A Critique of Simone De Beauvoir's Existential Ethics

By Braddock, Matthew | Philosophy Today, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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A Critique of Simone De Beauvoir's Existential Ethics


Braddock, Matthew, Philosophy Today


Simone de Beauvoir's ethics is very complex. In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948), her notions of "ambiguity," "disclosure," "natural freedom," "ethical freedom"-taking their departures from Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre-intertwine to form intricate bundles of argumentation.1 Perhaps that is why only philosopher Kristana Arp has really attempted to draw out her ethical theory to its finer threads. Much of the secondary literature consists of articles from critical journals that affirm the value of her ethics without analyzing it rigorously and edited collections with articles that touch on a few unconnected facets other ethics. Monika Langer attributes this lack of ethics-specific criticism to the overshadowing of The Ethics of Ambiguity by Beauvoir's more popular The Second Sex, Beauvoir's devaluation of her own philosophical ability, and, most significantly, to the patriarchal nature of the philosophical canon.2 To these possible reasons we may add the common conception of Beauvoir as merely Sartre's disciple and the gradual decline of existentialist philosophers in academia.

Sartre's ethics, his Being and Nothingness, and the evolution of his thought are difficult topics to handle. Yet in any case, a discussion of Sartre's ethics can commence with the familiar (though not uncontroversial) ideas he presents in his Existentialism is a Humanism. Beauvoir's ethics as expressed in The Ethics of Ambiguity, on the other hand, seems likely to leave a room full of confusion and blank faces. Rather than attempting to unfold the intricacies of her multi-layered ethical theory in this paper, I aim to substantively explicate her ethics, and from there, to critique it. What does Beauvoir's ethics amount to? What are the major problems with her ethics? These two questions structure this analysis. I argue that Beauvoir's ethics amounts to a subjectivist ethics with "ethical freedom" as a criterion of right and wrong actions. And I critique Beauvoir's ethics by arguing that her principle of ethical freedom lacks concrete content and is thereby difficult to apply to a large range of our personal and social experiences, and second, I argue against the plausibility of her argument that since our freedom is intertwined with that of others, we ought to promote their freedom in order to promote our own.

First, we have to understand Beauvoir's ethics before we can evaluate it. The Ethics of Ambiguity opens with an assertion of the ambiguity of the human condition. To be human means to exist in tension. In Being and Nothingness Sartre asserted and emphasized our transcendence. We are subjects-sovereign, masterful beings who can assert our freedom and subjectivity in the face of others who attempt to objectify us. Beauvoir maintains our transcendent nature with Sartre, but she stresses another element to our condition: we are also objects-material, vulnerable beings who are inextricably bound to the world. We can transcend our circumstances as subjects, but we can never quite break free from them as objects. Beauvoir eloquently describes this tension: man "asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things" (EA, 7). And she addresses this ambiguity with a particular philosophical context in mind. She writes that "as long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it" (EA, 7). Rather than acknowledging the dualistic tension between man as subject and man as object, philosophers have reduced man to matter (materialists) or mind (idealists)-and the dualists have mainly privileged one or the other. Thus the history of ethics, according to Beauvoir, has been a "matter of eliminating the ambiguity by making oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it" (EA, 8).

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