The Ethics of Ambiguity

shawlaskewvilleUrban and Civil

Nov 29, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)

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Simone de Beauvoir,

The Ethics of Ambiguity

(1947; 1948)

A Cerritos College Women’s History Month Philosophy Seminar

Simone de Beauvoir at Her Desk

The Structure of
The Ethics of Ambiguity
(Pour
une

morale de
l’ambiguïté
)

Section I: Ambiguity
and Freedom

Section II: Personal
Freedom and
Others

Section III: The
Positive Aspect of
Ambiguity


The Aesthetic Attitude



Freedom and
Liberation


The Antinomies of Action



The Present and the Future



Ambiguity


Conclusion

Freedom, Facticity, and Power

“Freedom is the source from which all significations and all
values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of
existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want
freedom itself absolutely and above everything
else.” (EA, p
. 24
)


However, human beings do not create the world. They succeed
in disclosing it only through the resistance that the world
opposes to them. The will is defined only by raising obstacles,
and by the contingency of facticity certain obstacles let
themselves be conquered, and others do not. This is what
Descartes expressed when he said that the freedom of a human
being is infinite, but his or her power is
limited.” (EA, p
. 28
)


THREE LEVELS OF FREEDOM

Moral Freedom



Power



Natural (Ontological)
Freedom

Three (Interrelated) Levels of Freedom

Ontological

= no human decisions and actions are
determined outside forces beyond our control (as Sartre
argues in
Being and Nothingness
).

Power

= freedom from material and social constraints (as
Sartre argues in
Being and Nothingness
, our power but not
our ontological freedom can be limited by outside forces).

Moral

= an individual’s conscious affirmation of, and acting
on, his or her ontological freedom, which can only be
developed in the absence of certain constraints.

Beauvoir’s Conception of Moral Freedom

I
t
is not an individual property or possession but
inherently
“opens up”
onto other
people.

D
iminishing others’
freedom will diminish my own;
promoting others freedom will enlarge my
own.

T
o
lead a free, meaningful life I
don’t require
everyone’s recognition,
but
for such recognition to be
valid in my eyes it requires universal
material freedom

to insure that it doesn’t arise out of fear, intimidation,
or deprivation.


Beauvoir’s
Argument

for
Equal Freedom for
All


1.
Assume
that there existed only one free individual, who freely
decided to enslave everyone else by making them subject to his or
her decisions.

2.
But individual freedom necessitates the existence of others in a
world within which one can concretely and equally exercise one’s
freedom in relation to those others.

3.
Freedom that cannot be concretely and equally exercised is a
contradiction in terms.

4.
Therefore, if there were only one free individual, then the exercise
of that individual’s freedom would be impossible.

5.
Therefore, there cannot exist only one free individual.


Choosing Moral Freedom

Beauvoir argues that although I
may decide
not

to choose
freedom,
if

I
do choose
freedom for myself, then I am led
to choose the freedom of
all human beings. In other
words, my concrete freedom is not separate but is
interdependent with the concrete freedoms of everyone
else. Yet what would prevent me from choosing my own
freedom and, hence, the freedom of all? In a word:
bad
faith
. By contrast, what enables me to choose to exercise
my concrete freedom? In a word: a
conversion
.


Five Character Types

(or Patterns of Bad Faith)

Sub
-
person

= cares about nothing, retreats into apathy and
inaction; and so is open to manipulation by fanatics

Serious person

= fanatically devoted to only one objective value,
ideal, or cause

Nihilist

= rejects all positive values, ideals, and causes

Adventurer

= continually pursues new and unconventional values,
ideals, or causes

Passionate person

= seeks to possess completely the object of his or
her subjective value, ideal, or cause; but this remains a private
passion that can result in neglecting others or even using them
solely as means to pursue it

Beauvoir on Conversion

“This

conversion

is

sharply

distinguished

from

the

Stoic

conversion

in

that

it

does

not

claim

to

oppose

to

the

sensible

universe

a

formal

freedom

which

is

without

content
.

To

exist

genuinely

is

not

to

deny

this

spontaneous

movement

of

my

transcendence,

but

only

to

refuse

to

lose

myself

in

it
.

Existentialist

conversion

should

rather

be

compared

to

Husserlian

reduction
:

let

man

put

his

will

to

be

“in

parentheses”

and

he

will

thereby

be

brought

to

the

consciousness

of

his

true

condition
.

And

just

as

phenomenological

reduction

prevents

the

errors

of

dogmatism

by

suspending

all

affirmation

concerning

the

mode

of

reality

of

the

external

world,

whose

flesh

and

bone

presence

the

reduction

does

not,

however,

contest,

so

existentialist

conversion

does

not

suppress

my

instincts,

desires,

plans,

and

passions
.

It

merely

prevents

any

possibility

of

failure

by

refusing

to

set

up

as

absolutes

the

ends

toward

which

my

transcendence

thrusts

itself,

and

by

considering

them

in

their

connection

with

the

freedom

which

projects

them
.


(EA,

pp
.

13
-
14
)


What Initiates a Conversion?

