The Ethics of Ambiguity


Simone De Beauvoir

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Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Existentialism and Ethics Theme Icon
Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Theme Icon
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Simone de Beauvoir chose the title The Ethics of Ambiguity because she sees ambiguity as a central structuring feature in people’s lives: people are at once subjects and objects, in control of their own lives and helpless against the world’s forces. People have absolute freedom over their own limited power, and no matter how much they strive, they will never be what they strive to be precisely because their power is limited. De Beauvoir explains this argument in terms of the difference between being (a thing’s singular, definite essence) and existence (the simple fact of something’s presence as in the world). Human existence is defined by people’s freedom and lack of any definite being. De Beauvoir’s solution to the often demoralizing ambiguity of human life is not to try and escape it by ceasing to strive or expecting to become perfect against the odds; rather, she thinks that people should “assume” their ambiguity by recognizing that their goals are provisional and striving precisely to disclose their own being through their actions.

De Beauvoir sees a  number of paradoxes at the heart of the human condition. All rest on the fact that life seems both subjectively meaningful and objectively meaningless. The first form of ambiguity is that between people’s status as a subject and an object. People both feel like “a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects,” but also recognize that every other person feels the same way and thus sees them as an object. Secondly, people know that they will die, which will render everything for which they have worked throughout their life meaningless to them. At the same time, they strive with their full energies toward these goals, despite knowing them to be of only relative importance. Humans are also both stuck in the material world (through their bodies and their inevitable deaths) and able to escape it through thought and imagination. And finally, people both have fixed selves, as a result of their past and the choices they have made, and complete freedom to do what they want with themselves in the future (and complete responsibility for those choices).

As a result of this glaring ambiguity, failure is inevitable: people can never completely fulfill their will, become precisely what they want to be, or make the exact impact they want to make on the world. And yet they must still act despite these limits, which is what makes an “ethics of ambiguity” necessary. The ambiguity folded into the human condition can be best described as the tension between being and existence. Many people think of humans in terms of being—that there is a common, distinctive fact of the matter about what humans naturally are or should be. But, for existentialists, this is false: rather, people simply exist, and they are free to try and become whatever they would like—but will inevitably fail to achieve the kind of singular being they aim for. Failure is an inherent part of any project, but people still achieve something in the process. In Sartre’s words, man is “a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being.” In other words, people first create an image of what they would like to be—something that, in the moment they create the image, they are not (therefore, they become “a lack of being”). This process of projection and striving takes place so that people can pursue their being—"so that there might be being.” In reality, freedom necessarily means that perfection is impossible, because perfection would erase people’s freedom: there would be nothing left to strive for or pursue. And yet, many people falsely try to give up one half of ambiguity by either resigning themselves to never improving or doing anything (like the sub-man or nihilist), or by pursuing a godlike power over the world but losing sight of the brute fact that one’s power is always limited (like the adventurer).

Ultimately, for de Beauvoir, the solution to ambiguity is not to resolve it by choosing being or existence, a fixed identity or a constant transcending of what one already is. Rather, one must struggle with the tension of ambiguity and learn to “take delight in [one’s] very effort toward an impossible possession.” Whenever people reach their goals (and transcend their previous selves) they in turn set new goals and imagine new selves: there is always a gap between reality and the projection. In de Beauvoir’s words, “with each step forward the horizon recedes a step.” By realizing this, people can learn to take pleasure in striving itself, rather than merely in the prospect of becoming what they strive for, and hold both contradictory halves of ambiguity together: they can both recognize their finiteness (their limited power and inevitable deaths) and see their projects as meaningful goals. If even continuing to pursue their goals becomes impossible, they must be able to set new ones. For de Beauvoir, every act of striving, no matter how successful, is “a disclosure of being,” which means it reflects what a person is at the very moment in which they strive. The only kind of striving that can actually be fulfilled is a striving to disclose one’s being—in other words, a sincere attempt to act authentically.

While de Beauvoir’s insistence that people can never achieve all their goals might initially seem like a grim reality check, in reality it offers a new way forward: instead of holding themselves to unrealistic standards, people should recognize that their efforts are valuable in themselves, rather than mere means to the ends they seek. Instead of seeing one’s inevitable failure to resolve the ambiguity of human existence as a sign of moral failure, one can come to see his or her inevitable progress as an individual as a meaningful sign of success. Of course, this is not just about living more optimistically; rather, it is about learning to work with ambiguity rather than struggle impossibly against it.

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Ambiguity, Being, and Existence Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

Below you will find the important quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity related to the theme of Ambiguity, Being, and Existence.
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:

Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.

Related Characters: Simone de Beauvoir (speaker)
Page Number: 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:

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:

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:
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: