The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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The Ethics of Ambiguity: Part 3, Section 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The future, de Beauvoir begins, “has two meanings corresponding to […] both being and existence.” First, considering the future means imagining completing current projects and moving on to new ones; the future appears as an extension of the present and existence. Secondly, people imagine an idealized future in which they achieve “Glory, Happiness, or Justice”; this future has no connection to the present and expresses a belief in being. Initially, this dream was about religious salvation; later, it became about scientific and technological progress creating a new kind of society.
De Beauvoir sees people’s view of the future as another reflection of humanity’s fundamental ambiguity: people both want the future to extend the current trajectory that constitutes their existence and have an irrational faith that the world will suddenly turn perfect, resolving all familiar problems and ceasing to change or evolve. People seem to know that the former (existence) is the truth, but also remain hopelessly caught up in the desire for the latter (being).
Themes
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When the future became conceived in scientific and political rather than religious terms, it fused the existential impulse to transcendence with the hope for an absolute, final being. This appears as a unified and/or socialist world, a “fullness, happiness” so absolute that people are willing to sacrifice anything (including any number of lives) to achieve it. The present becomes a negative of the future, an instrument to be “disposed of” in order to achieve the future. So the crimes of the present, too, come to look irrelevant so long as the future brings liberation. Those who believe in this kind of future “submerge their freedom in it [and] find the tranquility of the serious.”
The promise of scientific and political humanism—the widespread acceptance of the idea that humans, rather than gods, controlled human destiny—allowed people to see a clear path to the perfect future, but in recognizing their freedom to shape the future, leaders quickly turned adventurous or passionate (and their followers serious), actually undermining the goal of a free future. Of course, de Beauvoir thinks people are in charge of their own destinies, but that because humans are merely human, they must refuse to confuse the resilient fantasy of perfection with a possible reality.
Themes
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
Even Hegel and Marx were skeptical of letting themselves conceive the future as static, and de Beauvoir insists that the idea of people “fulfill[ing] themselves as a pure positivity” in the future is impossible “since man is originally a negativity.” Nothing can resolve people’s fundamental lack; “positive existence” means embracing, not eliminating, this lack. People are nothing without “this particular movement which thrusts him toward the future,” so no static future can be possible. And people’s transcendences—the goals for which they strive in the present—are concrete and competing; each person conceives their own vision of the world as a whole, and competing visions cannot be reconciled into one reality.
The notion that the world will become perfect, and then stop evolving because there is nowhere for it to improve, is completely at odds with the basic fact of human freedom; in any conceivable utopian society, people will continue striving, improving themselves and the world, and feeling their "negativity," or the gap between their selves and their projections. De Beauvoir’s argument that each individual imagines not only a future for themselves, but also for humanity as a whole, results from the fact that people’s freedoms and destinies are linked—and that anyone interested in truly expanding freedom must aim to improve freedom for the others with whom they share the world.
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
Since people’s struggle for freedom is constant and unending, politicians are correct to identify the world as at war but dishonest to promise that their way offers a peaceful future, because “the world has always been at war and always will be.” People’s “hold on the future is limited,” and their attempts to build it are all that constitute it. Once people’s horizons stop, so does the future, and the best way forward is to affirm “a human future, a finite future.”
Instead of thinking that people can predict and shape the future, de Beauvoir thinks people should see the future in terms of the striving that creates it. Just as she thinks people are defined by their existence (their actions, their commitments, the motion of their freedom) rather than by the absolute ideal (being) they want to achieve, she thinks the human collective must view itself as producing an uncertain future rather than fulfilling a determined one.
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
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People easily lose this finite perspective, though. Even though people continue to view their lives on the order of days and years, they imagine the world on the order of centuries and try to “act upon everything and by knowing everything.” Yet this dream of totality is meaningless, for in “act[ing] upon the totality of the Universe […] the meaning of all action [would] vanish.” By focusing on infinitely large scales and denying “the concrete thickness of the here and now,” one therefore “misses with Hegel the truth of the world.”
By fantasizing about a perfect future rather than living their finite lives in the present, people lose the human perspective that they inhabit in reality. They end up split, living out an individual life that looks meaningless in relation to the promised future or the world as viewed from the universal perspective. Selling out the present to the future is actually hindering the future, because improving the world simply requires individuals to take charge of their own, finite freedom.
Themes
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
Like the universe, history should not be seen as a “rational totality” but as, in Sartre’s words, a “detotalized totalit[y].” This means it should be taken as a distinct and separable phenomenon (totality), but still related to other phenomena like the struggles of individuals (detotalized). Similarly, people’s individual struggles imply one another’s freedom, and the mind must see both order and chaos (like totality and relation) in the world and in history, rather than resigning itself to either continuity or discontinuity. People act based on imperfect knowledge to build history, and their continuous doubt is what makes their choices free—they must take on the risks and responsibilities that come with uncertainty.
The complex notion of a “detotalized totality” allows de Beauvoir to bridge the individual and collectivity—she can show how individuals implicate the collective without reducing them to mere parts of it. She sees history as at once a distinctive thing that can be studied on the level of social collectivities and as irreconcilably tied to the free will of individuals. This shows how existentialism avoids both solipsism and the reduction of the individual to the collectivity (which denies individuals’ freedom).
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Related Quotes
Even Marxists accept that “it is subjectively possible for them to be mistaken.” Yet, because they believe they are working in the service of History, they do not justify their individual acts, whereas existentialists must constantly justify their individual acts, which the future will not justify for them. Both those who see the world in unitary terms and those who focus on its “distinct ensembles” have to admit that the other exists, too; there is no choice between the collectivity and the individual as such, but only between a collectivity that subsumes all individuality and “a collectivity of individuals each existing for himself.” The same can be said for “time and its moments.” By negating individuals or moments, one actually destroys the collectivity or future that one sacrificed for in the first place (like “a madman who runs after his shadow”).
Marxists’ insistence on viewing their actions in collective terms—as part of the progression of history, rather than individual actions conferring individual responsibility, responding to individual circumstances and collective injustices—leads them to constantly sacrifice the present for the future and the individual for the collective. But both the collective and the future are ideas, whereas the present and the individual are concrete realities—in reality, the present actually creates the future, and individuals comprise the collectivity.
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
For example, England justifies atrocities abroad by appealing to “civilization and the values of democracy,” but destroys those values in its very attempt to save them through such extraordinary means. In fact, when the imagined end disappears in the murky future, it becomes a mere justification for the purported means, which becomes revealed as the true end goal of action.
In colonialism, the actual goal of a free society becomes an alibi for producing the opposite; this again shows the paramount importance of building small-scale freedom up to large-scale freedom, rather than trying to realize an imagined concept of collective freedom. This leads agents like the British Empire to impose “freedom” (meaning oppression) from the top down on people who are already free.
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
While people try to “seek in the future a guarantee of their success,” at the same time they also “feel the need of denying the indefinite flight of time and of holding their present between their hands.” Take, for instance, festivals like the one thrown after Paris’s liberation from German occupation, which celebrate existence through consumption, by eating and drinking, spending money and breaking things, all for nothing except the sake of celebration itself. And then one proceeds to the future, empty-handed “because one can never possess the present.” Art attempts to fill these empty hands by providing a work with an absolute beginning and end, and yet at the end of such a work people realize the absolute truth of death—but also, hopefully, “that every movement toward death is life.” People must assert both their absoluteness and finitude, “regard[ing their] undertakings as finite and will[ing] them absolutely.”
Both of these desires—the one for refuge in the future and the one to capture the present—are ways of denying that human life is about motion and change, not perfection and stasis. The liberation festival is an example of rightly prioritizing the motion of freedom itself, above the achievement of particular ends—putting the journey before the destination, as the saying goes. It is also significant that this festival was a celebration of the freedom that the French achieved (but, of course, not necessary to bring this liberation about). The example of art shows that all valuable human efforts inevitably end and give way to a new lack—this is the sense in which, for de Beauvoir, people are constantly transcending themselves and always take on new projects as soon as they complete their current ones. A finite present is impossible (because the present constantly becomes part of the past) even though life is necessarily finite (because of death).
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Finitude does not mean reducing one’s perspective to a moment—some projects, like political struggles, “have a concrete hold on one or two or several centuries.” Those who undertake this kind of struggle must recognize that they must pass it on to others and will likely not live to see its fruits, if it even has any. The end of their struggle must be themselves, “not in a mythical Historical end.”
De Beauvoir’s distinction between two forms of finitude—the absolute finitude of a moment (which is impossible to grasp) and the bounded finitude that characterizes all lives and projects—also implies a subtle differentiation between two kinds of infinity: the impossible infinity of a universal perspective that she criticizes throughout the book, and the infiniteness of freedom’s continual motion.
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But de Beauvoir’s reconsideration of the future has done nothing to change “the antimony of action,” the fact that “present sacrifices and failures no longer seem compensated for in any point of time.” She still has to show why action is not “criminal and absurd,” especially since the existentialists are “condemning man to action.”
De Beauvoir has clarified what people’s attitudes toward the future must be when they undertake actions for the sake of collective freedom. They must recognize their projects as finite, uncertain, and valuable for the sake of freedom, which must be built into the action itself, rather than a vague promise in a distant future. And yet this is not enough to answer the question she opened in the last section of Part Three: what does ethical political action looks like, given that responding to oppression can actually require trampling on freedom?
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon