Man, like no other thing in the physical universe, understands himself to be a paradox: a rational animal. Something with internality and higher consciousness that will also be crushed by the same physical processes that destroy the plants and the animals. He partially escapes from his natural condition, enough to have perspective on it, but not enough to conquer it. Since every man feels this ambiguity of their condition, different treatments have emerged
Philosophers have tried to reduce mind to matter, matter to mind, or synthesize them into a unified substance. Those who do not eschew the soul/body dichotomy, downplay the importance of the constitutive element of self not up for salvation. Death is either taken to be part of life or immortality is assured. What I think De Beauvoir means here when she says death is integrated into life, is that all of this, all this living and dying are just processes in a contingent world that one can see some deeper truth behind. Like Nirvana or the noumenological realm.
She claims the ethical point of views of those who deny death are predictable. They either emphasize 1) becoming internally ethically pure for immortality’s sake or 2) live in the moment. That whole Dave Matthew’s band ethos thing.
De Beauvoir thinks that these ethics really don’t console our paradoxical condition and if anything heighten it nowadays. Man recognizes that all action ought to be subordinated to him as supreme end; however, he simultaneously senses in dramatically new ways his fragility. The instruments of death and physical mastery over the world, lead him to believe he is but an insect or a spec that can be annihilated at any moment. De Beauvoir wants to stare this ambiguity of man’s condition down. She does not want to hide from the fact that man is something unique in the physical order that feels more insignificant than ever.
De Beauvoir stipulates that this thinking reed that is man has his absolute goal in moral action; however, given the comprehension that ethical performance will not transform him or save him from his delicate and impermanent status, it is easy to throw in the towel on ethical projects. What’s the use? Isn’t all of man’s ethical passion useless?
De Beauvoir thinks this talk of uselessness or usefulness is silly, for it is socially constructed culture that determines what is useful or useless. Before these societies existed, things were not useful or useless. Objectively speaking nothing is useful. Nothing from the outside can justify man’s ethical passion.
There can be internally justifying reasons. What might they be? What De Beauvoir seems to be saying is that by disclosing myself as an ethical being, I remove myself from the world and create something with intentionality. Something that is at least as beautiful as the other wonders of the physical world and may in some sense preserve our feelings of superiority over them. These are the internal reasons for choosing ethical existence if I have understood her correctly so far.
De Beauvoir calls this move towards ethical existence in light of man’s ambiguous condition “Existentialist Conversion”. Now ethical existence or the almost ironically asserted “to be” understands the truth of our demise and limits notions that human finitude will be transcended. This does not mean we cannot have life projects or passions since we grasp the inevitability of our death. The existentialist conversion guards against the impulse of turning such ambitions into Absolutes. Further, No foreign God will matter to the genuinely existing man. He is concerned with what is right in his eyes, not God’s. Genuinely existing man will not care for unconditional values either for they thwart his freedom.
Values, on this perspective, emerge organically and it is up to man decide if a) he wants to live and b) what values he wants to structure his life by. If we can all play jazz with ethics, meaning we play fast and loose with them, what would De Beauvoir say to the critique that the existentialist conversion is dangerous for it permits all ethical permutations, even things we would find abhorrent?
De Beauvoir actually thinks the stakes are higher if God isn’t in the picture. If God is in the picture and we are following prescribed unconditional values, we are actors on a strange planet acting out a strange plan. If we err, God can forgive all and erase our mistakes. In existential conversion, ethical activity matters more. What we do is forever inscribed upon the earth and there is no one to save us. It is up to us to give our lives meaning.
That may be all fine and good, but has Simone answered the concern about heinous relativism? Is there no objective content to her perspective? Is De Beauvoir advocating something irreducibly solipsistic? She seems to think that it is possible for an ethics of ambiguity, a system of values that we individually generate and project onto the world to give our lives meaning, to be integrated with other subjects’ freedom in order to create laws valid for everyone within a society.
De Beauvoir notes that the issue of value creation is not endemic to existentialism alone. Marxism, she claims, does the exact same thing. Individuals respond against conditions in order to set up new definitions of good and bad. Her critique of Marxism is manifold; however, one of the biggest issues is the notion that the proletariat is monolithic. That it must exist as the party says it is to exist in every country at every time. She rightly sees something suppressive about this. How can marxism fashion new values and then claim they are unconditional? She grasps the absurdity of that idea. How can all this talk of revolutionary freedom occur with a straight face, when self-determination is relocated to party leaders? Further, freedom is doubly problematic for marxists because class warfare, supremacy, and utopia are simply the result of world historical forces. It nauseates De Beauvoir to hear marxists extol the otherworldly virtues of deceased party leaders and those who gave their lives for collectivism. How can they praise virtue if there is so little personal freedom within the marxist ideology and virtue is already understood as either reactionary fantasy or mere mechanical means for ushering in a collectivist state? It just seems so odd to her. If existentialists believe in anything it is freedom. If the marxist program is conceptually flawed, where does De Beauvoir go from here?
De Beauvoir wants to find a universal principle of action that correlates with the freedom of existential conversion. Since the existentialist perspective is one not driven by transcendence, such a principle has to be motivated by a disclosure of our being. To rip ourselves out of the world and become expressions of freedom. Without freedom, we cannot have values or significance. Freedom justifies our existence. One cannot be moral if one does not will freedom
Just for a reminder. Freedom is not naturally given. Freedom is the transition from animality to morality, when we posit ourselves as ethical beings. Animals and moral dullards do not have this ethical freedom. De Beauvoir intends for genuine freedom to be spoken of in the moral sense of the word. It is unlike the freedom to zig rather than zag when one is hunted down by a lioness.
Alright, Time to learn a little of the content of this Ethics of Ambiguity. De Beauvoir thinks freedom and the ethical project cannot happen in childhood for the child is incapable of grasping his actions or projecting himself into the future. Whatever act we choose must be an end that we will indefinitely. That we must live with long after it is chosen. It cannot transform into some dumb fact of our biography. We have to act in such a way that it is internally justified within our ethical project. We have to continuously live with our choice.
Simone acknowledges that there will be resistance and obstacles to our projects of ethical freedom. That’s reality. I can try and try and try to get a record deal as a dude in my mid-30s. It just might not be in the cards given certain artistic and market conditions. The issue here is not to look at my failed project with disgust, but to see at as definitely preferable than the dark passivity of never asserting oneself in the first place. And if the door is slammed in our face, we can retain some abstract conception of freedom by resigning from an ethical project altogether. There is certainly heartbreak in it; however, it can also be coupled with joy for we can reassert ourselves in new ways with endless possibilities, such as using the internet to bring philosophy to the people! De Beauvoir’s conception of freedom is never meant to condemn us if our projects fail. It is to breathe new life into us precisely when they do. If we end up in a Sisyphean scenario, forever pushing a boulder up a hill only to have roll back upon us, we experience the most dreadful form of existence. Sidebar: This is why de Beauvoir thinks life imprisonment is the worst form of punishment conceived. It preserves life yet rips away all possibility. Death almost seems preferable to life imprisonment. De Beauvoir actually thinks there are very few situations, where we cannot revolt against obstacles and reassert our freedom. If we find ourselves in such a situation, where all possibility has been drained away, de Beauvoir leaves the door open to one final act of moral freedom and revolt: suicide.
In the closing of the first chapter of the Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir considers the charge that existentialist ethics cannot account for a bad will. Why would anyone choose to be immoral? de Beauvoir thinks it impossible to choose evil, to choose non-existence, to choose to not to be free. The life of man has no significance or meaning without ethical existence. The anguish and despair involved not in asserting one’s moral freedom is never going to be preferable than an ethical undertaking. So then why do individuals remain in their negativity if they don’t choose it? Why do they remain a lack or an absence? What about the anguish causes them to commit error in so many ways and not come into being? de Beauvoir will take this question up next chapter.
de Beauvoir makes the curious statement that a person’s immoral choices are predicated upon his experience of childhood. What is she getting at here? To understand what she is saying, we have to know something of the child’s situation. The child is cast into a world governed entirely by absolutes. Everything is named for him. All morality is established for him. His parents are unquestioned Gods. There is no ambiguity in this defined world.
de Beauvoir says the child lives in a serious world for the child’s values are ready made for him. That is the definition of serious for de Beauvoir. When something is ready-made. This however does not mean that the child is serious. Far from it! The child, precisely because he grasps his insignificance in this serious world, joyfully enjoys his irresponsibility. This does not mean that the child believes himself not to be a definitive subject. He enjoys being a good little boy and whatever imperfections he has, he believes they will be magically resolved one day when he is a heroic spaceman or a doctor or whatever. In the meantime, he just doesn’t think he has much affect upon the world and can’t really conceive of that responsibility. The child is in what de Beauvoir calls a state of “metaphysical privilege”. Because the child cannot sense his freedom or effect upon the world, there is none of the accompanying anguish and agony that us adults experience.
De Beauvoir goes on to say some very controversial things next. Please do not shoot the messenger. She says that because of oppression and living in a defined and serious world, certain demographics are infantilized and their situation is analogous to that of children. She says this of people who have been enslaved and of women who have been systematically oppressed by males. I think she intends to advance the cause of oppressed peoples with this insight, but I can’t imagine anyone is going to like the idea of her comparing such populations to children. It’s not super important to her project, I think, but it is there in black and white if you want to challenge her on it. Her words, not mine. Do what you want with her thought. Moving on.
de Beauvoir claims that the infantile state of children cannot go on forever and that it typically meets its end in adolescence when it becomes evident to the subject that all that is given is not so certain and those Gods he perceived to be authorities can be deeply flawed human beings. It also becomes obvious that the child will have to enter into the world and actually affect it and make choices that somehow etch a story upon the earth. This becomes a bit of a crisis for the adolescent. The certain and ready-made world that was given to him in childhood is disintegrating. What will he do with this new form of liberation? Now that the adolescent knows that he is free to affect the world, he begins to make decisions that will come to affect the rest of his life. How he decides to act at this crucial time will gradually become habituated and engrained. Going forward, De Beauvoir needs to explain why bad character gets formed here. Why do mendacious characteristics occur here that then have catastrophic affects in adulthood?
Continuing on with her investigations and conclusions concerning childhood, de Beauvoir claims that the child builds a character, unbeknownst to him, incrementally in this state of joyful irresponsibility. Ironically, the child acts in whatever way he sees fit because he can’t grasp how any of his actions will have an impact, but those character traits add up and are engraved upon his being. de Beauvoir likens it to predestination, except we are participants in this intractable character we are building. We just don’t realize we are building it at the time.
If I understand de Beauvoir correctly, when our existential freedom is realized we have the opportunity to disclose ourselves with intelligence and vitality to the world in our ethical projects. That is why this can be spoken of as an conversion; whereas those who are afraid of this ethical projection are still dictated by all the idiosyncrasies cultivated in the seemingly innocuous play of insignificant childhood. She calls such beings that do not embrace ethical passion sub-men. They are terrified of asserting themselves as an ethical project. Interestingly enough, since the sub-man endures by holding on to sometimes egregious imperfections by not ethically existing, existence is remarkably boring for him. He has no projects and the world is nude and uninteresting to him. I suspect this is going to be a crucial crossroads for our subject and how he experiences the corrupting effects of evil.
The sub-man, according to de Beauvoir, does not dumbly subsist off of some form of lower happiness. Nope, existence exercises it’s constraints, as another great philosopher is inclined to say, and even in his unactualized state the sub-man experiences agony, suffering, and the contempt from others for not making something of himself. For not joining us in the ethical project of signification. His life is a misery. These negative feelings lead him to violence in words and actions and in the face of uncertainty and endless possibility, he takes refuge in all he knows. Ready-made values. Just as he did when he was a child. Here is the danger. Him taking up refuge in ready made values means that he can be co-opted by nearly any movement. The sub-men are the people fanatics employ to do their dirty work. How far would any fanatical group get without their sub-men. How far would the death cults reach without sub-men? The sub-man’s evasion of the ethical project means he scrapes through a wilderness of meaninglessness and ultimately negates himself by carrying out acts of fanatical death.
So we have a good grasp of the sub-man, right? When he senses his existential freedom and all the accompanying anguish, he either asserts his freedom positively in ethical projects, reverts to his inculcation, or is propagandized to and goes over to some strange and often dangerous objective ideology. Anything that will allow him to dishonestly negate his freedom with unconditional value. The subman, regardless of profession, chooses to live in a child’s world of ready-made values. De Beauvoir notes that when escape appears unlikely from the world that is fashioned for him, the more man tends to stay in that ready made world. That is why she thinks enslaved people and women have stayed in these realms. They lacked a socio-economic way out. This is not a complete exoneration of oppressed peoples. It would be unjust to say it impossible for them to raise themselves to the realm of existential morality and rebel against the universe defined for them. Oppressed peoples often resign too easily on her view.
You might be saying to yourself, so what? So what if I take these absolutes given to me and make them my ultimate end? What if we prefer illusion to truth? de Beauvoir is saying that you then turn yourself into a slave for unconditional values. A life lives you rather than you living the life. The only thing that ought to be unconditionally willed is your ethical freedom, despite how hard that may seem. Further, if you unthinkingly adopt this ready made universe, you not only negate your own subjectivity, but the freedom and subjectivity of others. If you subscribe without ethical reflection to totalitarianism or communism or the military or whatever, you will take other lives with you in the process. So when you adopt the given world, you potentially negatively affect much more than yourself. Depending on which ideology you choose, you could destroy countless others.
de Beauvoir notes that the sub-man can be quite a strange fellow. She points out how easily they can ridicule others who have in a similar fashion abdicated their freedom and accepted their own forms of unconditional value. Apparently, the irony is lost on them. Think of cultural Christians who make fun of those in other faiths. Further, she notes that submen can be incredibly intelligent people of high profession. Their professional technique may demand for them to disclose elevated intelligence; however, once they get out of their field, since they have not undergone existential conversion, they are frequently boorish, unsympathetic, and perhaps even dumb. Think of how a great doctor can be renowned in his field, but have a terrible bedside manner and be an absolute jerk to be around. All his intelligence and sympathy is focused on technique and not the proper ethical disclosure of himself. This would in part explain a unique phenomenon.
This would also sort of explain the phenomenon of the has-been. The person who was so great in a particular profession, but is lost and boring outside of it. The once inspiring general, may appear quite silly and sad once retired and out of the field. De Beauvoir offers hope that existential conversion can happen at any time and the individual can take up new projects once they’ve left the environment of unconditioned values behind.
de Beauvoir moves on to tell us a little of the subjective life of the subman. She says that his life is often filled with anxiety and preoccupation with forever establishing the idol to which he has devoted himself to. These unconditional values in a way put off his liberation and the reality of ambiguity; however, deep down he knows his endeavor to be pointless and that no amount of work will establish the eternality of the ideology he has devoted himself to. It’s a house of cards. He knows this, but is always prepared to steady it.
What happens if the subman realizes the arbitrariness of this propped up world? What if he fails within it? De Beauvoir says that is when Nihilism sneaks in. Nihilists deny the world and all value in it. De Beauvoir notes it is typically a perspective encountered in failure. What’s strange about the nihilist she believes is that in a way the nihilist likes having a ready made world to trample upon. He has not created an alternative, he just endlessly critiques the one that he is in. This reminds me of MTV’s Daria who gets kicks out of ridiculing all the submen around her or an individual who likes calling people sheeple. They sort of need the submen for their perverse entertainment.
The Demonical man is also very close to the serious or subman. The Demonical man senses his existential freedom; however, doesn’t assert it positively and his revolt against the established order only further confirms it and intimates that he really wants to believe in the unconditional values. Pretty twisted, but it does sound something like the psychology behind a comic book character. De Beauvoir hints that there are even more permutations of behavior in response to the anxiety of our freedom. Anarchism and Surrealism are proper contenders. She goes on about these, but obviously doesn’t see them as any better than the demonic, nihilistic, and subman perspective for even in their acts of countering all values a new set of unconditional values gets set up (i.e. the reflexive critique of anything moral or spiritual or artistic). So where do we go from here?
If the true nihilist is going to sustain his position and not merely be a respondent to the unconditional values given to him, he must assert himself with destructive positivity. If he has a thirst for nothingness, he cannot merely be a cynical teenager all his life. He must actually seize power somehow and level the world and all its institutions. Perhaps, Fight club is an example of this positively asserting nihilism. De Beauvoir thinks pervasive Nihilism is what attracted so many to Nazism. There nihilism found an apparatus of destruction, even if it meant the destruction of the individual involved in the movement. So in Naziism you had a co-mingling of submen who could not live in an undefined world and nihilists who wanted to raze the whole damn planet!
Here is a problem though. Doesn’t the positively asserting nihilist have a legitimate worldview on de Beauvoir’s Schema? He understands that there is no meaning to life. That’s what good existentialists think according to her. What he gets wrong, De Beauvoir claims, is that the Nihilist doesn’t understand we are supposed to imbue our lives with meaning and value through the exercise of our existential freedom. The nihilist fails to personally justify life and integrates violence into his gloomy perspective. The nihilist and the existentialists both grasp that there is no objective content; however, the nihilist rejects his freedom and seeks to establish a tyranny over all others. The existentialist wills freedom and presumably encourages others to embrace their own freedom and ethical projects.
So if Nihilism and its channeling into adventurous conquests and totalitarian regimes is at odds with existential freedom, what is the genuine free man supposed to do? Part of existential freedom involves alerting others to their ability to fashion the world according to values they project. This necessarily implies some limits to our own ethical actions and some above and beyond commitments of helping others discern their own freedom. An interesting aside here is that whether the Nihilist chooses to become an autocrat or a conquistador is almost entirely predicated on a favorable set of circumstances. Whatever brings him the most pleasure in the process of subjugation.
de Beauvoir takes a moment to itemize yet another character that fails at attaining existential conversion. To recap, we’ve gone over the subman, the nihilist, the nihilist gone on adventure, and the nihilist turned tyrant. Now we learn of the passionate man. The passionate man apparently does not match her definition of existential freedom for this individual sets up an absolute for himself and pursues it intensely. She contrasts him with the subman that sort of passively accepts unconditional value. The passionate man treats these unconditional values as definers of existence. She says that passionate people can produce beautiful things in their maniacal pursuit, but their lives are filled with such anguish attaining an end that in the end is absolutely meaningless. I wonder if this could be applied to me and my pursuit of validation through music. The desire to win a grammy and all that non-sense. Seems about right. But what is so wrong with the passionate man? Is the ethical existentialist devoid of anguish? What accounts for the difference? Isn’t there anguish in every subjective view? Why would this disqualify passion as a legitimate life perspective? Looks like it comes down to the freedom of others again. Apparently, the seclusion the passionate man requires in order to pursue his task is injurious to the collective development of freedom. He is just too preoccupied with himself to help others. She further claims that the passionate man may view others as obstacles to his fanatical ends and may end up treating them as such.
What do we know about an ethics of ambiguity thus far? 1) We know the ethics will consist of values we create 2) we know that it can be made compatible within a democratic society 3) We know that it wills existential freedom for the individual as its end and 4) it also, either directly or indirectly (I’m not sure yet) aims at the liberation of others from unconditional value. We have much more to learn before critiquing this paradigm.
What about the intellectual route? If being a subman won’t due, nihilism is unsustainable and leads to oppressive alternatives, and the passionate man is close to the tyrannous, what about being an intellectual? Can detaching ourselves from all this nonsense and absurdity that is life and transcending it via objective thought be a legitimate life perspective given our ambiguous situation? De Beauvoir thinks those who cling to objective truth are really just serving a different kind of unconditional value. They may give the illusion of being above it all and escaping this world, but they are assuming a prejudice and operating within a defined universe. Ever seen the certainty with which public intellectuals speak? I think some of them think they are actually gods. They aren’t so grand after all. So what the hell does she want us to do if intellectual activity is off the table as well?
What about artists? Nope, De Beauvoir says that Artists are trying to freeze a moment of time into an eternal instance and transform themselves into Gods in the process. A creator of art begins to see himself as the Absolute should his work become idolized. This is impermissible for there is no transcendence from this world. What are we supposed to do? It seems like nothing is good enough for de Beauvoir. No religion, no ideological movements, no nihilism, no adventure, no passion, no getting lost in objective thought, and no dedication to art! This is getting frustrating. We need to hear an alternative soon.
We keep hearing from De Beauvoir that the only authentic option is to disclose one’s self with moral freedom, but I have to admit that dictate still sounds rather vacuous in content and form. I itemized some features of ethical life, but we need more and we need to know how such a purview can be attached to any of these other life perspectives detailed. A point she is making is that it is in our best interest to will the ethical freedom of others for it prevents us from hardening into these universes of unconditional value and tyranny. So we are learning a little more. Freedom for all is something we will directly aim for. How exactly it keeps us from freezing into failed attempts at existence is not quite clear yet. Further, she claims that the freedom of other men, will justify our own lives. How that is the case we shall have to see. How are willing others free and my own freedom connected on the existentialist doctrine? I could take some guesses, but that doesn’t really serve any of us well at this juncture. Onward.
To make things clear, the ethics of ambiguity is not one that involves a disinterested meditative historical point of view. Objectively contemplating (or aesthetically considering) an autocrat’s take over of a city, perhaps diminishes the moment’s importance, therefore making such acts of historical consideration one and the same with withdrawal or surrender. The ethics of ambiguity does not call for us to be passive observers. De Beauvoir wants us to be in the world and confront the madness head on. Evil happens when we contextualize too much.
de Beauvoir is very much aware of the critique that existentialist freedom being is too vague to comprehend and implement. She attempts to fill out the content of this ethics of freedom a bit more in these pages. De Beauvoir has a problem with a science that claims it will solve all of life’s riddles, art that sets up pieces as definitive works of beauty to be deified, and technology that aims to make our life “better” by saving us time and making things more efficient. Her reasons are multifarious, but primarily because they set up meaningless absolutes for which we strive and always experience frustration when such absolutes fail to obtain. Rather, what we ought to be doing in these enumerated endeavors, and really in any endeavor, is opening up the possibility of new discoveries and new ways of disclosing our being. The end of science is constant discovery, the end of art is constant self expression, and the end of technology, would be a similar disclosing of our being. Truth, Beauty, and efficiency are not the goals upon which we are to fixate. In order to live lives of value, it seems De Beauvoir wants us to prioritize a liberating form of process over perfection. Whatever processes we involve ourselves in are to open up possibilities to men. If we don’t, if our endeavors aim to bifurcate men into the enlightened class that pursues opportunity and those denied of opportunity, the natural dynamic is one that leads to revolt from the oppressed group. As far as what I can tell, taking our enterprises, whatever they maybe, and viewing them as disclosures of being
A) diminishes the disappointment from not attaining meaningless goals
B) emphasizes the process and allows us to disclose ourselves with more vitality to the world
C) opens up possibility to ourselves and concurrently opens up meaning and possibility to others. Willing our own freedom is bound up in the willing of others freedom and meaning.
So has De Beauvoir conceptually clarified the content of existential freedom?
Earlier, it was mentioned that if the freedom to disclose one’s self was not extended to all, revolutionary conditions would be fomented. One might ask, what if the given society is not on a collision course for revolt? It is possible that individuals are quite content in their imprisonment. Maybe the proletariat likes how capitalism controls them. Maybe the proletariat likes binge watching tv, Star Wars, Kardashians, or whatever gets their mind off their failure to disclose positively in the ambiguous condition. Who are we to step in and say that things ought to be different? Isn’t there something patronizing about fighting for the freedom of others? “Here, let me help you. You’re a grown child. I am enlightened. Let me help you with your freedom.”
So why help? The oppressor doesn’t want a change in conditions. The oppressed often can’t even dream of what they would do with such liberation. Why help? de Beauvoir says that if we do not help other men attain their freedom, then we run the risk of becoming tyrants ourselves. Now does she mean just because we abstain from the cause, we are culpable or does she mean that we need the freedom of others to make sure that we don’t calcify into our own unconditional values? At first blush, it seems like the former for asserting ourselves positively and disclosing our being is something we can do at any time. We don’t necessarily need to dwell in a society of 100% liberated people to begin disclosing our being. If we did, the project may never get under way. Yet one has to yield to the idea that it is certainly easier to explore possibilities if Liberty is available to all. So…. many others authentically disclosing their being opens up futures for us previously unimaginable.
The most interesting question to me now is, even if we incite revolution and get the masses to take up the cause, will they use it properly once they have it? How can we be certain they just won’t find new ways of avoiding existential freedom? If we can’t insure that they just won’t trade in binge watching Netflix for a heroin addiction, doesn’t that take some of our incentive away for helping people help themselves?
We just examined how de Beauvoir draws the connection tighter between our own existential freedom and the liberation of the oppressed. She cautions us that whatever ethical projects we take up, they cannot make us so serious and beholden to unconditional value that they undermine the ultimate cause of universal freedom. So if my dedication to saving the whales becomes so dogmatic that it somehow subverts the larger end of liberation for all, then I am no different than others who live by unconditional value. My values have to be flexible. Value is something to be contextualized, prioritized, and integrated within a larger movement. This means that how the proletariat deals with his oppressive situation will be particularized to his economy, country, and personal moral endeavors. There won’t be a universal form of struggle as modern Marxists claim.
This line of thinking within De Beauvoir is troubling me. First, the world of unconditional value is gone….except when it comes to the universal struggle for liberation. Everyone’s projects ought to be integrated in such a way towards that end. That sounds like Absolutist talk. Not the speak we would anticipate from someone, who sees all value as conditional. Has De Beauvoir contradicted herself? It was perhaps acceptable for her to say that my freedom and humanity’s freedom are bound up together. I get that. The freer people are the more spontaneity and opportunity to disclose ourselves. I totally get that. Yay freedom! What appears problematic is when De Beauvoir reprimands people for failing to see how their modes of disclosing might be at odds with the universal liberation of man. I have less of a problem with this if De Beauvoir can connect how one person’s ethical project (i.e. saving the whales) oppresses someone else and creates a feedback loop of limited opportunity to disclose. It seems to me she can have her secular ethic that way. But what if it is expanded out. What if she says that our ethical programs limited the opportunities to disclose of our children’s children’s children? Why do I need to care about this cause of Liberty long after I die? Why does how I disclose matter less than this cause I’m serving? Has de Beauvoir become a slave to unconditional value?
One might think that because I’ve highlighted de Beauvoir’s frustrations with Marxism that she and old Joe McCarthy would have been just the best of friends. Far from it. She gets really exercised by capitalism. She hates it. She thinks it oppresses people. It takes native people and forces them into menial labor, so that they only have festivals and revelry to approximate something like the disclosure of being that distinguishes man from animal. She paints with a broad brush and to be honest I’m not terribly interested in what she has to say about any economic system at this point. I can’t get down in the political mud with her until I first know her ethics and what best gels with it. Just remember she is skeptical of both Marxism and Capitalism without offering an alternative. Her spirit seems closer to Marx, but how close I can’t say.
However the oppressed are oppressed, whether it be by totalitarianism or capitalism, de Beauvoir acknowledges that in the service of freedom the oppressed will revolt and become a blind force capable of the exact same tyranny that was imposed upon them. Is this acceptable or just a brute fact for De Beauvoir? After all she claims that we cannot move towards the liberation of all through collective consciousness. Is De Beauvoir about to give an existentialist endorsement of violence? It looks as if De Beauvoir is no pacifist. Individuals both against and for the cause of freedom can be and ought to be sacrificed. It’s a terrible necessity from her point of view.
My only real problem with De Beauvoir during here is perhaps recklessness when it comes to defining the oppressors. She is quite willing to throw fascists like Hitler into the same categories as capitalists. I don’t know about you but that seems like some pretty sloppy thinking. Capitalism, at least in its modern form, does not strip people of their freedom. There is a way to get the system to work in your advantage. She is painting this picture of either conformity to capitalism or total bloody revolt towards a society that is yet undefined. Just strikes me as so damn sloppy for such a brilliant mind. de Beauvoir, I know you can do better.
de Beauvoir notes that it becomes all too easy to oppress people when they are stripped of the ability to disclose themselves towards the future. The tyrant, if he manages to cut them off from disclosing, reduces them to base animality. In time, they come to resemble cattle and it troubles us less if they have to be sacrificed for the collective cause. They become indistinguishable numbers that exceed our capacity for care.
de Beauvoir takes this moment to demonstrate how Hegelian and Marxist thinking gets co-opted by tyrants in the oppression of the individual for the collective cause. In those thinker’s systems, the individual is only a momentary iteration of the unfolding consciousness. It is nothing to give one’s life up for the sake of a just end. De Beauvoir has problems with this view aside from the fact that it is a rhetorical gift to totalitarian madmen. First, if we truly embrace this perspective the hoped for end will never be met. Just generation after generation will be sacrificed for it. The telos of history is a lie. Second, if one denies the ultimate value of the individual for the sanctity of the state, you’ve got a big problem. If the individual doesn’t matter, why does a larger aggregate of individuals matter? It doesn’t. A million 0s do not add up to one or whatever the expression is. So here we see again De Beauvoir’s anti-Marxism and the reiteration of the point that the only way our lives can have meaning is if the individual gives value and meaning to his own life.
Lingering here is still the question of how De Beauvoir justifies us caring about the freedom of future generations. If the Marxist and Hegelian narrative of history is illegitimate, then what recourse does she have? Perhaps the issue becomes moot if we are willing our own freedom and the freedom of our contemporaries. Maybe we don’t have to consciously think too hard about what conditions will be like 300 years from now.
We have struggled as of late to fit De Beauvoir into a box in regards to a political affiliation. She has cast aspersions upon Marxists and capitalists alike. She generally has a distaste for all things conservative for she believes them to curate values of the past that have little relevance today, though she is not so liberal as to not see something of value as recoverable from the past. All we know right now is that if one is to live in a society, it best be a democratic one that honors the individual’s ability to disclose themselves. The individual is the nucleus of all meaning. Meaning cannot come from without in regards to world historical movements or jingoism.
