The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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Broadly speaking, ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions of value, including what people ought to do, what is right and wrong, and what the best kind of human life looks like. Traditionally, these questions have been answered directly, from a universal perspective that declares specific values, actions, or ways of making decisions categorically right and wrong. However, for de Beauvoir, this way of thinking not only takes an impossible perspective that no individual can ever assume, but also denies individuals’ fundamental freedom to make their own decisions in complex ethical situations, in which it is impossible to know what exactly will result from one’s decision. Instead, de Beauvoir grounds her “ethics of ambiguity” in the very fact of human freedom.

Ethics Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The The Ethics of Ambiguity quotes below are all either spoken by Ethics or refer to Ethics. 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

For existentialism, it is not impersonal universal man who is the source of values, but the plurality of concrete, particular men projecting themselves toward their ends on the basis of situations whose particularity is as radical and as irreducible as subjectivity itself. How could men, originally separated, get together?

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Hegel, Kant
Page Number: 17
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:

To will oneself free is to effect the transition from nature to morality by establishing a genuine freedom on the original upsurge of our existence.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place. For, in a metaphysics of transcendence, in the classical sense of the term, evil is reduced to error; and in humanistic philosophies it is impossible to account for it, man being defined as complete in a complete world. Existentialism alone gives—like religions—a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which make its judgments so gloomy.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

Ethics is the triumph of freedom over facticity, and the sub-man feels only the facticity of his existence. Instead of aggrandizing the reign of the human, he opposes his inert resistance to the projects of other men. No project has meaning in the world disclosed by such an existence. Man is defined as a wild flight. The world about him is bare and incoherent. Nothing ever happens; nothing merits desire or effort. The sub-man makes his way across a world deprived of meaning toward a death which merely confirms his long negation of himself. The only thing revealed in this experience is the absurd facticity of an existence which remains forever unjustified if it has not known how to justify itself.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Sub-Man
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 3 Quotes

The only justification of sacrifice is its utility; but the useful is what serves Man. Thus, in order to serve some men we must do disservice to others. By what principle are we to choose between them?

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:
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Ethics Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Ethics 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
...try and fail to synthesize their will with the world. But even “the most optimistic” ethical systems have first focused on humans’ inevitable failures; if people did not have room for... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...human freedom implies that people can do whatever they want, that there is no true ethics. But actually, she says, it is the opposite: people are the ultimate measure of their... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
...own particular contexts. De Beauvoir wonders how “men, originally separated, [got] together” in these other ethical systems, which see them as all the same. (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...the problem” at the center of her book. Given the notion that “there is an ethics only if there is a problem to solve,” or that ethics is about improving an... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...freedom means that people are “prohibited from wishing for anything.” Instead, she declares, whereas most ethics is about teaching people how to “win” at life, existentialism shows that people will always... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
De Beauvoir next asks whether “natural freedom contradict[s] the notion of ethical freedom” because we are born free, and so it makes no sense “to will oneself... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...truly free to choose it? Can they instead choose “a bad willing?” This question pervades ethics, since virtue only makes sense given the possibility of “a bad willing.” De Beauvoir cannot... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...with the negative” means escaping the self and one’s freedom. So existentialism can have an ethics because it leaves room for an evil will, and indeed is the only philosophy that... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
This might help explain why people think of existentialism as “gloomy”: there are real ethical consequences to people’s will; people can win and lose; nothing is decided in advance. There... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...subject who initiated it; subjectivity requires other people to eventually carry it forward. Like any ethics, existentialism concerns what the individual can and should do, but this does not make it... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...on their individual places and relationships with others. And yet people’s relations to others pose ethical problems, which are the subject of de Beauvoir’s third and final section. (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 3: The Antinomies of Action
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 5: Ambiguity
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...absolutely weigh the benefits and costs of any decision: such decisions always involve free—and therefore ethical—choice. (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
Ethics is in fact about making the easy difficult, which is also the purpose of internal... (full context)
Conclusion
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
De Beauvoir asks if her ethics is “individualistic.” On the one hand, it puts the individual at the center, as the... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...must be limited. This is probably why people see existentialism as gloomy—they are used to ethics being considered from a comfortingly inhuman perspective: “the plane of the universal, thus, of the... (full context)