28 pages 56 minutes read

Simone de Beauvoir

The Ethics Of Ambiguity

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 1947

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1948 in the wake of World War II, The Ethics of Ambiguity by French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) is a significant contribution to existentialist thought and outlines a practical system of ethics. Human freedom is of the utmost concern to the existentialist, and de Beauvoir argues that with human freedom comes ethical responsibility, countering those philosophers and skeptics who say that existentialism does not give practical guidance on how to live our lives. This essay builds upon fellow French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s Of Being and Nothingness, which concluded with the promise to develop an ethical system based on existentialist principles.

The Ethics of Ambiguity grapples with classic philosophical concepts: freedom, choice, human responsibility, and the meaning of life. To understand The Ethics of Ambiguity’s significance in the larger conversation about existentialism, it is crucial to understand a key assumption of existentialist thought: the notion that “existence precedes essence”—human beings create meaning in their lives through choices and actions. The Ethics of Ambiguity, then, provides guidance on what choices to make and how to act.

The bookis comprised of three parts and followed by a brief conclusion. De Beauvoir opens with an epigram from 16th-century French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, which encapsulates the thesis of The Ethics of Ambiguity in a single sentence: “Life in itself is neither good nor evil, it is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it” (1). Religious people believe God gives purpose and meaning to their lives, but existentialists believe that life is what you make of it. Humans have the freedom to decide the pursuits and values to which they will devote their lives.

In Part I, de Beauvoir defines “ambiguous” and “freedom,” the two concepts essential to existentialism. If one believes man is totally free, as the existentialists do, then it follows that a person’s every move is weighted with ethical significance. Even if man tries to escape his freedom by doing nothing, that is still a choice. So, man’s relationship to freedom is of the utmost importance to de Beauvoir, and in Part II, she outlines the six archetypal “ways of being,” each related to a way to use one’s freedom. Part III, titled “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity,” is an existentialist call to action. Using concrete examples from World War II, Part III is explicitly anti-tyranny and anti-fascist. Beauvoir warns against behaviors that support oppressors, and instead offers practical guidance on how lead a fulfilling life in pursuit of the existentialist ideal which, ironically, is a “good which fulfills itself in aiming at it” (173).