The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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The Ethics of Ambiguity: Part 3, Section 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Saying that life is ambiguous (that its meaning is unfixed), de Beauvoir begins, is not the same as saying it is absurd (that it can never have any meaning at all). With absurdity or “the finished rationalization of the real,” ethics is impossible; in reality, ethics is a function of ambiguity, man’s attempt “to save his existence.” While this always fails, failure is relative and subjective; it is actually the means through which art and science can succeed, which provides an interesting parallel to human life more generally. For instance, artists never think of themselves as working towards an absolute “Art,” but in retrospect scholars inevitably look at them this way; science has never thought of itself as incomplete, but rather tries over and over to be total and ends up in crisis precisely because its gestures to totality fail.
De Beauvoir argues that ethics stems from ambiguity precisely because she thinks of it as a human creation: people create ethics in order to make sense of their freedom and give themselves direction in a universe that does not appear to have any clear instructions for them. By striving and failing to “save [one’s] existence,” a person creates him- or herself in the first place, just as art progresses through new ways of failing to represent everything and science through new ways of failing to explain everything. The successful artist gives their full energy to their work, beginning with an idea but never holding themselves to executing it perfectly, and ultimately creating something that is interesting precisely because it is a delimited, not absolute or universal, representation.
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For de Beauvoir, these conditions of art and science reflect how humans must pursue their own freedom: while recognizing their finiteness, in every moment of action people must treat their existence as absolute—and ultimately genuine freedom is achievable only “in the very fact of aiming at itself.” This means considering actions as self-justifying unions of various moments, so as to eliminate any “sharp separation between present and future, between means and ends.”
Moral freedom requires replicating the conditions of ambiguity through action: pursuing the most perfect fulfillment of one’s will while knowing that one’s attempt will fail, and therefore taking the measure of one’s actions as free action in itself. This melds the present and future because one conceives both as defined by the will to freedom (rather than thinking about a moment of fulfillment in the future), and means and ends because one seeks freedom by acting freely.
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The different moments of action cannot be contradictory, so at times “there will be no other issue for man than rejection,” namely rejecting that which denies one’s existence. In many ways, this rejection is easier than pursuing positive goals, for in rejection “means and ends meet; freedom immediately sets itself up as its own goal and fulfills itself by so doing.” In positive action, however, people must cope with the variety of means available to them and apparent counterproductivity of some in relation to their ends. It is easy to get so caught up in revolt’s purity that, without something to revolt against, people end up “seek[ing] refuge in the values of seriousness.”
De Beauvoir returns to the question of how the oppressed can affirm their freedom, and she reiterates the notion that they have no option but to act in the only way that can lead them to greater freedom in the future: revolt. This is analogous to adolescence’s revolt against childhood’s belief in serious values, since both are merely the first step toward the creation of a moral attitude. The danger that successful revolt turns into seriousness is precisely the danger of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, or the tendency that de Beauvoir has identified in Marxism and other movements that conceive themselves as the saviors of humanity or executors of human destiny, and therefore elevate loyalty above freedom.
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As de Beauvoir has already established, “this recourse to the serious is a lie.” Genuine positivity requires negativity first—because it requires confronting “the antinomies between means and end, present and future.” For instance, one must both be outraged at violence and willing to commit it, and one must constantly ask if one is truly “working for the liberation of men” by questioning both whether one’s ends serve freedom and one’s means get in its way. De Beauvoir argues that it is impossible to ask “what must be done, practically?” because this depends on everyone’s individual situation. Accordingly, “ethics […] can merely propose methods” and people must apply the process of questioning in their concrete decisions depending on their circumstances.
De Beauvoir’s picture of ethical political activity is starkly opposed to the rigidity and orthodoxy of most revolutionary movements: she thinks every individual must separately and constantly evaluate the motivations behind and likely results of their actions, and that being part of the right “cause” is meaningless because any cause can turn oppressive at any moment. Yet she still leaves open the crucial question that has underlain the third section of her book: when and how can the oppressed legitimately violate freedom in order to win their freedom?
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Nevertheless, de Beauvoir thinks she can still clarify the criteria of such ethical decision-making further. First, “the individual as such” must be the end of actions, rather than “a class, a nation, or a collectivity.” This is because of the “concrete bond between freedom and existence”—the fact that improving people’s lives does not matter unless they can pursue joy in the first place. Yet politics’ preference for the collective, long-term good over the short-term, individual good makes sense insofar as it refuses to “sacrifice the future to the present.”
De Beauvoir summarizes the argument at the center of the previous section of Part Three. She does not reject the possibility of acting for the sake of a better future (since that is the foundation of politics), but rather seems to see respect for the freedom of the present as a litmus test on the legitimacy of claims about the future.
