The Ethics of Ambiguity

by

Simone De Beauvoir

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The capacity to decide between alternatives and pursue a particular alternative. To “will oneself free” therefore means to make the decisions and take the actions involved in affirming and pursuing one’s freedom. While in conventional philosophy, people are morally formed and then make willful choices that reflect their inner character or being, for existentialists like de Beauvoir and Sartre people actually form themselves through their will, by selecting and pursuing certain goals for themselves (and then fulfilling those goals to a greater or lesser extent).

Will Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

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

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:

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:

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:

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 4 Quotes

Society exists only by means of the existence of particular individuals; likewise, human adventures stand out against the background of time, each finite to each, though they are all open to the infinity of the future and their individual forms thereby imply each other without destroying each other. A conception of this kind does not contradict that of a historical unintelligibility; for it is not true that the mind has to choose between the contingent absurdity of the discontinuous and the rationalistic necessity of the continuous; on the contrary, it is part of its function to make a multiplicity of coherent ensembles stand out against the unique background of the world and, inversely, to comprehend these ensembles in the perspective of an ideal unity of the world.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker), Sartre, Hegel
Page Number: 131-132
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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Will Term Timeline in The Ethics of Ambiguity

The timeline below shows where the term Will 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
...condition” more obvious. The more people feel like individual agents in charge of their own will and able to shape the world, the more they realize how easily that world overwhelms... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...to live. Sartre in particular declares that people inevitably try and fail to synthesize their will with the world. But even “the most optimistic” ethical systems have first focused on humans’... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
...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 one’s relationship to one’s projection rather... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
...and Hegel saw this in the fact that each individual expresses a universal human experience, will, or consciousness, existentialists ground morality not in the abstract “impersonal universal man” but rather in... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...from “the very impulse of his life”). And yet, whereas Marxism thinks that the individual will is the mere product of “objective [economic] conditions,” existentialism thinks it is fundamentally free. Indeed,... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
...of ethical freedom” because we are born free, and so it makes no sense “to will oneself free.” She decides that this objection fails because freedom is not “a thing or... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
...heedlessness, capriciousness, cowardice, [and] impatience,” some continue living out this freedom and choose not to will themselves (morally) free (even though it is still impossible to affirmatively will oneself unfree). Conversely,... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
...freedom’s “subjective and formal aspect,” de Beauvoir now wonders whether there is any way to “will oneself free.” First, this requires gradually building a will over time, by developing a picture... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...freedom, are people ever 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... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...not to be free. However, existentialists “do not see man as being essentially a positive will,” but rather as foundationally negative, based on the gap between the self and the projection.... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...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 are many ways to... (full context)
Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...actively 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... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...course of events” and disappointed by the world’s refusal to “harden into a thing.” He “wills himself to be a god” despite knowing that he cannot be, often turning into a... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...“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 Beauvoir gives Nazism and the French... (full context)
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...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 oneself to be. And this moral will... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...pride, and the spirit of adventure” as vices precisely because they involve imposing one’s own will on everyone else. In reality, the individual expresses his subjectivity through the indefinite movement of... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 1: The Aesthetic Attitude
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
De Beauvoir asks how people can will themselves (and others) free if they (and others) are born free. Similarly, if people everywhere... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 2: Freedom and Liberation
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
De Beauvoir addresses the objection that “to will freedom” is a meaningless phrase with “no concrete content for action.” But the very meaning... (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 4: The Present and the Future
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
...life.” People must assert both their absoluteness and finitude, “regard[ing their] undertakings as finite and will[ing] them absolutely.” (full context)
Part 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Section 5: Ambiguity
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
Moreover, it is impossible “to fulfill the will of every man,” and in fact it is rather undesirable when others will evil or... (full context)
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...this perspective: a small group of elites views their role not as representing the people’s will, but rather as managing the people to ensure that they live in a way deemed... (full context)
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...People should fight for causes to which they can relate, but also while asserting “the will for universal solidarity” and without undermining the interests of “the totality of men.” But there... (full context)
Conclusion
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...positive projects and negatively rejecting oppression wherever possible. In “taking the given […] as something willed by man," one turns apparent facticity into genuine free existence. But this is a constant... (full context)
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
...affirms their 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... (full context)