What do you think? In the discussion for today, explain whether you agree with Beauvoir about ethics, and how the primary obligation each of us has is to advance the cause of every person’s freedom.

The philosopher we’re reading today is one of my absolute favorites: Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, and philosopher whose work simultaneously engages with the existentialist commitment to making life meaningful and strives to explain and undermine the structures that allow oppressive value systems like sexism and patriarchy to flourish. Beauvoir’s most important philosophical work is The Second Sex, the book that began the French feminist tradition in philosophy. And Beauvoir’s literary work is similarly committed, aware, and impressive.

Take a moment now to watch this brief introduction to her work, and how it relates to the question of the meaning of life.

The selections from Beauvoir that we’ve read for today are from her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity. In this book, Beauvoir tries to develop an ethics out of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (“Existentialism” was written after both Being and Nothingness and The Ethics of Ambiguity). And we can see why she thought—or why someone had to think—that an existentialist ethics had to be written. The main criticism of existentialism in the 1940s (in a Europe that had just come out of the horror, devastation, and incomparable evil of World War II) was that it obliterated the difference between good and evil, that it did not provide people with a way to know how to act, and thus that it failed on ethical if not on other philosophical grounds.

As we saw in our readings, Sartre insists that human beings are their freedom—that is, since human beings lack an essence or a nature from birth and must make themselves into whatever they are going to become by way of their choices, what it is to be a human being (“human nature,” if you will) is to be free to choose. Freedom is in this sense just another word for what Sartre calls “nothingness”: to be truly free to choose A or B is in fact not to be already directed toward A or B; your choice of A or B is entirely spontaneous, and entirely up to you, and there is no logic or science or philosophy or religion that can or should influence your decision. As such, it seems difficult for Sartre to say that there is any such thing as “good” or “evil,” since these would be frameworks or guidelines that would try to influence our choices—and thus constrain our freedom, and thus undermine our humanity. Sartre and Beauvoir agree that the problem with totalitarianism is that it contradicts human freedom: the Nazis (to take the example most prominent in both Sartre and Beauvoir’s minds in the late 1940s) tried to impose their own choices on everyone else in Europe, thus attempting to deprive as many people as possible of their freedom to choose for themselves. For Sartre, that’s simply a failure to understand what it is to be a human being—or a failure to recognize other human beings as human beings, which is something of which we can probably all agree the Nazis were guilty.

