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Simone’s Existentialist Ethics

Anja Steinbauer on Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity.

“My life is my work,” Simone de Beauvoir once said. Spoken like a true Existentialist: to her, life and thought were inextricably linked; we are what we do. Existentialism is a philosophy that outlines the conditions of human existence but rejects any conception of human nature; a philosophy that affirms human freedom but emphasises that it brings with it not happy empowerment but anguish and despair, a philosophy that stresses that humans have choices but expresses little optimism that we will make good use of them or even understand what it would mean to make the right choice. It is on this last point that Simone de Beauvoir most markedly departs from her lifelong partner Jean-Paul Sartre.

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir portrait by Gail Campbell 2016

Beauvoir’s Existentialism is scattered through her many works, both literary and theoretical, including her classic feminist text The Second Sex. However, it finds it’s clearest and most rigorous form in her relatively underrated book The Ethics of Ambiguity. The title is intriguing and unattractive at the same time: The fact that an Existentialist talks explicitly about ethics (rather than simply stressing our inescapable freedom) is a rare treat, but surely an ethics that bonds itself to ambiguity is hardly promising to propose any useful answers to moral problems?

This is exactly as Beauvoir intended. She accepts Sartre’s Existentialist tenets that there is no human nature and that human freedom is absolute, i.e. that in any situation whatever we always have a choice. In other words, human life is not on autopilot, nor is there an instruction manual telling us how to make the right decisions. This means that there is a good deal of ambiguity, and, in short, Beauvoir tells us to face up to it and live with it. Given this ambiguity there would seem to be very little opportunity for moral theorising. Not so, objects Beauvoir to this standard Existentialist conclusion. We must not expect absolute solutions and lasting answers: “Man fulfils himself in the transitory or not at all.” But this doesn’t mean that all ways of living, and all courses of action, are equally good. The way forward is to look at the nature of our relationship to other people.

Sartre’s Existentialism leads to a clear individualism, in which the fact that there are other people presents a constant threat of falling into ‘bad faith’. Others judge us and impose limits on us to the unbearable degree that “hell is other people”. By contrast, Beauvoir’s own individualism is more nuanced, in a Kantian way: “Is this kind of ethics individualistic, or not? Yes, if one means by that that it accords to the individual an absolute value and recognises in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence. …The individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals…. His freedom can only be achieved through the freedom of others.”

And here we finally have it: “No existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself.” Beauvoir’s ethics views the existence of others as an opportunity. In fact it is the only opportunity we have to give reality and meaning to what we do and therefore to what we are: We must invite others to join our projects. Beauvoir gives examples of how many of us make poor use, or no use at all, of our freedom. She even explains how freedom for children differs from adult freedom. Children can do what they like to an extent, without being morally judged for it, because they are largely free of responsibilities to others. Not so adults, yet some adults still try and live in the naïve freedom of childhood. Others try to control or manipulate people in an attempt to limit their freedom – a tactic that according to Beauvoir is ironically doomed to end in self-deception and the limiting of one’s own freedom. A mature and constructive use of our freedom, our only chance of fulfilling ourselves as individuals, involves making a ‘plea’ to others, appealing to them for their attention and cooperation.

This short space is utterly inadequate to give you a proper idea of how rich Beauvoir’s ethics truly is. So you will just have to read The Ethics of Ambiguity yourselves. It is beautifully written – don’t forget that Beauvoir was a highly acclaimed novelist and author, and worked hard to show her ideas’ relevance not just to moral theorists but to all human beings. Why? Because all our lives are marked by living with others, by ambiguity and freedom. That much is completely unambiguous.

© Dr Anja Steinbauer 2016

Anja Steinbauer teaches at the London School of Philosophy and is an Editor for Philosophy Now.

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