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Simone de Beauvoir

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The Ethics of Ambiguity

Charlotte Moore freely subjects de Beauvoir’s ethics to a discerning scrutiny.

In her 1947 book The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir outlines an existentialist ethics. She was inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre ’s promise to do so at the end of Being and Nothingness (1943); a project for which he wrote many notes but which he never completed. The Ethics of Ambiguity is one of de Beauvoir’s most intriguing and original philosophical works. But is the theory it contains defensible? And does it give us practical guidance for how to live our lives?

In The Bonds of Freedom (BF), a careful analysis of de Beauvoir’s ethics, Kristana Arp asks whether de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity is actually a form of ethical subjectivism. Arp examines a set of possible existentialist ethical perspectives, particularly those that deal with freedom and values, to try to tell whether or not they can be undermined by this charge. Although Arp sees great value in de Beauvoir ’s ideas on ethics, she says the answer remains somewhat unclear. However, I would like to argue that de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity is definitely not a form of ethical subjectivism. To this end, I’ll begin by outlining the ethics of ambiguity; then I’ll define ethical subjectivism, describe Arp’s position, and finally explain why I don’t think de Beauvoir’s ethics fall to this charge of subjectivism.

Ambiguity and Ethics

The Ethics of Ambiguity begins with the central existentialist premise that ‘existence precedes essence’. Basically, this means that we humans create our own essence or nature through our choices and actions. When de Beauvoir discusses human essence, she refers not only to this general notion, but also to Heidegger’s assertion in Being and Time that our creation of ourselves in the present is based both on our past actions and on the choices that we make while projecting ourselves into the future.

The aspect of de Beauvoir’s ethics dealing with choice stems from Sartre’s distinction in Being and Nothingness between the ‘in-itself’ and the ‘for-itself’ – but with de Beauvoir’s own twist. The in-itself is the category of material things, such as rocks and tables, which have an inherent, pre-determined essence (Being and Nothingness p24). The for-itself is the category of beings (or ‘existents’) with consciousness, who are inherently without a pre-determined essence, continually recreating themselves through their choices and actions (B&N p147). De Beauvoir agrees with Sartre that both these aspects are found in humans. Unlike Sartre though, de Beauvoir believes that tensions between the two aspects contribute to the ambiguity of human existence. She uses this idea in her ethics in terms of what William Schroeder has called a “felt ambiguity between antecedent limits (facticity) and future possibilities (transcendence).” (W. Schroeder, Continental Philosophy: A Critical Approach, p299). In other words, for de Beauvoir there is an ambiguity between an individual’s past as a given thing determining the nature of the present, and the future they’re about to freely create. Given that the future effects of our present choices cannot yet be known, we feel the ethical weight of each decision we make. But this is only one aspect of the ambiguity de Beauvoir suggests people face.

Humans also experience ambiguity regarding our dual nature, which de Beauvoir sees as composed of both matter and thought (or body and consciousness). For de Beauvoir, human consciousness is dependent upon the bodily or material aspects of our being, but not identical with it. The body is yet another i nescapable aspect of human facticity; or as Arp puts it, “Rooted as they are in the earth, humans can transcend their material origin in thought, but they can never escape it.” (BF p48). Our ability to transcend our physical limitations through thought is what gives rise to both freedom and moral obligation. However, like many other feminist thinkers, de Beauvoir sees as problematic the tendency embedded in the Western philosophical tradition to prioritize one side of an apparent dualism, such as spirit over matter, or self over other, or the individual over the collective. De Beauvoir says that the tendency to perceive duality is as “primordial as consciousness itself.” (The Second Sex, xix); yet part of the ambiguity of human existence is that we possess a combination of these polarities, including a reciprocity between self and other. And when our ambiguities are examined, it becomes apparent that although human perception seeks dualisms, no prioritization of any one over the other need be established. This criticism forms part of the basis for de Beauvoir’s feminist theory, as well as for her ethics.

The urge to oppress others is at least in part a result of treating the ‘other’ as though he or she is only a material thing, rather than a free and thinking human being. De Beauvoir argues in The Second Sex that women have historically been made the ‘other’. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she emphasizes that we must recognize the dual nature of the human condition not only in ourselves, but also in those we perceive as other. This idea provides the vantage for de Beauvoir’s views on freedom as the basis of moral obligation.

These views are consistent with general existentialist takes on freedom and responsibility. Sartre makes the famous statement in Being and Nothingness that people are “condemned to be free.” He is talking about an aspect of the human condition. We are thrown into this world and can’t avoid being confronted by choices. Should we act this way or that? Even the decision not to act at all is still a choice. We can try to fool ourselves that this freedom isn’t there (this is what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’), but we can’t get rid of it, and the realization of just how free we really are is often accompanied by anguish. Being free, we each create our meaning through our choices and subsequent actions.

De Beauvoir draws upon this principle of freedom as a foundational premise for her ethical theory. As Arp agrees, “De Beauvoir’s thesis is that human freedom is the source of moral obligation. Because we are free … we should completely realize our freedom by accepting its burdens rather than running from them ” (BF p50). However, de Beauvoir’s stance on this issue of freedom and moral obligation differs from Sartre’s, in that for de Beauvoir, realizing one’s own freedom does not negate others’ ability to do the same; in fact the freedom of others is required for our own freedom to be preserved.

De Beauvoir sensed a contradiction in Sartre’s thinking. A summary of her argument might read: Humans are inherently free; to be moral is to will oneself free; but not every human acts morally: so is it not a contradiction to suggest that all humans are free? De Beauvoir resolved this contradiction by drawing a distinction between two kinds of freedom: ontological freedom and moral freedom, such that though we are always ontologically free, we aren’t always morally free. It is moral freedom which forms the basis for de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity.

Moral freedom is a response to one’s condition of ontological freedom. De Beauvoir writes, “to will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision” (Ethics of Ambiguity p24). In an effort to clarify de Beauvoir’s statement, Kristana Arp writes that “although one cannot will oneself not to be free, because freedom is an ontological structure of human existence, one can fail to choose to will oneself free.” (BF p55). I understand this to mean that we gain access to moral freedom by actively engaging with the process of transcending our facticity and projecting ourselves into future possibilities, or put simply, by accepting responsibility for our choices.

So why does de Beauvoir assert that “to will oneself free is also to will others free”? (Ethics p73) Arp attempts to sort out the meaning of this phrase by referring back to de Beauvoir’s statements that both meaning and the world itself are ‘disclosed’ through ‘conscious freely acting agents’ – in other words, values are revealed through human beings. As de Beauvoir says, “one can reveal the world only on a basis revealed by other men” (Ethics p71). So even human subjectivity is relational, since both meaning and freedom are disclosed through relationships with others. De Beauvoir further establishes the relationship between intersubjectively disclosing worlds and human freedom when she writes, “to wish for the disclosure of the world and to assert oneself as a freedom are one and the same movement” (Ethics p24). For Simone de Beauvoir then, moral freedom is to choose to develop both one’s own ontological freedom and the ontological freedom of others – to engage with others as if they too are for-itself, or transcendent – which they are.

Subject to Criticism

Having explained the major themes in de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity, I’ll now return to the question of whether it is a form of ethical subjectivism (sometimes also called ‘ethical relativism’).

Ethical subjectivism is the idea that there are no universal moral standards or criteria, and that moral judgments such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are based merely on an individual’s opinion. As I mentioned in the introduction, I claim that de Beauvoir’s ethics is not a form of ethical subjectivism. I feel it necessary, however, to explain Kristana Arp ’s position, as it was she who first raised this interesting question (on p95).

Arp examines the question of subjectivism by first looking at the charge as it applies to existentialism in general, and then investigating whether or not those charges apply to de Beauvoir ’s ethics of ambiguity.

The first subjectivist charge against existentialist ethics is that “since existentialism bases ethics on freedom, it offers no criterion with which to distinguish right and wrong actions.” (BF p96) But de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity are not undermined by this objection, because de Beauvoir does offer criteria for distinguishing between actions that are moral and those that are not. These criteria are firstly that (as with Sartre), one must not engage in ‘bad faith’ or self-deception; and secondly, that one must “act to defend and develop the moral freedom of oneself and others.” (p98) So although de Beauvoir’s ethics holds that humans are ontologically free, this doesn’t mean that anything goes.

A response to a second charge, however, is not as clear-cut. The second charge reads, “given that existentialism’s credo is that values are the creation of human freedom, any criterion that can be used to distinguish wrong actions from right actions is subjective” (BF p96). In responding to this objection, Arp reminds us of de Beauvoir’s statement that “freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence.” (Ethics p24). Arp points out that although this statement is consistent with Sartre’s implication that moral judgments are subjective, de Beauvoir applies this concept to her notion of moral freedom, which is to will oneself free and accept the responsibilities this choice entails. So, with your freedom you create values; but underlying this subjectivity is an objective morality of freedom.

However, Arp then raises the additional question of how one can know if any given action does lead one in the direction of moral freedom (BF p100). At various points in The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir rejects the utilitarian suggestion that one can choose from specific results through a form of ethical calculus. In other words, de Beauvoir emphasizes that we do not always know what the results of our choices will be, as the future into which we project ourselves has not yet happened. Therefore, we can never really know if we are making the right decision. Based on this admission, Kristana Arp feels that one can safely place de Beauvoir in ‘the subjectivist camp’.

However, I would like to argue two points for de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity not being a form of ethical subjectivism:

1) De Beauvoir does offer some criteria for determining, at least generally, whether or not an action is moral; and

2) De Beauvoir’s type of subjectivity is intersubjective, rather than that of an isolated or individualised subject.

My first claim deals directly with Arp’s response to the charge that we can never really know whether or not we are making the right decision. I agree with Arp that we may not know the outcome of a given choice or action, and that it is safe to say that de Beauvoir rejects the utilitarian approach to making ethical decisions (ie, in terms of consequences). However, I feel that she does offer some criteria that could be construed as objective means of assessment. Even though we don’t know what the specific outcome of a choice will be, we can estimate whether we are making the choice to will our or another ’s freedom, this being the criterion for acting in moral freedom. We can tell, for instance, whether or not we are treating others – whether it be one specific other, or some nebulous, abstract group of others – as an in-itself or a for-itself.

For example, suppose I take action on a civil rights issue and this backfires: gays are finally permitted to openly join the military, partly due to my campaigning; but while serving, they experience a worse denial of freedom than anyone imagined. Nevertheless, I helped to preserve the right of those men and women to be and serve in a way they choose, despite the limitations imposed upon them. Although the outcome was undesirable, their freedom to choose was advanc ed, partly through my choices. Thus, whether or not an action advances moral freedom is not contingent on whether or not the outcome is desirable. De Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity does not offer any certainty regarding outcomes; but we can somewhat determine whether or not our actions do indeed advance the freedom of those we perceive as other. We can ask ourselves whether or not we are acting in ways which allow the perceived other to make their own choices and take responsibility for those choices, thereby allowing them access to moral freedom also. In other words, we make the moral, right choices when we acknowledge the other as a for-itself, and (thus) as a moral agent.

Concerning my second claim, I mentioned that for Simone de Beauvoir the world is disclosed to humans through humans, and so meaning arises out of intersubjectivity, not in isolation. To support claim 2), I would like to draw your attention to Barbara Andrew’s paper ‘Care, Freedom, and Reciprocity in the Ethics of Simone de Beauvoir’ from Philosophy Today 42, 1998. In this paper, Andrews examines whether or not de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity could be understood as being an ‘ethics of care’. Andrews argues convincingly that “recognition of others’ freedom is a response to the ethical needs of others as well as one’s own ethical needs, and thus is a form of care.”

As Andrews points out, Simone de Beauvoir stresses the ambiguity of the human condition, suggesting that the relationship between self and other, like the relationship between the material and the transcendent aspects of our being, is one of reciprocity: “to will oneself free is also to will others free.” This gives rise to the possibility of moral obligation and also moral freedom. In the conclusion to The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir writes, “since the individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others” (Ethics p156). Meaning and the world are both disclosed through humans, and so full freedom even in our own activity can only be preserved in our free actions when we work to advance and preserve the freedom of others: otherwise we cannot disclose freedom to ourselves. My question is simply, How could choices and actions made to advance moral freedom be classified as ‘merely subjective’ if the self is intersubjective and relational in its freedom? And if, as Andrews suggests, de Beauvoir’s conception of the self is ‘self as relation’, and the ethics of ambiguity are partly based on care, that is, concern for others’ freedom, once again this provides objective criteria for determining whether or not a choice or action is moral.


De Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity do not meet the parameters for ethical subjectivism. To remind you, these parameters are ‘no ultimate moral standards’, and ‘moral judgments are based merely on individual opinion’. First of all, de Beauvoir does propose ultimate, universal criteria for whether or not a choice or action is moral. The criteria are, whether or not it advances the moral freedom of others, and whether or not it treats the other as a ‘for-itself’. Secondly, de Beauvoir’s ethics are not based merely on individual opinion. Instead, her conception of subjectivity is relational and reciprocal, this being one aspect of the ambiguity of the human condition. There’s no such thing as the opinion of an isolated individual, because there’s no such thing as an isolated individual. For these reasons, de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity contradicts the very definition of ethical subjectivism.

© Charlotte Moore 2008

Charlotte Moore is unambiguously an Adjunct Instructor in philosophy at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.


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