The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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As distinguished from being, existence is simply something’s status as a thing in the world, and human existence in particular is defined by people’s freedom to act and believe what they want, their inability to choose the world or situation in which they are born, and their ultimate, inevitable death. Human existence is finite, but there are infinite possible existences for any given human being, so de Beauvoir argues that existence has “a finiteness which is open on the infinite.” While there is no reason for people’s existences—people just exist, as a matter of brute fact—it is up to individuals to justify and make something out of their own existences, and de Beauvoir thinks that the way to do this is to pursue projects that aim at the ultimate goal of freedom itself.

Existence Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

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

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:

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:

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:

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:
Conclusion Quotes

Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 172-173
Explanation and Analysis:
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Existence Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Existence 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
...because they consciously understand the inevitability of their deaths, or “the non-temporal truth of [their] existence.” Because of their consciousness, each person feels like “a sovereign and unique subject amidst a... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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...a failure. By trying to be God, in other words, one comes to one’s human existence. As “an effort to be,” one’s impossible attempt to be what one desires serves as... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...or continue to recognize the gap between one’s being and one’s projection of oneself. The “existentialist conversion” must bracket away one’s “will to be” for the sake of analysis, looking at... (full context)
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Freedom Theme Icon
This “existentialist conversion” means that one must, first, reject external standards and recognize that genuinely existing only... (full context)
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De Beauvoir reminds the reader that existentialists “believe in freedom” and wonders whether this freedom means that people are “prohibited from wishing... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
...thing or quality” that people have but rather intrinsic to “the very movement of […] existence.” Existence requires precisely “making itself be” through continuous free action. Therefore, “will[ing] oneself free” can... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...change and achieve things. Better, free action should aim at “precisely the free movement of existence.” A good example is how injured or outcast people can “renew [their] engagement in the... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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Like Kant, de Beauvoir thinks that people cannot positively decide not to be free. However, existentialists “do not see man as being essentially a positive will,” but rather as foundationally negative,... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...sister of charity”) during play time. And the child incurs none of the “risk[s] of existence,” including responsibility and “the anguish of freedom.” The child “is in a state of security... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...of being.” They take responsibility for “reinvesting [themselves] with human signification,” disclosing the joy of existence through any of a variety of ways of “casting [themselves] into the world,” like vitality... (full context)
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All that the sub-man’s existence discloses is the fundamental nothingness of humanity, never humans’ ability to justify their existence. He... (full context)
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Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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...to become the being they wanted to be. Unlike the sub-man, nihilists initially embrace their existence before giving up on it. Some are demoniacal men, who maintain their serious values only... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...annihilate not only the self, but “all mankind,” so as to avoid confirming his own existence. This means it is a will to destruction, which requires a taste for power (de... (full context)
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...moral attitude,” choosing to become “a lack of being” in order to “aim expressly at existence,” having a clear goal but not being too seriously attached to it. “If existentialism were... (full context)
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...own independence that he refuses to acknowledge that he will have to give up his existence to others (through his reputation and legacy) when he dies. And, in refusing to acknowledge... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...up to others in order to achieve freedom, but all freedom requires acknowledging that one’s existence depends on others’ existence. (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
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Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...do not propose to attain being,” their work is still an attempt try to make existence absolute, and many do end up seeking to pin down being and locking themselves “in... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 1: The Aesthetic Attitude
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...continuous movement. But each individual must also support the freedom of others, on whom their existence necessarily relies. (full context)
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...meaning; artists experience, then create art. But freedom is “at the heart of [the artist’s] existence,” like that of everyone else. (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 2: Freedom and Liberation
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...is the same thing as willing “to disclose being,” although every time being comes into existence, it is “constantly surpassed.” Perfection—a complete and absolute disclosure of being—is impossible. Rather, incremental success... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
...people live less, when what they need is to live wholly. Art, likewise, “should reveal existence as a reason for existing” rather than trying to grasp absolutes. (full context)
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...it is about opening up mutual freedom out of a more fundamental interest in others’ existence. External action can show the oppressed a possibility of freedom, but never choose it for... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 3: The Antinomies of Action
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...society can not be something.” This shows how “only the subject can justify his own existence”—no external agent can ever do it for them. (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...pursuit of projects and surpassing of the self; and so “this justification [for an individual’s existence] is always to come.” Action requires “sovereign affirmation of the future,” but de Beauvoir first... (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 new ones;... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
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...She still has to show why action is not “criminal and absurd,” especially since the existentialists are “condemning man to action.” (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 5: Ambiguity
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Conclusion
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...one hand, it puts the individual at the center, as the justifier of their own existence. On the other hand, “it is not solipsistic,” for one’s freedom depends on others’, and... (full context)
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...potential to make a definite contribution and define themselves in the world. By willing their existence in “a finiteness which is open on the infinite,” people can claim their absolute freedom.... (full context)