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A Closer Look at Simone de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity
Exploring the concepts of freedom, oppression, and ethical decision making in a complex world
“Man exists. For him, it is not a question of wondering whether his presence in the world is useful, whether life is worth the trouble of being lived. These questions make no sense. It is a matter of knowing whether he wants to live and under what condition.”
Simone de Beauvoir despises fascism. She despises oppressors in general and collaborators in particular. This whole book is written with the intention to rid the world of everyone who dares to interfere with the freedom of others. Everyone has to realize instead that everyone’s freedom is inextricably interwoven. You cannot truly be free as long as others are not.
This was a hard summary to write. It almost feels like the book does not want to be compressible. Which would fit the theme of all our lives and aims being ambiguous, and every decision being unique and complex. If you really want to understand what I mean here, you will have to read the book yourself.
This book does not give easy answers. Not because it does not want to, but because there are none. Written in the aftermath of World War II, de Beauvoir highlights the fact that difficult circumstances often force individuals to make difficult choices, and if one is committed to promoting the freedom of others, such choices cannot be avoided. The book’s main focus is on exploring how to make such ethical decisions that account for the complexity and ambiguity of the reality we life in.
I see the book as being structured into three main lines of arguments:
What freedom is, how you realize and what errors people run into, while trying to realize it.
How oppressors take away our freedom and what arguments they use to justify this.
How you can act in the world, to both realize your own freedom and that of others, and fight oppression.
What is freedom? How do you realize it? Where can you go wrong?
Existentialism is focused on freedom, because it sees it as the only given in our life. Once you have become conscious, you have to make decisions, there’s no way around it. You always have the freedom to choose, the only price you have to pay are the consequences of your decisions. But apart from this, the universe does not provide any guidance about how you should live your life. We have to create our own meaning. De Beauvoir thinks we do this by realizing ourselves with projects. Those projects can be anything and last for a day or a lifetime. The only thing that matters is that they allow us to act on the world. By acting on the world we create meaning. This meaning will always be transient and ambiguous. We cannot conserve it in our little corner of space-time. Projects are only done by acting. Once they are finished we have to find a new one and thus our life is a continuous self-actualization by projects. This implies that each individual’s freedom is highly individual and personal. Although we may have some shared projects with others, the specific set of projects we choose to pursue is entirely up to us.
Actualizing our freedom can be challenging, and we are always at risk of failure. This can be overwhelming for some individuals, leading them to surrender their freedom and seek external sources to relieve them of their burden. This decision to engage with freedom is called “moment of justification” by de Beauvoir. It is occurring again and again, every time we have to make a decision. We can always revoke our decision, but once you reject freedom, it will become ever more difficult to opt for it again.
Based on how people engage with their freedom, De Beauvoir developed a range of archetypes. Those differ by how much they realize their own freedom and that of others. There is no direct hierarchy between them, and you can always transition from one to the other, depending on how you choose to live your freedom.
”Nobody can know the peace of the tomb while he is alive.”
A person who rejects existing. They have no connection to the world, and the only thing they crave is to forget that they are conscious and free. An example would be a person that plays video games all day, every day, so they never have to engage with life.
The Serious Man
“The serious man wills himself to be a god, but he is not one and knows it.”
The serious man tries to evade the burden of freedom by finding a cause that explains the world for them, so they do not have to make decisions. An example for this is someone who takes religious rules as an objective fact about the world, while ignoring that they themselves chose this to be their object.
“He wants to be nothing, and this nothing that he dreams of is still another sort of being,…“
A Serious Man who realized that their object is not an objective truth after all. From this shock, they conclude that nothing has meaning in this world. What they don’t understand is that their rejection of the world is still freely chosen by them, and that they could decide differently at any time.
“His fault is believing that one can do something for oneself without others and even against them.”
The adventurer understands that freedom is the only constant. Working towards your goals is more important than reaching them. However, the adventurer does not understand that their freedom is connected to that of everyone else. So they act on the world, as if they were alone in the universe, ignoring the oppression of others.
The Passionate Man
“The passionate man seeks possession; he seeks to attain being.”
Like the Serious Man, the Passionate Man also has an object which they see as an absolute. The key distinction between the two is that the Serious Man passively accepts the first object they encounter, while the Passionate Man actively selects their own object. Despite this, both the Serious Man and the Passionate Man tend to view themselves and their object as one. Redemption for the Passionate Man is possible when they acknowledge the inherent separation between themselves and their object.
The Free Man
”Only the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity”
Only if you avoid all those pitfalls, can you become a Free Man. A person who realizes their own freedom, but who understands that your freedom isn’t just about you, it also involves the freedom of those around you. Your freedom is connected to the freedom of others and it’s difficult to truly understand and experience your freedom if those around you are not also free. By recognizing and engaging with the freedom of others, we can continue to push the boundaries of our own freedom and transcend the limitations of our individual circumstances.
How do oppressors take away our freedom, and how do they justify this?
Only other humans can stand between us and freedom. Neither the chance of failure, nor the certainty of death, can take away our freedom. Both are merely facts of existence. Here de Beauvoir criticizes stoicism, as it sees humans as disconnected and everyone being only responsible for themselves. However, in the presence of oppressors, one’s choices are limited to being against them, being one of them, or being a collaborator who allows oppression to continue through their inaction. You cannot simply focus on yourself and your actions alone. You have to pick a side. Refusing to take a side is just playing into the hands of the oppressors.
