The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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The central concept in de Beauvoir’s system, which refers to the simple fact that people have the capacity to choose how to act, even if they have to undertake these actions in a world they do not choose. In turn, people are also free to determine their values and what they can become in the future. As a result of their freedom, then, people are fully responsible for their actions. For de Beauvoir, freedom underlies all moral values and justifies itself: it makes no sense to ask why people are free, because they simply are. People’s freedom naturally rejects forces that constrain it, for instance by battling illnesses and fighting against oppression, and so is a continual “movement of liberation” that has no definite start or end, but must be embraced in every particular moment of action. Accordingly, to act ethically is to embrace and pursue one’s own freedom, which becomes both the basic justification and ultimate goal of human action.

Freedom Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

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

“The continuous work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” He quotes the Latin poets: Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit. And again: Nascentes morimur. Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 5-6
Explanation and Analysis:

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom 7-8
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

We think that the meaning of the situation does not impose itself on the consciousness of a passive subject, that it surges up only by the disclosure which a free subject effects in his project.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Marx
Page Number: 19
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:

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:

The fundamental fault of the nihilist is that, challenging all given values, he does not find, beyond their ruin, the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Nihilist
Related Symbols: Suicide
Page Number: 62
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:

If I were really everything there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty. There would be nothing to possess, and I myself would be nothing.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

This truth is found in another form when we say that freedom can not will itself without aiming at an open future. The ends which it gives itself must be unable to be transcended by any reflection, but only the freedom of other men can extend them beyond our life.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 76-7
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3, Section 2 Quotes

We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 97
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:
Part 3, Section 5 Quotes

We repudiate all idealisms, mysticisms, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Serious Man, The Tyrant
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

