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Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947; 1948)

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Presentation on theme: "Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947; 1948)"— Presentation transcript:

1 Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947; 1948)
A Cerritos College Women’s History Month Philosophy Seminar

2 Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) at Her Desk

3 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

4 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)

Moral Freedom Power Natural (Ontological) Freedom

6 Three (Interrelated) Levels of Freedom
Ontological = no human decisions and actions are determined by outside forces beyond our control (Sartre argues for this position 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.

7 Beauvoir’s Conception of Moral Freedom
It is not an individual property or possession but inherently “opens up” onto other people. Diminishing others’ freedom will diminish my own; promoting others freedom will enlarge my own. To 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.

8 Beauvoir’s Argument for Equal Freedom for All
Assume that there existed only one free individual, who freely decided to enslave everyone else by making them subject to his or her decisions. 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. Freedom that cannot be concretely and equally exercised is a contradiction in terms. Therefore, if there were only one free individual, then the exercise of that individual’s freedom would be impossible. Therefore, there cannot exist only one free individual.

9 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.

10 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

11 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 )

12 What Initiates a Conversion?
“A conversion can start within passion itself….Passion 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 )

13 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 )

14 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 )

15 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)

16 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 )

17 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)

18 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)

19 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)

20 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 )

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

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