Simone de Beauvoir’s Existentialist Ethics
“As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance… They have denied death, either by integrating it with life or by promising to man immortality. Or, again they have denied life, considering it as a veil of illusion beneath which is hidden the truth of Nirvana… And the ethics which they have proposed to their disciples has always pursued the same goal. It has been a matter of eliminating the ambiguity by making oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment.” (Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, pp. 1)
One of the fundamental principles of existentialist philosophy is that we constantly and naturally box ourselves into something comfortable, rather than embracing our freedom. We’re in a constant state of ambiguity; who we are isn’t who we think we could be, and that can be worrisome. In an attempt to escape this feeling of ambiguity, we try to tell ourselves things (in bad faith! ahem) that will make us feel more at ease. For example, the long-time waiter who hates his job, when asked why he doesn’t find another, will say, “I’m a waiter, that’s what I’ve always done, it pays the bills” etc. etc. In doing this, we restrict ourselves to some sort of confinement that does not truly exist. While escaping this ambiguity, we lean towards either our facticity — the facts that are true about us — or our transcendence — the possibilities of who we can be, to define who we are.
Ultimately, we are still responsible for every decision we make, no matter how small or large they are. This can be a tough pill to swallow, but this means that we must take our responsibility seriously — everything we do adds to the definition of what it means to be a human being, to existentialist philosophy. Our freedom is the fundamental basis of our actions, Simone says, and though we make choices with this ambiguity in mind, without our freedom, these choices would have no meaning to them at all.
What, then, should we do to take advantage of our freedom? de Beauvoir states that we are responsible for willing the freedom of others throughout our lives, as the freedom of others keeps us from reducing ourselves to pure facticity.
Simone de Beauvoir lists five prominent, commonly-seen examples of people who attempt to escape their ambiguity:
- The “sub-man” is the worst type of person to de Beauvoir. de Beauvoir states: “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.” In other words, the sub-man restricts himself as much as possible to the world; in an attempt to perhaps escape his shortcomings, or to excuse any attempt to try anything, he claims that nothing merits effort. Nothing is that meaningful or worthwhile. de Beauvoir says that the most harmful quality of the sub-man is that he is most likely to become one of a mob; ignorant rhetoric appeals easily to the sub-man, since that’s the easiest thing to listen to. Online neo-nazis, for example, are sub-men.
- The “serious man” is one who dedicates his life staunchly to one particular cause, ideology, or set of values that he considers to be good. The serious man stops at nothing to achieve the cause, or embolden the ideology, even if it comes at the detriment of others. To de Beauvoir, the serious man doesn’t necessarily care about the cause as much as he does his ability to get lost in it. The serious man can sometimes be stumped in his beliefs, as even the strongest, most decent ideologies can have setbacks — but the serious man doesn’t care to listen. In doing so, the serious man denies his freedom and ability to reconsider and evolve his beliefs. Serious men are often prone to becoming sub-men if they fail to achieve their goals.
- The “nihilist” grows up, figures out that the values of the world are subjective, politicians do bad things, and rent isn’t cheap. In figuring this out, the nihilist asks, “Why bother?” and, like the sub-man, resists the world. However, rather than giving up on everything, like the sub-man, the nihilist rebels against the world’s subjectiveness and indecency. Simone de Beauvoir finds the nihilist more agreeable than the sub-man, because the nihilist has gotten something right, at least: the world possesses no justification, and he is merely a speck of dust in the universe’s timeline. But the nihilist, she says, denies his freedom by seeing his existence as just a means to death. The nihilist has figured out the ambiguity of his existence, but doesn’t transcend to freedom.
- The “adventurer” is probably the most common stereotype among existentialists. The adventurer understands the ambiguity of life, and attempts to transcend by doing as he pleases, whatever it may be. Simone de Beauvoir says that the adventurer is quite close to transcendence, because he throws himself into his personal passions and embraces freedom. However, the adventurer often steps on others to achieve his personal commitments. To de Beauvoir, true transcendence relies on the transcendence of others around you — after all, people must rely on each other to achieve their goals, in one way or another. The adventurer is always thinking about what to do next, and, in doing so, detaches himself from his true passions at hand.
- The “passionate man” shares similar qualities to the adventurer, in terms of understanding his ambiguity and taking advantage of his freedom; however, he does the exact opposite of what the adventurer does. The passionate man attaches himself to his personal projects, but does so too seriously — he forgets that in the natural state of ambiguity, one is never fully content with their desires. The passionate man lets his work define him.
Each one of these characters has, in some form or another, denied their freedom, and denied the freedom of others. When one realizes their freedom, de Beauvoir states, they must will the freedom of others. People should not be taken advantage of or undermined in one’s path to freedom; otherwise, they are not only denying the freedom of those around him, but denying their own freedom in the process. There is an obvious criticism that stems from this, of course: What about oppressors? Shouldn’t we deny them of their freedom? Yes, de Beauvoir says, and as strongly as possible.
Oppressors such as authoritarian governments or factions based on exploiting or subduing others are to be met with revolt — this is the pure exception to de Beauvoir’s rule. To de Beauvoir, oppressors are obviously denying the freedom of others, but also denying their own freedom, even if they may have power over others. The oppressed citizen who attempts to live a life that doesn’t conform to their oppressor’s standards is freer than the oppressor, after all. Sometimes, restricting the freedom of others may be more beneficial to expanding freedom than if we let oppression slide. de Beauvoir even states that violence may be necessary to restrict the oppressor. Trying to appease fascists through compromise or incrementalist policy only restricts the citizens’ freedom slightly less, and does so only over long periods of time. The oppressor still has power. If the free man or his comrades must die in revolting against the anti-democratic regime keeping them subdued, that free man will have lived a worthwhile life.
In conclusion, to Simone de Beauvoir, it is imperative that in realizing our freedom, we must also attempt to will the freedom of the citizens around us, for true freedom also depends on the freedom of your brothers and sisters. While man’s state of ambiguity is inherent and unstoppable, it’s important to embrace, rather than avoid, the freedom that comes with it. If revolt or violence is necessary to will the freedom of others, then it must be carried out. If everybody is able to realize their true freedom, to de Beauvoir, they wouldn’t need to look for a utopia — it would already be right there.