Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1948. In many ways, it can be read as a reaction to World War 2, an attempt to make sense of all that war entailed, and therefore teach us what it means to be human in the face of the worst atrocities we can imagine.
Writer Maria Popova describes the book as “a difficult but enormously rewarding read, exploring the existentialist tension between absolute freedom of choice and the constraints of life’s givens.”
The book is concerned with freedom, what it means to be free. But also the ethics of that freedom, and so de Beauvoir works to give us an ethical system that we can use.
She places humans at the center of her philosophy, describing the role we have in our own freedom. “One can not start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure.”
She explores not only this responsibility we have to ourselves to give our existence meaning but the responsibility we have to others in the actualization of their freedom. In doing so she defends humanity against the horrors it had just witnessed. She does not excuse them, but rather offers a path out. It is, in a sense, hopeful.
Turning away from the destruction of the War and the regimes that perpetrated it, she analyzes this space where we can continue to call ourselves human. A free man is one “whose end is the liberation of himself and others.”
She provides a powerful analysis of the types of men who are not free, and by doing so explains how we end up with war and oppression. She reveals the human condition to not be a universal. We all experience our being in this world differently depending on our engagement with it, and thus each type of man is categorized based on his treatment of others in the pursuit of his freedom.
First, there is the ‘sub-man’. A man who is far from freedom through the ongoing refusal to take ownership of his existence in the world.
The strange character of a universe with which he has created no bond also arouses fear in him. Weighted down by present events, he is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful spectres, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.
This passage reminds us that it is hard to be human. It is hard to embrace a precarious existence and find fulfillment in the transitory. But the description of the sub-man reminds us that it is important to try. To do otherwise, to avoid being, is to “manifest a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies.” The sub-man is the one who, to avoid disappointment, avoids in engaging. If he doesn’t try, he doesn’t fail.
Next, we have the ‘serious man’. This man is one who wraps the value of his existence in an external goal. Money, power, position, conquest – it is only by achieving these external objects that he feels his existence will be validated. And the result is that he never gets this validation because there is always someone with more. To pursue a life in this way is to be cursed to one of Dante’s rings of hell — a prescription for ensured perpetual unhappiness.
The serious man cannot ever admit to the subjectivity of his goals, that he himself identified them as such because to do so would be to acknowledge the subjectivity of his own existence.
Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.
Meaning has to come from within. But serious men wrap up the meaning of life in exterior constructs that they believe are universal. Money isn’t just important to him, it is important to everyone. De Beauvoir argues that this makes the serious man controlled by his goals, and therefore he sacrifices his freedom, and the freedom of others, to attain them. Achieving these goals is actually what breaks the serious man because he is then forced to acknowledge their subjectivity which undermines his understanding of his existence.
There is also ‘the adventurer’ a man who “throws himself into his undertakings with zest, into exploration, conquest, war, speculation, love, politics, but he does not attach himself to the end at which he aims; only the conquest.” He asserts his freedom quite forcefully. The problem is that he often undermines the freedom of others in the process. And to have your freedom at the expense of others is to participate in oppression.
Adventurers either do not understand that “every undertaking unfolds in a human world affects men,” or they willfully ignore it. We call it selfish. Like Don Juan, breaking the hearts of women just so his desire for conquest is fulfilled, hurting others to achieve your own fulfillment, doesn’t work.
Finally, there is the ‘passionate man’, who, like the adventurer, treats other men as things on the way to achieving his freedom. Passionate men also want to attain external goals, but unlike the serious man they acknowledge the subjectivity of them. These goals are, similarly, things to be possessed and through this possession, the passionate man believes he will confirm his existence. “The whole universe is perceived only as an ensemble of means or obstacles through which it is a matter of attaining the thing in which one has engaged his being.”
De Beauvoir advises that the passionate man, the closest of the four to freedom, must accept the eternal distance he has from the thing which he wants to possess. Love, happiness – freedom comes in recognizing there will always be a distance between us and these things yet aspiring to them anyway.
Her description of these different types of men is her way of trying to make sense of the behaviors of dictators and tyrants, the people who support them, and the people who carry out their orders.
Unlike many philosophers de Beauvoir does not assert that her description of ‘man’ is of all men. She acknowledges that not all humans have the same access to freedom.
Oppression is the result of fearful men trying to justify their existence. Unable to accept the ambiguities of being human they, as we have seen above, deny others freedom in order to validate their shallow attempts to give their life meaning. The reason these attempts are shallow is because they cannot embrace the transitory nature of existence. It is in trying to make existence concrete that the negative impact to other’s freedom manifests.
Why does the drive for freedom not ever die out completely in the oppressed? She does not spend a lot of time on this, but offers this remarkable passage: “Yet, with all this sordid resignation, there were children who played and laughed; and their smile exposed the lie of their oppressors: it was an appeal and a promise; it projected a future before the child, a man’s future. If in all oppressed countries, a child’s face is so moving, it is not that the child is more moving or that he has more of a right to happiness than the others; it is that he is the living affirmation of human transcendence: he is on the watch, he is an eager hand held out to the world, he is a hope, a project.” It is this that tyranny can never fully eliminate.
For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom. It is the process, not the outcome. This naturally leads to questions of ethics because if I want the freedom of others in pursuing my own freedom, I must have a system to evaluate conflicts. “To be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given towards an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison, but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.”
Her ethics are not absolutes – she strives to give us something we can actually use. She says “ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.”
To that end, we must constantly question our actions. “What distinguishes the tyrant from the man of good will is that the first rests in the certainty of his aims, whereas the second keeps asking himself, ‘Am I really working for the liberation of men? Isn’t this end contested by the sacrifices through which I aim at it?’” Rightness and goodness aren’t objective constructs that, once attained, we achieve forever. They do not exist independently in nature. They are concepts that evolve with the rest of it, with us, and so must we always evaluate our actions in light of the new knowledge and understanding we acquire along the way.
There are no perfect answers to ethical questions. In sacrificing one man to save many, de Beauvoir argues persuasively that sometimes this sacrifice will be justified and sometimes it will not. Sometimes temporary oppression of the minority will be the path to freedom for the majority. It is impossible to address all questions of morality in advance, and so “we can merely ask that such decisions be not taken hastily and lightly, and that, all things considered, the evil one inflicts be lesser than that which is being forestalled.”
Finally, we must also admit to humility. No one knows it all or has perfect understanding.
Oppressors are always opposed, for example, to the extension of universal suffrage by adducing the incompetence of the masses, of women, of the natives in the colonies; but this forgetting that man always has to decide by himself in the darkness, that he must want beyond what he knows.
The Ethics of Ambiguity is worth reading in its entirety.