ETHICS OF AMBIGUITY

This is a summary of the book entitled The Ethics of Ambiguity of Simone de Beauvoir.

Beauvoir believes in the contingency of existence in that there is no necessity that we exist. Therefore, there is no predetermined human essence or standard of value. She expounds the idea that human freedom requires the freedom of others for it to be realized.

She begins this work by asserting the tragic condition of the human situation which experiences its freedom as a spontaneous internal drive that is crushed by the external weight of the world. She argues that human existence is always an ambiguous admixture of the internal freedom to transcend the given conditions of the world and the weight of the world that imposes itself on us in a manner outside of our control, and not of our own choosing. In order for us to live ethically then, we must assume this ambiguity rather than try to flee it. 

In the chapter on ‘Ambiguity’ Beauvoir states that the notion of ambiguity should not be confused with absurdity. Absurdity denies any meaning to existence; man’s existence is ambiguous, as it is never fixed. It is through man’s actions, his successes and failures, his ethics that his existence is saved.

She asserts that man is free, but he must assume this freedom, and not flee from it. There is a concrete bond between freedom and existence. To achieve freedom man cannot exist without doing something, there must be a constructive movement. Furthermore he needs to feel the joy of existence, to love life.

However, there are cases where man chooses evil, or wants to flee from his own freedom. Evil is the enslavement of others and must be fought. Whereas a man wishing to take his own life is seen as rash behaviour and he should be alerted to his error. But if he were to persist, do we then use violence to impose moral conformity? In the purity of our intention, does this not make us dictatorial? We do not have the right to make these decisions unless we are charged to do so. As a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or a friend you may be solicited to do so, as you are responsible for their upbringing, happiness and health. We believe that by being an accomplice and letting the individual commit suicide, or providing drugs to a desperate addict, we are then going against man’s very existence, allowing him to flee from freedom. But to prohibit him from doing so is to forbid him from fulfilling his own existence and deprive him of his own freedom. Using violence to oppose willful acts is not justified instead we should give reasons for resisting those acts. We may enlighten, but at the same time respect their freedom, which like ours, is absolute.

Further on in the chapter, Beauvoir talks about the ambiguity of the vote. A subject she was bound to feel strongly about as a leading proponent of women’s rights. Women had only been given the right to vote in France in 1944, around the time Beauvoir wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity. She stated ‘to vote is not to govern’. By having the vote, it is normally regarded as being a master of your own destiny, however in France at the time the people were resigned to the fact that their internal politics reflected the wishes of external forces. Their fate was in the hands of foreign powers. Thus a nation that was known to be very vocal in their opinions took no further interest in an act of democracy that had always been bitterly fought for. Alternatively, to deny someone the vote, the ability to express his hopes and trust, is oppression. Beauvoir goes on to say that the “enlightened elite” are concerned about permitting women and the colonized negroes the vote, as their interests may well be harmful to the economy, and they compare it to letting a child vote, as they already live in a world of ready-made values, calling them an “eternal child”. Beauvoir makes the point that childhood is a natural situation whereby the child’s limits are not set by other men (oppression) they are instead temporary, awaiting development as the child acquires knowledge. The child will become liberated and respected, whereas this very freedom is denied those who are oppressed.

Beauvoir asserts that man will not hesitate to sacrifice the comfort, luxury, and leisure of men to assure liberation of certain others, but how should we decide? Politics prioritizes nation, empire, union, and economy, but this is often to the detriment of its members, and therefore should it be rejected? Beauvoir puts forward the argument of the USSR politics. The violence, the deportations, the abuses of occupation, the police dictatorship, etc. in maintaining a regime that brings an immense mass of men a bettering of their lot. She states this is why a political choice is an ethical choice. It is finding a balance between a goal and the means in which you execute that goal. It is a wager, as one bet on the chances and risks of achieving a certain outcome, but in doing this, one must set up values. Beauvoir concludes that it is absurd to oppose a liberating action because it implies crime and tyranny. Liberation cannot be achieved when fighting dictatorship and oppression without these factors, however the conquest of freedom is their only justification, and the assertion of freedom against them must be kept alive.

In summary, it is worth noting that this book was written around the end of World War II, and therefore it is not surprising that Beauvoir would make so many references to the question of oppression and liberation and the ethical responsibility that each of us has to them, having herself lived through the Nazi occupation of France. It would be interesting to hear views about the recent liberations in the Middle East, and in particular Libya, where certain war crimes have been committed by both sides, in the pursuit of freedom.

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