Simone de Beauvoir on The Ethics of Freedom

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. More here>

The Ethics of Ambiguity is worth reading in its entirety…