Over the ages, oppressors have devised various justifications for their oppressive actions, but de Beauvoir is having none of it:
The state of nature
Claim: The state we are currently living in is just natural and should not be disturbed.
Response: For example, giving women less pay is fine, because their natural state is sacrificing themselves for others, and they actually don’t want to work, but instead start a family and care for children. In reality, there is nothing like “a natural state”. Oppressors simply take a random snapshot of the past and define it as natural. This is arbitrary and has to be rejected.
The burden of freedom
Claim: We should not confront people with their freedom, because they won’t be able to handle it.
Response: By hiding their freedom from others, we are taking away their freedom of choice. People can handle freedom, but when you make them realize it, you have to support them. You should be helping other people realize their freedom. Obviously, if someone is oppressed, and you tell them they are free, they gain nothing. You also have to provide the resources to end their oppression.
The lost privilege
Claim: Oppressors object in giving other people their freedom, because this would diminish their own freedom.
Response: This simply is not honest, because everything you lose when others realize their freedom are privileges you had no right to have in the first place. Losing privilege and losing freedom are two quite distinct things, and we should not allow oppressors to muddle the boundary.
The glorious past
Claim: Oppression is necessary to keep the great structures intact that we built in the past.
Response: We can still try to uphold values of the past. But old rituals only have a right to exist, as long as they help people to realize their freedom. They are not valuable in themselves. If you want to have a future, you will need the freedom to act in the present.
The total future
Claim: We have to sacrifice our freedom today, as it will allow us to realize a total future, where we will finally be free to strive. All struggles will be resolved.
Response: We can only realize ourselves by following our projects. This includes the chance of failure, which means struggle. So the total future does not exist, as struggle is always a given.
The aesthetic attitude
Claim: You cannot increase the freedom of others, because freedom is always total.
Response: This argument relieves you of the struggle to act in the world, because there is nothing you could do. Everything is already established. However, those who argue like this only try to escape freedom. They want to be content in being merely spectators of history, detached from the struggles of others. This path only helps the oppressors.
The all-important object
Claim: We cannot have freedom, because it would disrupt the stability of our object (e.g. religion, nation states). As the object is so important, it is also justifiable to sacrifice everyone needed for its success.
Response: This takes away the value from the individual and concentrates all of it in the object. However, to have value in a society, the parts of that society also have to have a value. With worthless individuals, you could only construct a worthless society. Therefore, the value has to come from the individuals, and thus they cannot be sacrificed so easily. De Beauvoir also applies this argument to the idea of utility, which is also often used as the object to justify oppression and violence. Utility, no matter how you define it, remains a subjective concept:
“So much so that the terms “useful to man”, “useful to his man”, do not overlap. Universal absolute man exists nowhere. From this angle, we again come upon the same antimony: the only justification of sacrifice is utility; but the useful is what serves Man. In order to serve some men, we must do disservice to others. By what principle are we to choose between them?”
How can you act in an ambiguous world?
The ethics of ambiguity reject all a priori justifications: “The fact is that no behavior is ever authorized to begin with, and one of the concrete consequences of existentialist ethics is the rejection of all previous justifications which might be drawn from the civilization, the age, and the culture; it is the rejection of every principle of Authority.”
De Beauvoir believes that the particulars of an ethical decision are always unique. Therefore, there cannot be pre-made solutions, and we cannot construct a one-fits-all framework of morality. Such a thing does not exist. We can try to construct it, but it will only be a mirror of our subjective preferences.
In this way, ethics is similar to art and science. You can never be sure that you are doing the right thing. This is why it’s important to explore all the possibilities that are available to you. This exploration creates a “space of possibilities” in which you can make informed decisions. Yet, you always have to take into account the concrete situation, and accept that you are responsible. The more you accept your responsibility, the more justified your decisions will be, even if they lead to failure. This acceptance will push you to evaluate the particulars of the situation and make the best decision you can, given the constraints of the situation and your knowledge about it. Nothing more can be expected of you. Only time will tell you if you made the right call.
Should I kill a single person, to save ten others? It depends on the particular situation. You cannot make a general claim. Not here, not anywhere.
You might ask: “Where is the point to switch between such options?”, but the answer can only be that I don’t know, and you can’t either. We can just look at the situation, accept our responsibility for others and make a judgment call, based on how we see the situation at this very moment.
This struggle will always be hard and everyone will suffer, be it us and our friends, be it the oppressors and their collaborators.
“Every war, every revolution, demands the sacrifice of a generation, of a collectivity, by those who undertake it”.
De Beauvoir warns us: Humans tend to become oppressors slowly over time, when they stop to fight against oppression. We get complacent and only focus on our own life, accepting that for our quiet life, others have to suffer.
You must not think that you are doing the morally right thing. If you are certain, you have taken a shortcut somewhere and ignored the ambiguity of the world. If you think this sounds demanding, de Beauvoir would agree. The Ethics of Ambiguity aren’t meant to be easy, because the world we live in isn’t. But the struggle is worth it. It brings us closer to a present where we try to enhance each other’s lives, not oppress them. I’ll leave you with the sentences from the book, which I think best summarize these core ideas:
“Man is free; but he finds his law in this very freedom. First, he must assume his freedom and not flee it; he assumes it by a constructive movement: one does not exist without doing something; and also by a negative movement which rejects oppression for oneself and others.”