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Moreover, it is impossible “to fulfill the will of every man,” and in fact it is rather undesirable when others will evil or deny their freedom. But violence is acceptable only when “it opens concrete possibilities to the freedom which I am trying to save,” and committing it confers responsibility for the well-being of others. In their concrete decisions, people are constantly caught between their responsibility to pursue freedom and their responsibility not to trample on others’ freedom, including their right to make errors. This means that “oppos[ing] willful acts which one considers perverted” is not a sufficient pretext for violence, and also that powerful people who govern others on the basis of those others’ supposed ignorance are violating freedom (because they are acting in ignorance of the nature of others’ freedom).
De Beauvoir returns to the question of competing freedoms, but affirms that this is always an empirical question and that philosophy can neither green-light nor prohibit revolutionary violence. The crucial piece of her argument is her concept of responsibility, which she believes theories like Marxism do away with (by saying that violence is necessary, or that any amount of violence is legitimate for the sake of the revolution). By holding people fully accountable for the violence they commit against even their oppressors, de Beauvoir refuses to make anyone’s life disposable and forces actors to constantly strive to minimize the extent to which they violate freedoms in maximizing their contribution to the collective freedom of humankind. The reader might be tempted to ask whether her solution is sufficient—would it be going too far for an existentialist ethics to say when it is acceptable to commit violence, or is this really a means of denying people’s own vigilance and eroding their sense of responsibility? On the other hand, is de Beauvoir’s talk about concrete circumstances and individual freedom just a way to avoid the contradiction inherent in using violence to fight violence?
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De Beauvoir briefly considers the state of French politics from this perspective: a small group of elites views their role not as representing the people’s will, but rather as managing the people to ensure that they live in a way deemed proper. This is why the people have largely grown disillusioned with their so-called democracy. The people of France’s overseas colonies are left with neither representation nor the means to genuinely pursue their own interests. They live under “the most consummate and inacceptable form of oppression,” one in which the only freedom they can strive for is the negative freedom from suffering imposed by France. The “enlightened elites” accuse colonial subjects of being like children, but de Beauvoir points out that childhood is in fact a stage of growth, “the moment of a development in which new possibilities are won,” rather than an absolute limit on ability.
De Beauvoir’s critique of French colonialism recalls her critique of charity, which claims to help people but only by replacing a respect for those people’s freedom with a set of serious values, and often ends up undermining the act’s purported goal. The “enlightened elites” treat both French “citizens” and French “colonial subjects” as unable to know what is good for them, which shows how tyrants turn both their followers and the people they deem inferior into mere instruments. Instead of seeing colonial subjects as confined to a state of childhood, the “enlightened elites” assume that their childhood is permanent—and the policies that stem from this rhetoric are precisely what prevent colonized people from ever achieving moral freedom (or, in other words, growing out of childhood).
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Through this analysis, de Beauvoir arrives at “point number one: the good of an individual or a group of individuals requires that it be taken as an absolute end of our action; but we are not authorized to decide upon this end a priori.” In other words, one must act for the sake of the free other’s freedom. This means that, for instance, there are certain circumstances when supporting someone’s addiction, suicide, or delusional beliefs are acceptable, and many in which it is not (depending primarily on the person’s likelihood of healthy recovery from their current state). And yet it is never this easy, because “the Other is multiple,” which raises questions about acting when different others have competing interests.
When de Beauvoir says people cannot “decide upon this end [the good of another] a priori,” what she means is that this good is completely dependent on circumstances: even suicide, something conventionally seen as morally unambiguous, can both serve and violate freedom in differing circumstances. Because freedom is the central goal of people’s actions for others, de Beauvoir thinks it is impossible to know how to act without consulting those others, and this is precisely why she cannot provide formulas about what makes violence justifiable (although she gives plenty of examples of when it is and is not).
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Rather than trying to figure out which others to prioritize in the abstract, de Beauvoir decides that generosity is “more valid the less distinction there is between the other and ourself and the more we fulfill ourself in taking the other as an end.” People should fight for causes to which they can relate, but also while asserting “the will for universal solidarity” and without undermining the interests of “the totality of men.” But there are still concrete instances where one must choose among various people’s freedom.
De Beauvoir’s evaluation of generosity based on the actor’s proximity to the person they seek to help is not a way of arguing for moral selfishness (that is, saying that people should only help others when they are also helping themselves). Rather, she sees this proximity as a test of authenticity, and the situations that best fulfill it as the most clear-cut scenarios where one ought to act on others’ behalf. But this does not, for instance, justify the actions of the “enlightened elites” in France (who justify oppressing people in French colonies by pointing to how different those “others” are from themselves).
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To answer this problem, de Beauvoir insists that she can “only indicate a method.” First, one must make sure one is looking at the genuine human interests behind political ideals like “Nation, Empire, Union, Economy, etc.” rather than blindly asserting them. The most prominent example of such a conflict is the question of whether to support the USSR—but most people raise this question dishonestly. It is impossible to “judge the means”—Stalin’s crimes and injustices, unparalleled by any other current government—without reference to the end. For instance, lynching is always inexcusable, but suppressing political opposition “may have meaning and a reason.” And yet defenders of the Soviets too easily assume that Stalin’s crimes are justifiable because of his ends: rather, they would have to show “that the end is unconditioned and […] the crimes committed in its name were strictly necessary.”
Again, de Beauvoir reiterates the enormous difference between the ideals people claim justify their actions—which are often rhetorical tools that serve nobody’s interests except the actor’s—and the concrete interests of concrete human beings in concrete freedom from oppression. De Beauvoir takes a middle ground in relation to the USSR, which was a divisive issue for leftist intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s as it became clear that Stalin’s government was massively and unnecessarily repressing dissent and abusing human rights, all in the name of the revolution. When she talks about “unconditioned” ends, de Beauvoir is referring specifically to freedom, as opposed to conditioned, or intermediary ends valuable only for the sake of something else—which, ultimately, has to come back to freedom.
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In defending the Soviet Union, many weigh “the whole of the revolution” against any particular crime, which is dishonest: the Soviets believe precisely in a vision of history as necessary, superseding any individual determining factor. A good Marxist sees that no individual action can entirely create a revolution; rather, “it is merely a matter of hastening or retarding [the revolution’s] coming.” Marxists’ end in violence is always finite and uncertain, never the absolute liberation of revolution. But it is still possible for them to justify violent means in the right situations. Yet this must be done with regard to the concrete circumstances of the decision, and it is never possible to absolutely weigh the benefits and costs of any decision: such decisions always involve free—and therefore ethical—choice.
For de Beauvoir, the fact that some crime(s) may be necessary for the greater good does not justify every crime committed in the name of the greater good, since (as she has shown through examples like the French “enlightened elites,” these ideals are usually named as a rhetorical strategy and not because they are people’s honest goal). The question in every circumstance is how to open up freedom for an oppressed people while minimizing the violations of freedom committed in the process of doing so; ironically, since Marxists view the revolution as necessary and inevitable, they would never be able to justify violence for the sake of the revolution, only for the sake of particular freedoms in particular circumstances when there is no better option.
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Making this difficult choice about the legitimacy of violence requires “long analysis,” and de Beauvoir offers a few examples. For instance, it is worthwhile to kick any traitors out of revolutionary movements and reasonable to sacrifice those who may cause the deaths of many others. But the French Resistance in many ways sought to “create such a state of violence that collaboration would be impossible,” and such gratuitous violence, not immediately directed against the oppressor, is more difficult to justify, although it can still make sense in order to build a revolutionary movement. In a novel by John Dos Passos, the protagonist has to choose between helping striking miners (who are clearly in the right) win their trial, or turning the trial into a media firestorm but surely losing. Dos Passos’s character rightly picks the former, since the benefit of sacrificing the miners would be dubious at best.
De Beauvoir’s insistence on careful reflection before accepting violence contrasts with many revolutionary movements’ use of violence to shock, scare, and bewilder. Many movements, she suggests, resort to violence precisely because it is gratuitous. On the contrary, for de Beauvoir, only premeditated violence is truly justifiable. Dos Passos’s book demonstrates that violence, beyond only serving as a last resort, is also only appropriate in situations where its prospective benefit is difficult to deny; certainty is as much a criterion for the legitimacy of violence as is necessity.
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In fact, politicians rarely pursue the careful moral analysis they ought to—one might suggest that “hesitation and misgivings only impede victory,” and that it is not worth considering the precise costs of failure since some failure is inevitable. But this would mean blindly pursuing their ends, and in doing so undermining them. One becomes a dictator, merely desiring one’s own victory as an end, no matter the cost; instead of being vigilant, politicians choose “the line of least resistance,” taking advantage of “the laziness and brutality of the police” in the name of so-called “political necessity.”
The argument that violence is acceptable because failure is inevitable improperly treats all failure as equivalent (under the assumption that success would be the only thing worth aiming for). In contrast, for de Beauvoir, the inevitable failure of all striving is precisely why actors must constantly interrogate whether their means can be improved (and never expect perfection). Crucially, de Beauvoir thinks of the law—just as morality—not as an abstract code or set of restrictions on behavior, but as a set of concrete practices enforced by concrete individuals acting in morally varied ways.
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Ethics is in fact about making the easy difficult, which is also the purpose of internal criticism, whether of the kind that contests a regime’s ends (like “anti-fascism to fascism, of fascism to socialism”) or of the kind that agrees with a regime’s ends but challenges its means. While “crime and tyranny” are often requirements for achieving freedom, such critics must prevent movements aimed at freedom from simply turning into regimes of “crime and tyranny.” Movements aimed at achieving freedom, in other words, must be met by free resistance.
Ethics makes the easy difficult because it forces those with power to justify their actions even when they have nobody to answer to. The respect for criticism is a high but necessary bar for political movements, both because in practical terms it allows movements to improve and because it indicates a movement’s fundamental interest in freedom and refusal to take the easy way out (to consolidate power, crush dissent, and undermine the freedom for which it is supposed to be fighting).
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