In The Ethics of Ambiguity, 20th-century French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir asks what ethics looks like from the perspective of the existentialist philosophy she has developed in conjunction with Jean-Paul Sartre. Whereas most ethical systems try to determine what people ought to do based on abstract principles of morality, existentialists believe that it makes no sense to talk about such absolute ethical principles, because morality is actually something that people develop in and through their lives, rather than something woven into the timeless fabric of the universe. Instead of starting with a picture of the good, right, or just, de Beauvoir starts with the basic fact of human freedom, which she argues must be the foundation of all morality because it is the fact in virtue of which people can make moral decisions at all.
De Beauvoir divides her book into three parts, respectively covering the philosophical underpinnings of her “ethics of ambiguity,” the different kinds of ethical attitudes people can have depending on how they relate to their freedom, and what existentialism has to say about how people should relate to other human beings.
In Part One, “Ambiguity and Freedom,” de Beauvoir starts by explaining the ways in which human experience is ambiguous: people honestly pursue their goals even though they know they will die; everyone feels like a subject with a will in the world, but experiences everyone else as an object, and yet also knows that others also see them as an object; and as much as people feel empowered to act in the world, they also recognize that the world is infinitely greater than they are and can easily overwhelm them. Most philosophers, de Beauvoir explains, have tried to resolve one or the other half of this ambiguity: they have argued that people are immortal or only their intentions matter, for instance. Existentialism, on the other hand, recognizes that this resolution into one or the other side of the binary is impossible; no matter how much people try to impose their will on the world and pursue their goals, they will inevitably fail. This failure is precisely why people need ethics: to give themselves something to strive for. Many philosophers accuse existentialism of making morality look meaningless and subjective; on the contrary, de Beauvoir argues (following Sartre), morality is subjective but meaningful precisely because all meaning is subjective.
De Beauvoir briefly summaries Sartre’s philosophy and argues that people do not necessarily fail by ultimately falling short of their goals for themselves; rather, they can learn to “take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession.” By embracing their ambiguity rather than despairing in it, people can come to desire not the impossible moral perfection promised to them by other, abstract systems of ethics, but rather desire “to be a disclosure of being.” All action, de Beauvoir explains, “discloses” who the actor is, because action results from people’s abilities, values, and commitments. The only fulfillable desire is the desire to authentically disclose oneself, which is the same as the desire for one’s own freedom—one’s capacity to be what one is, rather than trying to become a value set out by someone else.
Freedom, de Beauvoir shows, is both the starting point and ultimate goal of ethics: everyone is naturally free, meaning they are capable of spontaneously acting, but it is up to them to turn this natural freedom into genuine moral freedom by “willing themselves free.” This requires carefully reflecting on one’s individual actions and broad personal project, which means establishing continuity between one’s past, present, and future. Having provided an account of a morally good will, De Beauvoir ends her first section by asking what moral evil looks like. While she agrees that people cannot will themselves unfree, she notes that people start with natural but not moral freedom and can certainly prevent themselves from reaching moral freedom by refusing to accept life’s ambiguity or work for the betterment of oneself and the world. This is the equivalent of moral evil for existentialists. Importantly, de Beauvoir notes, whereas many ethical systems chalk evil up to human imperfections or moral error, only existentialists hold people truly and completely responsible for their errors, which is why the existentialist picture of ethics actually provides a more complete account of good and evil and is less forgiving of selfishness and indifference to others.
In Part Two, “Personal Freedom and Others,” de Beauvoir provides a detailed picture of the ways people morally err, especially when they refuse to honor the freedom of others. She starts with an image of childhood, in which the child sees the grown-up world as full of fixed and serious values, but also sees themselves as safely confined to a separate world of play, in which their actions have no moral consequences. As people grow into adolescents, however, they realize that adults are imperfect, values are not absolute, and their own actions have moral and practical consequences. In other words, adolescents realize their freedom, but also their responsibility, and from this point onwards, they have to choose what to do with them—whether to turn their natural freedom into moral freedom or somehow evade the question.
The worst response to this dilemma, according to de Beauvoir, is to become a “sub-man.” The “sub-man” is so afraid of action and its consequences that he tries to do nothing at all—he wishes he were an inanimate object so he would not have to take responsibility for his actions. The serious man, like the sub-man, tries as hard as possible to deny his own freedom; he does so by choosing and loyally adhering to a set of fixed values that come from somewhere else. He “believe[s] for belief’s sake,” just so that he does not have to confront the responsibility of choosing beliefs based on his own independent thought. Next is the nihilist, who accepts the fact that there are no absolute moral values in the world but sees this as a tragedy rather than as an opportunity to seize his freedom and make his own values; the nihilist pursues a will to destruction, “commit[ting] disorder and anarchy” in a vain attempt to show everyone else that their values are made up. Often, the nihilist ends up committing suicide—he understands the ambiguity of human life but not his freedom to live anyway. The next kind of person is the adventurer, who is “close to a genuinely moral attitude” because he eagerly throws himself into a variety of projects and embraces his own freedom. However, the adventurer has no genuine moral commitments; he only wants to conquer and succeed in his projects but does not care what the projects actually are. He is often willing to trample on others’ freedom for the sake of his own enjoyment, and in doing so he proves that he can never be genuinely free because any individual’s genuine freedom relies on the freedom of everyone else (both because of people’s shared humanity and because of people’s concrete interdependence on one another in order to survive in the world). De Beauvoir’s final figure is the passionate person, who is the inverse of the adventurer and also close to, but just short of, genuine freedom: the passionate person has the right kind of sincere moral commitment, but cares so strongly that he is incapable of detaching himself when he cannot achieve his goals and thus sacrifices his own freedom.
In the book’s third and longest part, which is subdivided into five shorter sections, de Beauvoir takes up a series of issues that all center on the relationship between a free individual and the rest of humanity. She has already argued that each person’s freedom depends on everyone else’s, but here she explores the implications of that argument. In the first subsection she argues that “The Aesthetic Attitude,” or the abstracted, distant perspective often taken by critics and philosophers, is intellectuals’ way of evading their own status as concrete, individual, free human beings. In the second subsection, she looks at "Freedom and Liberation," and specifically what the continuous, incremental fight for the freedom of the oppressed looks like from an existentialist perspective. Many are in positions so dire that the only way they can promote their freedom is by a purely negative revolt against the forces that are oppressing them. Oppressors often fear and criminalize this kind of response, but there is no question that the freedom of the oppressed to pursue their goals without being coerced into a way of life they have not chosen is a meaningful freedom, while the oppressor’s freedom to deny others their freedom is no freedom at all (because it undermines others’ freedom, and anyone’s genuine freedom depends on everyone else’s). Oppressors often try to distract people from the value of freedom by creating and elevating other values, like a culture’s distinctive past or the productive potential of capitalism. But tradition and capitalism only matter insofar as they promote freedom, which again proves that freedom is the most fundamental end of human action.
In the third section of her final part, de Beauvoir asks how the oppressed should act for the sake of their freedom. She concludes that it is sometimes necessary to perpetuate injustice in order to fight injustice. This includes committing violence against people who have contributed to oppression out of obligation or ignorance (those who are responsible but not guilty for ignorance), or having to choose one liberation struggle instead of another when two conflict; it can even mean sacrificing one’s comrades or oneself. In order to successfully revolt against tyrants who deny people’s freedom and reduce them to their facticity, people have to use those same tools and reduce both their enemies and themselves to facticity. Both tyrants and revolutionaries promise their followers that their sacrifices are for the sake of a better, freer future, but this is the same mistake that philosophers make when they see ethics as an absolute rather than a respect for freedom embedded in every action. By reducing the individual’s value to zero, tyrants and revolutionaries undermine their own project, turning society’s value to zero, too. This is why de Beauvoir favors democracy, which prioritizes “the dignity of each man” and refuses to sacrifice any for an imagined future fulfillment that will never truly come about (since people’s struggle for freedom has no end). The real ethical problem, however, comes up when one must choose between two people’s competing freedoms; one must decide based on which in turn opens more freedom in the future, which is the same reason that unjust revolution is better than unjust tyranny.
Now that she has shown that the question of whose freedom to prioritize relies on thinking about the future, de Beauvoir turns in the fourth section to the concept of the future, which she argues is split: people both imagine the future as a continuation of the present and hope for a utopian, perfect future, one with no connection to the present, in which “Glory, Happiness, or Justice” magically descends upon the earth. This latter concept of the future is precisely what can convince people to sacrifice the present, but it is based on a false hope for perfection, when in reality all human striving is limited, and ambiguity is a constant feature of existence. Politicians take advantage of people’s wishful thinking and weakness for ideals, promising them a perfect future in order to turn them into instruments; this is how Europe justified colonialism, for instance. Instead, de Beauvoir insists, people should celebrate their existence, their finite projects and finite wills, rather than letting themselves be seduced by the promise of infinity.
In the last section, de Beauvoir returns to the question of ambiguity and investigates in further depth what ethical decision-making requires. She determines that such decisions must aim at the freedom of “the individual as such” and accept violence only when it “opens concrete possibilities to the freedom which I am trying to save.” She offers French politics as an example: the people who consider themselves “enlightened elites” pretend to govern on behalf of France’s colonial subjects, but actually use their gestures to the colonized people’s well-being as a front to continue oppressing and exploiting them. Instead of trying to “civilize” non-Europeans, she thinks, the only ethical stance is to act for the sake of people’s freedom itself. She then looks at the Soviet Union, which has too easily used the goals of its revolution as an excuse to oppress people, even though it is theoretically possible that oppression would sometimes be ethical in order to help push forward people’s liberation. Pursuing this difficult decision—to use violence and oppression to fight violence and oppression—means taking on an enormous responsibility and being extremely vigilant, detailed, and reflective. Needless to say, most politicians and revolutionaries fall short of this standard, which is why they, too, need critics: insofar as they respect freedom, they must embrace free resistance to their own ways.
In a brief conclusion, de Beauvoir offers some big-picture remarks about existentialist ethics’ relationship to her critics and other ethical systems. While existentialism focuses on the individual, since it is the individual who makes free decisions and pursues their own projects, she insists that existentialism is not solipsistic because it sees other people’s freedom as necessary for any individual’s. She asks whether the existentialist conception of subjective moral value is really meaningful, but reminds the reader that nothing is meaningful outside of subjective human perspectives, and that it simply does not make sense to hold human morality to the standard of objective truth, which no individual human could ever access. By centering morality on concrete action and people’s finite projects, de Beauvoir concludes, existentialists affirm individuals’ potential to make concrete contributions to the world and embrace their own freedom; if everyone did this, people could finally stop dreaming about a completely free utopia, because they would have it.