The Ethics of Ambiguity


Simone De Beauvoir

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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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Because existentialists believe that individuals are, initially, nothing in particular—and therefore are in charge of freely defining and finding meaning in their own existences—freedom itself becomes their central value. For de Beauvoir, this freedom is not only the necessary starting point of any serious philosophy, but also the precise reason that existentialism must refrain from absolutely defining morality for people who are ultimately free to make their own decisions, as well as the ultimate end point of moral action itself. This last point is crucial: moral action, according to de Beauvoir, is action undertaken precisely as part of a human will to freedom, because this is the final end behind all of the goals people choose for themselves. Accordingly, living a genuinely free life requires turning one’s basic or natural freedom into a moral freedom; this requires taking charge of one’s actions, and then directing one’s moral freedom towards goals that serve the cause of freedom itself.

Freedom is the starting point of existentialist philosophy because it is humans’ only fundamental trait. Therefore, an action’s respect for freedom is a reflection of its respect for humanity. Sartre famously argued that “existence precedes essence,” which means that people find themselves as living, thinking agents in the world before they have the chance to define what they are. (In the terms de Beauvoir uses here, it can be said that people have existence, but no singular, timeless being.) For existentialists, humans are not naturally destined to be anything at all; in other words, people are free to make what they want of themselves, within the circumstances into which they are born. In addition, freedom naturally pursues itself: de Beauvoir takes the example of an incarcerated person trying to break out of prison or an oppressed group’s revolt. When their freedom is denied by others, human beings generally care about nothing more than winning back that freedom. To de Beauvoir, any action that denies, flees from, or degrades freedom—whether one’s own or others’—is undermining people’s humanity. This is why she despises “serious” values received from an external source—ones to which people are so dedicated that they are willing to trample on others for the sake of what they arbitrarily consider “useful” (when, in reality, human freedom is the only end with any value in itself). A good example is the colonial bureaucrat who “contests the importance of the happiness, the comfort, the very life of the native, but he reveres the Highway, the Economy, the French Empire.” For de Beauvoir, nothing is more important than freedom, so it is wrong to destroy freedom in the name of anything besides freedom itself.

In fact, in existentialist ethics, not only is it wrong to destroy freedom, but freedom is actually the only true end of any ethical action. De Beauvoir sees the most important component of a moral attitude as the conceptually complex act of “will[ing] oneself free.” For de Beauvoir, free action should aim at “precisely the free movement of existence.” This might seem like a paradox, but what she means is that people should act so as to multiply their freedom, as well as the freedom of others. This means creating space for new projects and pursuits in the future, especially for those whose freedom is denied by oppression in the present. She also means that all other ends ultimately aim at freedom. For instance, political actions aim to create a free society, one learns in order to expand their capabilities of free action through knowledge, and people make art to affirm their creative freedom and help others understand the world so they gain a fuller capacity to act in the future. De Beauvoir distinguishes between “natural” and “moral” freedom. “Natural” freedom is the “original spontaneity” of everyone’s life: the fact that people do things of their own accord, without prompting or coercion from the outside. Yet it is possible to live out this natural freedom without pursuing any particular moral goals. Moral freedom is the ability to choose and pursue one’s own goals and projects, and existentialism’s task is to help people turn natural freedom into moral freedom.

Freedom is both the starting and ending point of de Beauvoir’s “ethics of ambiguity.” It is because of people’s natural freedom that they are morally free, and by developing this moral freedom, people gain the tools to become genuinely and completely free. But this genuine freedom requires that people direct their moral freedom toward the expansion of freedom itself, recognizing that all other goals are merely intermediary and that the absolute measure of human action is its contribution to “the triumph of freedom over facticity.”

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Freedom Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity

Below you will find the important quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity related to the theme of Freedom.
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:

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:

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 5 Quotes

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: