In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir attempts to do something that, in a lecture she delivered just before beginning to write the book, she claimed would be impossible: to create an ethical system based on the tenets of the existentialist school of philosophy that she developed along with her lifelong philosophical and romantic partner, Jean-Paul Sartre (whose major work, Being and Nothingness, opened but did not resolve the question of an existentialist ethics). This difficult because existentialism both insists that people should be able to freely decide their moral principles for action and holds that people will inevitably fail to become what they seek to be; existentialism’s critics argue that both of these claims prevent the philosophy from making claims about what is ethically right and achievable for human beings. However, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir shows that the existentialist picture of the human condition does indeed imply ethical principles before arguing that, in fact, existentialism is the only doctrine that provides an adequate account of morality: it begins from a realistic, finite, human perspective that acknowledges the inevitability of moral failure, but also holds people responsible for that failure by developing a concept of moral evil. Meanwhile, de Beauvoir shows that other forms of ethics take up an impersonal perspective that is impossible for any real human to assume, deny human freedom by insisting that people must always follow certain abstract principles in particular situations, and see moral failure as the natural result of moral error along the path to virtue, rather than the positive result of an evil will.
Existentialism’s critics argue that it cannot translate into an ethical system because existentialists do not declare what is morally right from the outset, but rather let people choose their own values and make their own moral choices. In other words, these critics accuse existentialism of being subjective, while also holding that morality has to be objective. De Beauvoir shows that existentialism is based on a central, objective value—human freedom, including people’s freedom to make their own decisions. People’s moral upstandingness can be judged by the coherence of their actions, both in relation to one another and in relation to the basic fact of human freedom. For de Beauvoir, then, people’s subjectivity—their power over their decisions and justifications for action—is also the objective fact that underlies morality in the first place.
Although existentialism is centered around human subjectivity, de Beauvoir insists that it can still meaningfully distinguish good from evil. In the second section of her book, she explores the moral implications of a variety of different ways of living. She sees the “sub-man,” who does everything possible to avoid his freedom, as the worst ethical stance, followed by “serious” and “nihilistic” people who fail to see their own power to shape their beliefs, “adventurers” who pursue their freedom but do not direct it toward any meaningful end and “impassioned” people who do the opposite (find a proper end but lose their freedom in pursuing it). All fall short of genuine freedom, which requires people to give their abstract freedom “concrete content” by making particular decisions, committing to particular causes and relationships, and negotiating the particular place into which they are thrown in the world.
Ultimately, de Beauvoir actually argues that existentialism is actually the only truly moral system. First, she thinks only existentialism sees people as truly responsible for their choices. Whether philosophers like it or not, people are free, which means that normal ethical systems are simply false: it is wrong to expect people to decide based on formulas, as though there is only one way to “win” at life and one objectively correct action in each situation. This kind of ethics assumes the impossible perspective of “the plane of the universal,” claiming to look down on all humanity from the philosopher’s privileged viewpoint—which, in reality, can never be infinite because all human life is finite. Secondly, de Beauvoir thinks that only existentialism makes room for a concept of evil. If “the moral world is the world genuinely willed by man,” evil must be the product of will, not error or nature. And yet most forms of ethics simply see evil as a regrettable part of human nature, the product of moral error along the path to moral good, or the result of some other external factor. Under existentialism, people can either choose to pursue their freedom and define themselves (a moral good) or choose to deny or evade their freedom (which is moral evil). This means that, except for in situations of oppression in which people have no possibility of pursuing their freedom, people are wholly responsible for their good or evil will and actions. In fact, de Beauvoir notes that many people see existentialism as “gloomy” precisely because it holds people responsible for their wrong actions, but she argues that these critics are used to overly optimistic philosophies that promise them an impossible moral perfection rather than facing the reality of what is possible in an individual human life: a definite, finite contribution to the freedom of the human species.
Although many observers have accused them of doing away with morality, De Beauvoir and her fellow existentialists fully agree that it is necessary to conceive of people’s actions in terms of good and evil. Their ethical innovation is not making morality relative but rather showing that the way ethics has been done in the past—through appeals to abstract rules—is an inadequate solution for the problems that ethics needs to solve: the concrete dilemmas that individuals face in their particular life situations. Instead, then, existentialism makes ethics about how people orient themselves toward their own freedom and future, considerations which de Beauvoir thinks are necessary for any system to truly provide an account of what is ethical.
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Existentialism and Ethics Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.