Ethics Of Ambiguity Summary

Simone de Beauvoir

Ethics Of Ambiguity

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Ethics Of Ambiguity Summary

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The Ethics of Ambiguity is a non-fiction book written by French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The book was initially published in a series of essays in the French newspaper Les Temps Modernes, before being released in book format in 1947. The book is a response to the critically lauded work Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, who was de Beauvoir’s long-time lover. After being challenged to devise an ethical system of beliefs consistent with the existentialist ideas that Sartre put forth in his book, de Beauvoir wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity to discuss the ethics, or code of behavior, that can be derived from the ontological reality of existentialism.

The book is divided into three main sections. In the first section, entitled “Ambiguity and Freedom,” de Beauvoir summarizes the main claims made by Sartre, namely that man is composed of both “being”—the social and physical constraints placed on men’s choices and behavior; and of “nothingness”—man’s larger ability to be conscious of himself and choose what to do. De Beauvoir renames these two concepts “factity” and “freedom,” respectively. These states of being form the basis of the existential idea that human existence precedes its essence, or larger purpose or meaning. De Beauvoir suggests that ethical behavior is the result of man’s conscious choices and that there are no absolute standards of morality.

In the second section, entitled “Personal Freedom and Others,” de Beauvoir labels different kinds of people based on their relationship to their own freedom and to the freedom of others. According to de Beauvoir, many people, like young children, are indoctrinated to believe that there is an objective set of morals independent of their own consciousness. She calls this category of people “the serious man,” one who goes through life in a perpetual state of childhood because he takes it for granted that his own freedom is subordinate to an externally imposed set of values. The “sub-man,” on the other hand, is one who does not think about his freedom at all and assumes that it does not exist. The nihilist is a disillusioned “serious man,” who has decided to value nothing after all his other values have failed him.

In addition to the individuals who deny their freedom, there are also those who embrace their own freedom but fail to recognize the freedom of others. The “adventurer” is a person who exercises his freedom in the pursuit of action itself rather than concrete goals or destinations, but is often callous and disregards others’ freedom. On the other hand, the “passionate man” exercises freedom in the pursuit of concrete goals, but also tramples on other people’s freedom in doing so. In order to achieve what de Beauvoir calls “genuine freedom,” a person must embrace his own freedom and also recognize the free will and consciousness of others.

The third and final section of the book, “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity,” is divided into five different subsections. In the first subsection, “The Aesthetic Attitude,” de Beauvoir argues that detached contemplation is not really possible since man must exist in the present world of action and things, and that this world exists independently of man’s consciousness. In “Freedom and Liberation,” de Beauvoir discusses oppression, and claims that oppressors who deny other people’s freedom often treat others like objects, to be used for their own ends, rather than as entities with free will. She argues that oppressors trick those whom they oppress into believing that oppression, rather than freedom, is the natural order of the world, and that the only way the oppressed can regain freedom is to rebel against oppression.

In the third subsection, “The Antinomies of Action,” de Beauvoir discusses the need for violence and the circumstances under which violence can be justified. De Beauvoir argues that violence is just when it is a liberating action taken by the oppressed to topple their oppressors and reclaim their natural freedom. She argues that it is ethical in some situations for the oppressed to treat their oppressors as less than fully human and to forcefully constrain their freedom if it is necessary to achieve the freedom of others. De Beauvoir clarifies that this may also involve using violence against those who support the oppressors, regardless of whether they do so out of ignorance or constraint.

The fourth subsection, “The Present and the Future,” discusses the relationship between conscious action in the present and future consequences or goals, and criticizes the Marxist idea of determinism. Finally, in the fifth subsection, “Ambiguity,” de Beauvoir wraps up the central ideas of her book by discussing the conflict between a person’s “nothingness,” or free will, and his “being” or “factity,” the constraints placed on his behavior in the physical world. She examines the ethical ambiguity that these two opposing forces often produce. In the book’s conclusion, de Beauvoir reflects on man’s finite existence within infinite time and space, and advises the reader that “we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite.”

De Beauvoir wrote her book in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, and her work reflects the moral relativism and subjectivity that is a hallmark of the postmodern era. Many passages in the book, particularly those discussing oppression and violence, use examples from Nazi Germany to illustrate their arguments. De Beauvoir also sheds light on existentialism as a school of thought and the implications that it has for human behavior.