Indeed, on the one hand, it would be absurd to oppose a liberating action with the pretext that it implies crime and tyranny; for without crime and tyranny there could be no liberation of man; one can not escape that dialectic which goes from freedom to freedom through dictatorship and oppression. But, on the other hand, he would be guilty of allowing the liberating movement to harden into a moment which is acceptable only if it passes into its opposite; tyranny and crime must be kept from triumphantly establishing themselves in the world; the conquest of freedom is their only justification, and the assertion of freedom against them must therefore be kept alive.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), The Tyrant
Page Number: 167-168
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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Freedom Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Freedom appears in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom
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...means “being right in [one’s own] eyes.” The idea of external values actually denies people’s freedom—in fact, people’s free existence is what creates values. This is not about optimism or pessimism;... (full context)
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De Beauvoir next asks whether this human freedom implies that people can do whatever they want, that there is no true ethics. But... (full context)
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...be bound to each other” and each individually “forge valid laws for all” through their freedom. (full context)
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...individual will is the mere product of “objective [economic] conditions,” existentialism thinks it is fundamentally free. Indeed, the proletariat (working class) can adopt various attitudes to class, and Marxism does emphasize... (full context)
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So Marxism ends up with contradictory beliefs in both determination and freedom. And yet Marxists, like many Christians, often insist that acting freely means “giv[ing] up justifying... (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 for anything.” Instead,... (full context)
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De Beauvoir next asks whether “natural freedom contradict[s] the notion of ethical freedom” because we are born free, and so it makes... (full context)
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The natural freedom with which people are born is random, spontaneous, and always directed toward something, but never... (full context)
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Having looked at freedom’s “subjective and formal aspect,” de Beauvoir now wonders whether there is any way to “will... (full context)
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In Descartes’s words, however, “the freedom of man is infinite, but his power is limited” because the world resists people’s actions.... (full context)
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...of text over and over). Similarly, life imprisonment is horrible because it absolutely constrains people’s freedom, and freedom naturally rejects all such constraints on it, whether by resolving them (like illness),... (full context)
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So freedom always seeks to overcome obstacles to it, or “to realize itself as indefinite movement.” And... (full context)
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De Beauvoir declares that, so far, she has shown “that the words ‘to will oneself free’ have a positive and concrete meaning.” This meaning is “original spontaneity” willing “moral freedom” in... (full context)
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But this creates a problem: if there is “one and only one way” to affirm freedom, are people ever truly free to choose it? Can they instead choose “a bad willing?”... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
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...appear as “ready-made things,” and the child sets up their own “happily irresponsible” world of freedom through play. They believe in adults’ being and the absoluteness of good and evil. And... (full context)
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...their childishness: they have not chosen their oppression, but there is a dishonest “resignation of freedom” in their refusal to pursue liberation. (full context)
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...a disillusioning one: people realize they are abandoned in the world, “the prey of a freedom that is no longer chained up by anything.” They are then forced to decide what... (full context)
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...another aspect” of the misfortune of having been a child: although moral choices are completely free, they are also dependent on what one has been in the past. And children have... (full context)
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In the 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... (full context)
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...hierarchy among men.” The lowest are those without “living warmth,” who spend their energies preventing freedom’s movement and withdrawing themselves from the world. They are fundamentally afraid of the world, the... (full context)
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...never humans’ ability to justify their existence. He easily becomes “the serious man,” denying his freedom by proclaiming his loyalty to absolute values that he believes in turn make him valuable.... (full context)
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...chooses his servitude to certain values or institutions. He chooses to become unable “to will freedom in an indefinite movement,” caring only about what is “useful” but never about what it... (full context)
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...through every action, for the very act of negation shows the truth of existence and freedom. (full context)
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...and building their own lives; it rejects and tries to destroy the world, including people’s freedom within it. Fundamentally, the nihilist fails to see “the importance of that universal, absolute end... (full context)
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It is also possible to “take delight in living” despite not understanding freedom, using things one does not accept or believe in as “a pretext […] for a... (full context)
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...deal with other people who confront him along his path. He may start respecting others’ freedom and working for “the liberation of himself and others,” which would make him no longer... (full context)
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The opposite of the adventurer is the passionate man. The adventurer achieves subjective freedom, but without directing himself to the right content, while the passionate man has the content,... (full context)
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...she loves her inability to possess the person she loves. By opening up to others’ freedom (the freedom of the person one loves to refuse one’s love, and the freedom of... (full context)
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...it is also possible for people to achieve a moral attitude here in the world. Freedom aims toward its own ends without either letting any goal completely overtake it or losing... (full context)
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This “open future” shows why existentialism is not solipsistic: pursuing one’s own freedom requires engaging others’ freedom too. In fact, existentialism sees “passion, pride, and the spirit of... (full context)
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...the other main criticism of existentialism: that it cannot tell people how to engage their freedom. Clearly, people must do this concretely, depending on their individual places and relationships with others.... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 1: The Aesthetic Attitude
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...summarizes her argument thus far. People create the meaning in the world by exercising their freedom, which takes on “concrete content” when people direct it toward particular goals and affirm its... (full context)
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De Beauvoir asks how people can will themselves (and others) free if they (and others) are born free. Similarly, if people everywhere are constantly disclosing being... (full context)
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...through art. The world happens, then gets assigned 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
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De Beauvoir addresses the objection that “to will freedom” is a meaningless phrase with “no concrete content for action.” But the very meaning of... (full context)
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...it is about “the possibility of new discoveries,” which is to say the achievement of freedom through inquiry. Technology’s goal is discovery itself, not improving human life (which it seldom actually... (full context)
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...at some point in the future people will learn to take full advantage of their freedom, in the present many “can justify their life only by a negative action,” transcending themselves... (full context)
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...is best for someone else from the outside; rather, it is about opening up mutual freedom out of a more fundamental interest in others’ existence. External action can show the oppressed... (full context)
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...another should act. This depends on individual circumstances, but the ultimate goal should always be freedom. The oppressor might claim that the oppressed is trying to invert the situation and deny... (full context)
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...de Beauvoir suggests that the oppressor does show how difficult it is to respect everyone’s freedom—but this does not make it any less imperative to try: everyone “must reject oppression at... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 3: The Antinomies of Action
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De Beauvoir suggests that, although oppressors are reluctant to acknowledge the freedom of those they oppress, this is necessary for true moral liberation and the “reconciliation of... (full context)
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...the world, because the world is only valuable insofar as people can pursue their individual freedom. This is the value of democracy: “the sense of the dignity of each man.” This... (full context)
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...alike must prevent themselves from individually reflecting on their actions, which is why authoritarianism sees free thought as a crime: indeed, free thought is what leads people to see crimes as... (full context)
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...that “the cause of Man [is] that of each man.” This is false: while everyone’s freedom is interdependent, it is not all the same. All sacrifice serves some people at others’... (full context)
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To determine the answer to this question, de Beauvoir starts again with freedom’s status as “the supreme end” of all human action. The real problem of choosing whose... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 4: The Present and the Future
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...as the future brings liberation. Those who believe in this kind of future “submerge their freedom in it [and] find the tranquility of the serious.” (full context)
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Since people’s struggle for freedom is constant and unending, politicians are correct to identify the world as at war but... (full context)
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...other phenomena like the struggles of individuals (detotalized). Similarly, people’s individual struggles imply one another’s freedom, and the mind must see both order and chaos (like totality and relation) in the... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 5: Ambiguity
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...“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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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...of men.” But there are still concrete instances where one must choose among various people’s freedom. (full context)
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...possible to absolutely weigh the benefits and costs of any decision: such decisions always involve free—and therefore ethical—choice. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Conclusion
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...justifier of their own existence. On the other hand, “it is not solipsistic,” for one’s freedom depends on others’, and one cannot genuinely pursue one’s own freedom without also pursuing others’.... (full context)
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...a “lying enterprise” that lets people play “a game of illusions” and imagine they are free. Yet this objection relies on opposing such “illusions” to an objective truth that no one... (full context)
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...existence in “a finiteness which is open on the infinite,” people can claim their absolute freedom. No one needs any “outside guarantee,” as goes the saying: “Do what you must, come... (full context)