Unlike many philosophers who see individual action and decision-making as separate issues to be judged by separate criteria, for de Beauvoir the political and the ethical are continuous: it is impossible to act ethically without taking into account the interests of other people, or to make political decisions that are not also ethical ones. Accordingly, de Beauvoir spends the last portion of her book exploring existentialism’s implications for politics, especially in terms of how oppressed people should deal with their predicament. While she argues that “crime and tyranny” are sometimes the only way to create freedom in the face of oppression, she also considers it essential that revolutionaries do not themselves become oppressors once they seize power. Just as de Beauvoir thinks individuals inevitably fail to meet their lofty moral goals, yet must strive for them nonetheless, she thinks that a perfect society is impossible, but it is still imperative to work for a better society—even when violence is the only means to do so.
For de Beauvoir, there is no strict division between the ethical and the political. Contrary to those who see existentialism as a solipsistic doctrine, meaning that it is entirely focused on individual morality and gives people no reason to worry about anyone else’s interests, de Beauvoir (like Sartre) argues that anyone’s freedom is actually interdependent on the freedom of everyone else. This is true concretely, because one remains free to act in the world only when others are not oppressing them, and because one’s individual decisions inevitably have effects for other people. Without other people, there is no future toward which one’s actions can build. And it is also true theoretically, in the sense that every individual’s pursuit of their own individual projects is also the pursuit of a vision of how the world as a whole could be if their projects were completed, and so each individual tries to “forge valid laws for all” in pursuing their ideals. Accordingly, to act ethically is to implicate other people (and their particular interests) in the consequences of one’s actions, and to act politically is to pursue a personal project in conjunction with a collective one.
De Beauvoir highlights how oppression sets limit on freedom—this is why it is evil and needs to be overcome. Most straightforwardly, oppression often keeps people in a childlike or serious state. Some people remain like children because of oppression: they are so disempowered that none of their actions have any real consequences, and so they can never realize their freedom. For instance, in most contemporary societies women’s desires and abilities are seldom taken seriously, and many women simply serve other people’s ends because they never gain the resources necessary to understand their freedom and potential to pursue their own desires and interests outside the framework of patriarchy. Tyrants and oppressors keep people in a state of subjugation by reducing them to their facticity. Oppressed people become defined by what they are externally (a certain color, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, lineage, sexuality, economic status, and so on) but never by the most distinctive part of any human being’s identity: their freedom and what they choose to do with it. Many tyrants also turn their followers and themselves into things, seeing their followers as mere instruments in their own quest for power and seeing themselves in terms of the facticity of their power, rather than in terms of their own humanity.
While overcoming oppression is absolutely paramount for de Beauvoir, it is never a cut-and-dry process. In fact, movements responding to oppression can easily turn oppressive themselves when they too easily trample on freedom in their attempt to restore it. At the same time, however, sometimes this trampling is necessary, and much of de Beauvoir’s third section concerns how to defeat the oppressor without installing a new form of oppression. For instance, in the most severe situations, the only appropriate response is pure revolt. Yet people accustomed to revolt often become paralyzed, serious, or nihilistic when they do need to make a positive plan for the future. In such conditions, the oppressed must turn the oppressor into an object for the sake of the freedom struggle, often through violence, precisely because the oppressor does not see the oppressed as human and therefore is willing to trample on their own fundamental freedom. Violence is always immoral, but de Beauvoir thinks it is sometimes necessary in order to open a free future. She does not believe in moral perfection, for ethics and freedom only exist because humans are inevitably imperfect, and “the world has always been at war and always will be”; accordingly, she sees it as perfectly plausible that violence might be the only means to reduce violence in the long term and thinks that politicians and revolutionaries who promise a peaceful and fulfilling future are deceptive. Many supposed revolutionaries (like the Soviets) turn into authoritarians by deciding they are willing to sacrifice any other freedom for the sake of their cause, but ethical ones vigilantly weigh the full impact of every action, taking into account its impact on everyone’s freedom. To achieve this vigilance, de Beauvoir thinks that revolutionary movements should allow and seriously weigh internal criticism, both because it improves the movement and, more fundamentally, because such movements are founded precisely on the principle of free resistance to power.
Although de Beauvoir’s book is centrally about ethics, it is clear that she chooses to cover these political themes not only because existentialism rejects the distinction between politics and ethics but also as part of her own personal project, in order to help liberation struggles through her own platform as a public intellectual. Her examples of oppression and revolt, particularly with respect to French colonial Africa and World War II, are carefully chosen to show both the moral pitfalls of blind revolt and the necessity of doing everything realistic to fight the structures of oppression that continue to encircle a significant proportion of humankind.
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation ThemeTracker
Politics, Ethics, and Liberation Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
We repudiate all idealisms, mysticisms, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.
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.