique of the revolutionary. While collective thinking often starts from an attempt (whether genuine or feigned) to improve the world for all, the collective is only the sum of individuals, and it is a contradiction to abuse the people for their own sake.
The tyrant and soldier alike must prevent themselves from individually reflecting on their actions, which is why authoritarianism sees free thought as a crime: indeed, free thought is what leads people to see crimes as crimes. Even when a regime’s opponents are obviously wrong, their dissent still shows “that there is a place in this world for error and subjectivity.” So the regime must violently repress thought in order to ensure that the people it charges with executing violence do not realize or exercise their own freedom.
No matter how powerful authoritarianism can grow, de Beauvoir sees that it can never be complete: there is always space for dissent, which creates a constant, if usually unequal, struggle between the regime and its opponents. She stops short of saying that freedom inevitably wins out—since that would be recasting free choice as necessity—but does insist that it will always continue pursuing its own expansion through people’s freedom-oriented movements.
Most commonly, tyrants excuse violence by citing its usefulness: the ends are worth the means, they insist. But, of course, “useful” is still not an absolutely meaningful word in itself, and this really reflects the regime taking their goals as supremely valuable, worth any conceivable sacrifice. To convince people to carry out its ends, an authoritarian must first convince them that its ends are useful for them too, that “the cause of Man [is] that of each man.” This is false: while everyone’s freedom is interdependent, it is not all the same. All sacrifice serves some people at others’ expense; but how should one decide who to prioritize?
The word “useful” is meaningless except in relation to some goal seen as valuable—nothing is good because it is “useful,” but only ever because the thing it is useful for is good. The only true kind of usefulness, then, is that which is useful for the sake of freedom. While the tyrant can easily shift the terms of debate by insisting that his concept of “useful” should be the same for everyone else’s, de Beauvoir’s task is more difficult, because she must define what is useful for the sake of freedom without assuming that helping someone’s freedom means helping everyone’s freedom (which comes from her distinction between freedom being interdependent and identical).
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 problem of choosing whose interests to prioritize comes when weighing one person’s freedom against another. De Beauvoir asks whether, since all action implies constraining the world in some way, it is “absurd in every case” to act. In some situations, people have to treat others as both instruments and ends, like if forced to choose between one person’s death and ten thousand people’s—they are both completely horrible, but it is still logical to save more people. Yet questions seldom look like this, since people have different roles in the world: party members will save each other because they see themselves as more “useful,” for instance.
The danger of de Beauvoir’s elevation of freedom is the possibility that people might refuse to take any political action at all, because virtually every such act negatively affects someone’s freedom. Her solution—to reluctantly treat people as instruments while recognizing their freedom as an end—is another formulation of the problem of ambiguity: insofar as the absolute respect for all freedom is only possible in theory, in practice people must pursue this ideal while recognizing that they will often be forced to fall short of it.
De Beauvoir notes that, in this section, she seems to have come nowhere: she started and ended by relying on the notion of usefulness. But she did learn that “the complement of the word useful is the word man; but it is also the word future.” People are meaningful only in their pursuit of projects and surpassing of the self; and so “this justification [for an individual’s existence] is always to come.” Action requires “sovereign affirmation of the future,” but de Beauvoir first has to explain what, precisely, the future is.
De Beauvoir’s circular conception of “usefulness” relates to her attempts to explain why revolution is worthwhile—why it can be acceptable to trample on some freedoms now for the sake of greater freedoms, even though this is the same way tyrants justify oppression in the first place. She has consistently criticized most instances of the term “useful” for being ideological attempts to elevate serious values, but she sees that, in order to come up with a true definition of what is useful to humankind’s future freedom, she must understand what it means to act for the sake of the future in the first place.