An Essay on Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity

This is an essay I wrote this semester on Simone De Beauvoir’s expansion on the ethical framework for Existentialism in the Ethics of Ambiguity. It only covers the first two chapters, and references some works by Sartre.

The Existential Relevance of The Ethics of Ambiguity

In Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism Sartre gives us an example of having to make a choice between going to war or staying to help ones family (Sartre 2007, 30). The case study explores the responsibility one can feel towards duty but also towards family, and how whichever choice you make requires you to be responsible for choosing not to do the other. Making choices when there are no clear answers is a central theme in the existentialist project. One of existentialisms central tenets is that we are burdened by responsibility and our freedom, that in a world where there is no objective morality to appeal to, that we have only ourselves to rely on.  The first two chapters in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity do not tell us anymore about which option to choose. To do so, would be to contradict the subjectivity that the existentialist enterprise values. Rather, Beauvoir’s ethics provide an in depth understanding of what these ethics look like when fully realized in relation to freedom and responsibility. This essay will examine the relationship The Ethics of Ambiguity has to the larger existentialist project. This essay will argue that Beauvoir’s ethical framework helps fix certain pitfalls in existentialism and compliments Sartre’s existentialist writing by framing the discourse around the pragmatic nature of the burden of responsibility. Furthermore, Beauvoir chooses to elaborate and clarify the ethics that would be borne from existentialism.

Beauvoir’s definition of ambiguity is itself ambiguous in the ethics; however, it is imperative to understanding the relationship between The Ethics of Ambiguity and the larger existentialist discourse. The reason ethics are ambiguous in existentialism is because they deal with two things we might normally consider to be contradictory, the interplay between the subjective and the objective. Rather than being creatures of the utmost subjectivity, or creatures of pure realism, existentialism holds that we are subjective creatures that are affected by the larger world. Existentialism heralds itself as the subjective ability to choose and make ourselves. In Freedom and Responsibility Sartre argues that because humans are free, we are also responsible for the world we occupy (Sartre n.d. 52). To some this might seem impossible. How can a subjective existence have an objective impact? Unlike what some of its detractors might say, existentialism does not hold that people live in a vacuum. The decisions people make are going to affect other people. Beauvoir argues that we can only really gain meaning in relation to others (Beauvoir 1948 72). It is only by denying this relationship and thereby denying our freedom that we fail to be ethical.

To understand the relationship between others and ourselves Beauvoir breaks down a series of archetypal character traits of people living in our society who either deny themselves freedom or others freedom. These archetypal people are not meant to deny the fact that any of these people have the freedom existentialists believe in, they still have a choice to act like existentialists, but instead point out ways that people deny themselves, and thereby fail to live ethical lives. As Sartre asserts even the person who gives themselves to a god is still making a choice to follow someone else’s moral schema (Sartre 2007 33). Beauvoir’s archetypes either deny their freedom (i.e. the sub-man, the serious, the nihilist) or they refuse to acknowledge their relations to others (the nihilist, the adventurer, the passionate, the artist). For Beauvoir these two concepts, freedom and responsibility, are intimately linked, and to miss one of them is to be separate from oneself. The very structure of existential ethics is premised around coinciding with oneself (Beauvoir 1948 13), to being in harmony with one’s own beliefs. This might seem self-serving, but it is unrealistic to assume that an ethical discourse is not going to be framed in relation to something beneficial to the follower (Beauvoir 1948 72).

While Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism is considered a foundational text for the existentialist movement, its choice to rely on vague catch-phrases like “Existence precedes essence” (Sartre 2007 22) is suitable for a public audience, but lacks the depth of a philosophical discourse. One of the places where Sartre’s ideas of responsibility appear unclear is in the pivotal moment of existing before having an essence. Young children cannot bear the same moral responsibility for their actions as adults; their lives are constructed by people around them (Beauvoir 1948 35). When Sartre says man first “encounters himself and only afterwards defines himself” (Sartre 2007 22) he ignores the period of time where one cannot really define oneself at the beginning of one’s existence. Beauvoir establishes this point in time as the beginning of a journey to acknowledging one’s inherent freedom.

Beauvoir thinks that for one to truly live ethically we eventually have to take the reins of our own life and be responsible for the well-being of ourselves and others. The first place where one can find a pitfall is in what Beauvoir calls the serious. The individual who willing gives their freedom to another entity, whether real or fake can feel as if they relinquish their responsibility. Whether one willingly submits to the morality of a god, blindly follows the laws of their country, or embraces uncritical scientism, the individual is still attempting to deny and subvert their inherent freedom and responsibility. Sartre makes this point explicit in Freedom and Responsibility by positioning the choice of an individual to fight in a war or retreat. Sure, one could attempt to divest oneself of responsibility by saying that one was just an accomplice, and not the wars creator, but by actively choosing to join the war as opposed to taking jail time, one is accepting responsibility for the war (Sartre n.d. 55). The fault of the serious is similar in that the choice to accept someone else’s moral schema as opposed to critically determining your own is to attempt to subvert your own subjective criticality. This does not make your freedom any less existent, but merely provides the individual with a false scapegoat for moral failings.

A criticism that could be raised around the existential narrative that Beauvoir and Sartre create is around the idea of privilege. One could argue that the person did not really have a choice in the matter because they were raised into a particular society, at a particular time, or they lacked the capital to be able to truly make a choice. The ideas of privilege are wound up in what Beauvoir calls facticity. Facticity in existentialism is centered on all the social constructions that a third person might relate with an individual, such as race, class, and gender (Crowell 2010). Facticity pertains to all of the things we cannot have control of, and that are contingent on the time and place we exist in. Beauvoir argues that the free individual transcends these ideas, and works around them, as opposed to being defined by them (Beauvoir 1948 71). Those who are not in positions of power will feel like there is no escape, and that they have to play the role given by a deterministic society or god. Beauvoir rejects this assertion granting that while it might seem impossible for an individual to realize their potential that does not take away from the possibility of their escaping. If anything, existentialism points out that forms of oppression are mythical in that they are not grounded in an objective reality. There is nothing that makes women or slaves inherently unequal to men for Beauvoir.

Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity demonstrates a lot of the theoretical positions that are assumed when one concludes that we are free and responsible for others. Beauvoir’s expansion upon concepts like freedom and responsibility, and the ethics that they entail are not just philosophical jargon, but practical conceptual frameworks for understanding what freedom entails in real life. Freedom does not just imply the ability to do anything; instead it is always framed in relation to other people in the world. By either rejecting the freedom of the individual, or rejecting our responsibility to others, we fail in coinciding with our own ethical principles in ways that are detrimental to us, and to the people around us. While we can choose to blame others for our uncritical lack of choices, we can only do so if we reject our own freedom and responsibility. For Beauvoir this is a critical failing of the human condition, and leads to unethical behaviour. It is only by acknowledging others that we can grant freedom to ourselves.

Crowell, Steven, “Existentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/existentialism/&gt;

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. Ed. John Kulka. Trans. Carol Macomber. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Freedom in Responsibility in Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, n.d. Print. (I was not sure if this was the source for the handout we were given in class, so I have put no date, because I am unsure of which publication this is from).

Beauvoir, Simone De, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Print.

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