The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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Following Sartre, de Beauvoir uses “being” and “existence” to refer to two different aspects of human experience. Being refers to the definable character or essence of something or someone. Therefore, when de Beauvoir talks about people rejecting, disclosing, or pursuing being, she is talking respectively about people’s refusal to define themselves in a static and singular way, the way that one’s actions reveal the character of one’s person, and the way that people act in order to shape themselves into what they want to become. However, while people always have some kind of being at any given point in their lives, what they do not have is a single, enduring nature, an absolute being that defines them completely throughout their lives; indeed, it is only because people’s being changes that they have anything to aim for, and the changeability of being is proof of people’s freedom. Accordingly, it is a mistake to pursue a singular, absolute, static being, as is the idea that one can achieve one’s potential and simply “be” what one is meant to be, without continuing to grow and improve (or transcend oneself). Instead, for de Beauvoir, people constantly strive to become the being they project or imagine, and in doing so transcend their current form of being, although they will never reach precisely the version they imagine. This specific use of the term “Being” is in part de Beauvoir’s way of critiquing (and taking from) the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who developed a picture close to de Beauvoir and Sartre’s, but believed that people could reach the kind of absolute, authentic Being that de Beauvoir and Sartre reject.

Being Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The The Ethics of Ambiguity quotes below are all either spoken by Being or refer to Being. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Citadel edition of The Ethics of Ambiguity published in 1948.
Part 1 Quotes

Man, Sartre tells us, is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.”

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat. This means that man, in his vain attempt to be God, makes himself exist as man, and if he is satisfied with this existence, he coincides exactly with himself. It is not granted him to exist without tending toward this being which he will never be. But it is possible for him to want this tension even with the failure which it involves.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre, Hegel
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning. Now, we have seen that the original scheme of man is ambiguous: he wants to be, and to the extent that he coincides with this wish, he fails. All the plans in which this will to be is actualized are condemned; and the ends circumscribed by these plans remain mirages. Human transcendence is vainly engulfed in those miscarried attempts. But man also wills himself to be a disclosure of being, and if he coincides with this wish, he wins, for the fact is that the world becomes present by his presence in it. But the disclosure implies a perpetual tension to keep being at a certain distance, to tear oneself from the world, and to assert oneself as a freedom. To wish for the disclosure of the world and to assert oneself as freedom are one and the same movement. Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

The goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing. Thus, a creative freedom develops happily without ever congealing into unjustified facticity. The creator leans upon anterior creations in order to create the possibility of new creations. His present project embraces the past and places confidence in the freedom to come, a confidence which is never disappointed. It discloses being at the end of a further disclosure. At each moment freedom is confirmed through all creation.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 27-28
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

Every man casts himself into the world by making himself a lack of being; he thereby contributes to reinvesting it with human signification. He discloses it. And in this movement even the most outcast sometimes feel the joy of existing. They then manifest existence as a happiness and the world as a source of joy. But it is up to each one to make himself a lack of more or less various, profound, and rich aspects of being.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Child
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it. it. So much so, that the movement toward the object is, in fact, through his arbitrary act the most radical assertion of subjectivity: to believe for belief’s sake, to will for will’s sake is, detaching transcendence from its end, to realize one’s freedom in its empty and absurd form of freedom of indifference.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Serious Man
Page Number: 50-51
Explanation and Analysis:

It is obvious that this choice is very close to a genuinely moral attitude. The adventurer does not propose to be; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal. Whether he succeeds or fails, he goes right ahead throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardor. It is not from things that he expects the justification of his choices. Considering such behavior at the moment of its subjectivity, we see that it conforms to the requirements of ethics, and if existentialism were solipsistic, as is generally claimed, it would have to regard the adventurer as its perfect hero.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Adventurer
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

If a man prefers the land he has discovered to the possession of this land, a painting or a statue to their material presence, it is insofar as they appear to him as possibilities open to other men. Passion is converted to genuine freedom only if one destines his existence to other existences through the being—whether thing or man—at which he aims, without hoping to entrap it in the destiny of the in-itself.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Passionate Man
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:
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Being Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Being appears in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...for self-improvement only makes sense for the kind of subject who “questions himself in his being.” And yet Sartre’s thought leaves no possibility of someone ethically improving, or “becoming the being... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
In his words, Sartre sees man as “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” First,... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...for people to become their true selves, they must seek to realize, not overcome, their being’s ambiguity. Rather than denying that one transcends oneself, one must “refuse to lose [one]self in”... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...and insist on absolute loyalty to the Party, or “having-to-be at the same time as being.” (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...always fail to be what they want to be, but always succeed to disclose their being, and therefore “win” when their wish is “to be a disclosure of being.” This makes... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...and joy.” This shows that freedom is fundamentally about “plan[ning] new possibilities” and so “disclos[ing] being,” not trying to determine a particular future and “trap[ping] being.” This also means going “from... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...decided in advance. There are many ways to refuse to make oneself “a lack of being so that there might be being.” One can hesitate, give up, falsely insist that one... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...sets up their own “happily irresponsible” world of freedom through play. They believe in adults’ being and the absoluteness of good and evil. And in turn they believe in their own... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...move from childhood’s “contingent spontaneity” to adulthood’s moral freedom, people make themselves “a lack of being.” They take responsibility for “reinvesting [themselves] with human signification,” disclosing the joy of existence through... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...to absolute values that he believes in turn make him valuable. He invests himself in being, continuing to live as people do in childhood. It does not matter what values he... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
The nihilist is one who actively decides and strives to become nothing, the opposite of being. Nihilists tend to be adolescents overwhelmed with “the lack which is in [their] heart[s]” or... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...adventurer is “very close to a genuinely moral attitude,” choosing to become “a lack of being” in order to “aim expressly at existence,” having a clear goal but not being too... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...the impassioned person wants to possess the object of his passion in order to “attain being.” Everything else ceases to matter, and he becomes completely dependent on the idea of fulfilling... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...for the most part “the artist and the writer […] do not propose to attain being,” their work is still an attempt try to make existence absolute, and many do end... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...overtake it or losing sight of any goal whatsoever. Subjects must “desire that there be being,” which is the same thing as willing one’s freedom, but not the same as willing... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 4: The Present and the Future
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)