“A conversion can start within passion itself….
P
assion is
converted to genuine freedom only if one destines one’s
existence to other existences through the being

whether
thing or human

at which he or she aims, without hoping
to entrap it in the destiny of the in
-
itself.” (EA, pp. 66
-
67)

The Political Limits of Conversion

“As we have seen, if the oppressor were aware of the
demands of his own freedom, he himself should have to
denounce oppression. But he is dishonest; in the name of
the serious or of his passions, of his will for power or of his
appetites, he refuses to give up his privileges. In order for a
liberating action to be a thoroughly moral action, it would
have to be achieved through a conversion of the
oppressors: there would then be a reconciliation of all
freedoms. But no one any longer dares to abandon himself
today to these utopian reveries. We know only too well that
we can not count upon a collective conversion.” (EA, pp.
96
-
97)


Oppression:

The Institutional Limit to Freedom

“Oppression divides the world into two clans: those who enlighten
humanity by thrusting it ahead of itself and those who are condemned
to mark time hopelessly in order merely to support the collectivity;
their life is a pure repetition of mechanical gestures; their leisure is just
about sufficient for them to regain their strength; the oppressor feeds
himself or herself on their transcendence and refuses to extend it by a
free recognition. The oppressed has only one solution: to deny the
harmony of that humanity from which an attempt is made to exclude
him or her, to prove that he or she is a human being and is free by
revolting against the tyrants…. The struggle is not one of words and
ideologies; it is real and concrete: if it is this future that triumphs, and
not the former, then it is the oppressed who is realized as a positive and
open freedom and the oppressor who becomes an obstacle and a
thing
.” (EA, pp. 83
-
84)


The Antinomies of Action

Beauvoir reminds us that there exists an irreducible tension between
political ends and means:

“[O]ne finds oneself in the presence of the paradox that no action can
be generated for humanity without its being immediately generated
against human beings. This obvious truth, which is universally known,
is, however, so bitter that the first concern of a doctrine of action is
ordinarily to mask this element of failure that is involved in any
undertaking.” (EA, p. 99)

“A doctrine which aims at the liberation of humanity cannot rest on a
contempt for the individual; but it can propose to him or her no other
salvation than his or her subordination to the collectivity.” (EA, p. 103)

Two Senses of the “Future”

“The word
future
has two meanings corresponding to the two aspects of
the ambiguous condition of man which is lack of being and which is
existence; it alludes to both being and existence. When I envisage my
future, I consider that movement which, prolonging my existence of
today, will fulfill my present projects and will surpass them toward new
ends: the future is the definite direction of a particular transcendence
and it is so closely bound up with the present that it composes with it a
single temporal
form….
But through the centuries men have dreamed
of another future in which it might be granted them to retrieve
themselves as beings in Glory, Happiness, or
Justice
; this future did not
prolong the present; it came down upon the world like a cataclysm
announced by signs which cut the continuity of time: by a Messiah, by
meteors, by the trumpets of the Last
Judgment.” (EA, pp. 115
-
116)

Freedom and the Future

“[T]he constructive activities of human beings take on a
valid meaning only when they are assumed as a movement
toward freedom; and reciprocally, one sees that such a
movement is concrete: discoveries, inventions, industries,
culture, paintings, and books
populate the
world
concretely and open concrete possibilities to human
beings.


Perhaps
it is possible to dream of a future when
human beings will know no other use of their freedom
than this free unfurling of itself; constructive activity would
be possible for all; each would be able to aim positively
through his or her projects at his or her own
future.” (EA,
pp
. 80
-
1
)


Freedom and the Disclosure of Being

“[It] must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between
freedom and existence; to will human beings free is to will there to
be
being, it is to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in
order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of
existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement
toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by
thickening into pleasure, into happiness. If the satisfaction of an old
man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and
wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are
capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy. The saving of
time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved
by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own
account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any
way.”
(EA, p
. 135
)

From Revolt to Freedom

“[R]
evolt
, insofar as it is pure negative movement, remains
abstract. It is fulfilled as freedom only by returning to the
positive, that is, by giving itself a content through action,
escape, political struggle, revolution. Human
transcendence then seeks, with the destruction of the given
situation, the whole future that will flow from its victory.
It resumes its indefinite rapport with itself. There are
limited situations where this return to the positive is
impossible, where the future is radically blocked off.
Revolt then can be achieved only in the definitive rejection
of the imposed situation, in
suicide.” (EA, pp
. 31
-
2
)


Freedom and Finitude

“Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the
density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our
individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains
that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its
finitude, a finitude that opens onto the infinite. And in fact, any
human being who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and
real will knows quite well that he or she has no need of any outside
guarantee to be sure of his or her goals; their certitude comes from his
or her own drive. There is a very old saying that goes: ‘Do what you
must, come what may.’ That amounts to saying in a different way that
the result is not external to the good will that fulfills itself in aiming at
it. If it came to be that each human being did what he or she must,
existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of
dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in
death.” (EA,
pp
. 158
-
9
)

Freedom and Vigilance


Vigilance alone can keep alive the validity of the goals and
the genuine assertion of
freedom.” (EA, p
. 153
)