An example of why democracies fit well with the individualism of existential freedom can be seen once the period of crisis has receded and war criminals experience a judicial process that was never afforded to their victims. On the one hand, we secretly hate it and wish we could inflict the most medieval punishment upon nazis; however, we know as democratic citizens that stand for the dignity of the individual we must treat them with Justice. To restore the freedom of the individual, we have to even treat nazis with dignity.
de Beauvoir is also going to be in favor of an anti-authoritarian democracy for it gives us the chance to question our leaders, demonstrate that they can be wrong, and that the individual’s own thought is intrinsically valuable. If the leader can be in error or has to always give an account for what he does, it is much more difficult for individuals to get swept up in greedy conquests and and communist materialism.
de Beauvoir spends most of these pages (p.111-120) railing against Christian and Marxist ideologies of a hoped for dawn of peace. These are some of her most poetic words thus far. She speaks with such passion against the notion of ultimate causes and how men can be sacrificed for them. Despite all this lofty language, I didn’t hear too many new ideas of her’s. Just the repetition that man’s life only receives justification from within and the act of freedom that is disclosing must be a continually renewed effort that is fought for each day.
de Beauvoir thinks we experience difficulty living today because we are obsessed with life extension. The rapidly expanding sciences give the illusion to man that he is limitless. That he can conquer any distance and with enough technology overcome the frailty of his being. de Beauvoir thinks our ever expanding conception of the universe, history, and man delude us and rip us away from actually establishing finite and meaningful projects within a foreseeable and limited future. On de Beauvoir’s view only the events we disclose in our finitude truly exist. These grand totalities of history, the universe, and time are vacuous fictions.
It should be noted that just because de Beauvoir denounces the idea of a universal history or an unfolding of the human spirit, that does not mean it is impossible to make historical prognostications. We can take limited ensembles of events to forecast probabilistically in the near future. We just don’t have certitude in the march of time and our lives don’t gain any significance by participation in that grand narrative. By steadying our gaze upon the present, our democratic societies need to be mindful of not becoming authoritarian in times of crisis. If we compromise who we are in these moments, we have given into the narrative of others, who do not see the individual as the loci of all meaning. Self-determination and freedom must be integrated with an effort to push back against that which denies the value of the individual.
De Beauvoir notes that festivals are frequently experienced and enjoyed as an assertion of existence once countervailing forces have been pushed back, not unlike how indigenous people celebrate in the midst of capitalist forces. The festival is unsustainable given how it in time gives way to stupidity and drunkenness; however, art at its heart begins with that same felicitous assertion of existence, except the artist intends to preserve the festival via art object.
Earlier in this lecture series, I contemplated whether or not it was a problem for de Beauvoir to recommend long term goals, such as working for our children’s children’s children freedom. It was potentially problematic because one could not immediately see how such a far off ethical project could relate to our finite existence. If one enters into the struggle for civil rights or the socialist state, these ethical endeavors have to justify themselves here and now. We have to judge these projects as viable ways of asserting our existence within our limited horizon. It ought not to be of great concern what happens 500 years from now, since a) historical prediction so far out is a farce, b) there is no stable state where freedom is finally won, and c) nothing is contributed to our lives if some distant future relative experiences the fruit of our labor. We engage in these activities only because the struggle gives meaning to our lives.
What if we are concerned that our ethical projects are taking on the hue of unconditional value? How can we tell ourselves from the tyrant? The test is to ask ourselves if we are really engaged in the emancipation of men? So long as we are armed with that question, we should be in good shape.
de Beauvoir is going to try and give a little more content to her ethics of ambiguity in these closing pages. She really doesn’t see it as being radically different from art or science. The right and wrong ethical moves are frequently contextual, just like aesthetic and empirical methodology. The artist and the scientist take their own methodological routes through disclosure and discovery. These routes will be marred by failure and success in the process. De Beauvoir thinks of ethics in the same way. There are some guiding principles for valid ethical activity. In the complex matrix of relationships that I find myself in, I am to be guided by the love of the person, to free them to possibilities of disclosure. We have heard this before when de Beauvoir aimed to convince us that our own freedom is bound up in the freedom of others. This may mean saving the life of a suicidal friend and this may mean doing violence to someone else who seeks to oppress.
It is a fine line though. We cannot live people’s lives for them. We cannot determine them from without. This is what fascists try to do. We have to respect the individual’s freedom.
Our ethical acts are not to be done with a Kantian formalism. That would be to conceive of men abstractly rather than concrete actualities. As cheesy as it may sound, we are to be moved by care for the individual. de Beauvoir’s ethic really doesn’t diverge too much from the Christian message. Perhaps it has the tone of Kant’s kingdom of ends as well. She admits this much. In our love for individuals, we aim to help establish their freedom. From a governing perspective, ethical choices must weigh what maintains the freedom of all men, but what this looks like cannot be presented via a formula, calculation, or probability. It will require real anguish and will be highly dependent upon context. In some instances, this will require choosing a lesser evil where freedom is intruded upon.
Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity”
Edition Used: Citadel Press (1948, 1976)
Lecturer: Luke Johnson
© 2016 Noetic / Luke Johnson