Sartre leaves it at that, as a sort of abstract philosophical problem. But we can already see here the seeds of an existentialist ethics, and how Beauvoir draws a full-fledged ethical position out of Sartre’s existentialism. It’s going to have everything to do with freedom.
Beauvoir agrees with Sartre, that what makes a human being a human being is their freedom to choose for themselves. She thinks—again, in agreement with Sartre—that when a person makes a free choice, they are making an affirmation: they’re saying, “This thing I have chosen is worth choosing, by myself or by others.” (This is part of what Sartre calls “anguish,” as you no doubt recall from last week. Anguish means that I am responsible not only for my own actions, but for all those people who choose to act like I have acted.) But Sartre and Beauvoir want to point out something else, too: that every time I make a choice, I’m actually affirming two things. I am affirming the thing I have chosen (when I choose to tell a lie, I affirm that lying is worth choosing), and I am affirming freedom itself (when I choose to tell a lie, I affirm that human beings have the freedom to choose). I affirm freedom, not by writing a philosophical treatise on freedom, but instead by enacting my freedom—by using it, by being free. Every free choice is, for Beauvoir, an affirmation of freedom. Or, to put it another way, every time I make a free choice, I am choosing freedom itself—for myself, and for all human beings. (Think if it this way: if I didn’t believe that human beings were free, I would never try to use my freedom myself, and thus would never make any choices. And if I believed we are free, but didn’t believe that our freedom was worth anything, I would attempt to live my life likewise refraining from choosing anything—in the manner of Dostoevsky’s underground man.)
Thus, without even using any ethical principles, I can see that anyone who freely chooses against freedom is making a mistake—a logical mistake, which results in a self-contradiction. Importantly, Beauvoir points out that, since every free choice I make is an affirmation, not only of my own freedom but of freedom itself, then when I make a free choice I am not simply saying that I am free, but that everyone is free. To take the Nazi example again, when the Nazi officer uses his freedom to oppress another person (to oppress someone, for Beauvoir, is always to attempt to deprive them of their freedom), he is making two contradictory affirmations: on the one hand, by making a free choice, he is saying that all people are and ought to be free; and on the other hand, by choosing to oppress, he is saying some people are not and ought not to be free. He both affirms and denies freedom, and this is a contradiction. (For the reasons stated above, it remains a contradiction even if the Nazi sincerely believes that he is or ought to be free but that other people are not or ought not to be free, since all expressions of freedom—all free choices—affirm freedom itself, not one person’s or one group’s freedom.) Seeing the logical contradiction in the oppressor’s choices enables us to see a criterion by which we can (and, according to Beauvoir, must) evaluate all actions. And such a criterion is what, in philosophy, we typically call an ethics. In this way, she takes up a point Sartre makes briefly in “Existentialism,” and makes of it a fully realized ethical point of view.
With this in mind, we have to note that Beauvoir does not think that the world is a simple place. It’s not always obvious what is in the best interests of freedom, and it’s not always the case that we can make a choice in favor of freedom that doesn’t also oppress someone else. Things are often mixed up, and so complicated, that there are often no simple choices. Beauvoir knows this as well as anyone, having just lived through the Nazi occupation of France. Like Sartre, Beauvoir was affiliated with the French Resistance—and resistance fighters often had to make tough choices. In another part of The Ethics of Ambiguity (not included in our selection), Beauvoir gives the example of a 16-year old Nazi youth. This boy has been indoctrinated—maybe even brainwashed—and, in ideal circumstances, we would try to teach him the error of his ways, get him to change his allegiances and leave the Nazi Party. To choose to try to convince the Nazi youth that he is wrong would be to choose freedom, for ourselves, for the people the Nazis are trying to oppress, and for the Nazi youth himself. But World War II did not provide many people with the “ideal circumstances” for choosing freedom. If we come upon this Nazi youth holding a gun, preparing to force a group of a dozen Jews into a train for transport to a concentration camp, we don’t have the time to educate him. In such a situation, we are faced with an awful choice: recognize the Nazi youth’s freedom, and let the Jews be murdered; or recognize the freedom of the Jewish captives, and deprive the Nazi youth of his freedom. More drastically, Beauvoir notes, time is of the essence here—to stop him, we are probably going to have to kill the Nazi. Of course, in such a situation, just about anyone would choose to shoot the Nazi youth to save the Jews—that does seem to be in the best interests of freedom, and the right thing to do. But it’s not as if that makes killing a 16-year old boy a good thing to do. As we often say, we must “choose the lesser of two evils” here. But it’s crucial that we not lose sight of the fact that, however right the action is in the long run, killing the Nazi youth is evil. It’s an act of oppression, depriving the boy of his freedom to choose for himself, and it is a similar sort of contradiction in our actions to the one we were accusing the Nazis of a moment ago.
This fact about human life and human action—that we are often confronted with situations which do not admit of an easy choice between freedom on the one side and oppression on the other, but which probably require us to oppress some people in the service of the freedom of some other people—is what Beauvoir means by “ambiguity.” Life is ambiguous in this way, in big choices and in small ones, and this ambiguity is something with which an ethics is going to have to struggle. Moreover, Beauvoir thinks that the struggle can never be resolved once and for all.
So what does that mean for human action, and for ethics? It means two things. First, we must always be analyzing the situations in which we find ourselves, and the opportunities we have for action, in light of freedom itself. The better choice is to kill the Nazi youth to save the Jews, not just because there are more Jews in the situation than there are Nazis (although that is one factor), but because the Nazi’s actions are about depriving the Jews of their freedom. (Imagine a similar scenario, where we come upon a group of people beating a 16-year old Nazi youth while he lay on the ground, unarmed. Is the right choice for us as obvious in this version of the scenario?) In the end, all people of conscience need to be opposed to the Nazi oppression of the Jews—and that need probably trumps our need to respect the freedom of all individuals. But the word “probably” is key here, and that’s the second consequence of ambiguity for ethics. In addition to analyzing every aspect of the situations we find ourselves in, we must always be asking ourselves the question: “Am I doing the right thing here?” Or, perhaps also, “Have I done the right thing here?” Beauvoir is very clear: the first sign that someone is opposed to freedom (and thus is evil) is that they have become so convinced of the rightness of their own actions or their own cause, that they stop taking seriously the possibility that they might be in the wrong.
Beauvoir cannot give us more than this—that’s what she means when she says that, as in art and science, there are no “recipes” in ethics. Sometimes, killing the Nazi youth will be good; other times, it will be evil. No one can tell you in advance which is which. You’re going to have to think it through for yourself, and make your choice—knowing that, in so doing, you are always running the risk of choosing wrongly, of becoming a force for evil and oppression in the world yourself. This resonates with Sartre’s emphasis on choice and invention in human action (remember the boy who had to choose between staying home with his mother, or moving to England to join the French Resistance—and Sartre’s advice to him: “Invent”), and is more or less a complete rebuttal of the underground man. You can see Beauvoir make a version of this point with regard to religion and belief in God, in this interview with Radio-Canada from 1959.

In the video interview, as well as in the reading from the textbook, we can see the centrality to both Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s work of the freedom each of us has to choose for ourselves. Unlike most of the other thinkers we’ve read in this class so far, Beauvoir and Sartre both address the question of the meaning of life directly, and both argue that we are free to make our lives mean whatever we choose—but that we are then absolutely responsible for what we have chosen. It’s in this choosing to live our lives so that they mean one thing or another that we become ourselves, and become responsible for choosing to become the people we’ve become.
In some contrast to Sartre, Beauvoir emphasizes how our choices for ourselves always relate to other people, and how other people are treated. Although your freedom is yours to use as you see fit, if you use it to oppress other people, or if you are confronted with injustices you choose not to address, this undermines any free choice you do try to make. The freedom of the college student taking a course in philosophy and the freedom of Black men and women worried they’ll be the next Rayshard Brooks or Breonna Taylor and the freedom of women objectified by predatory men in positions of power and the freedom of the DACA recipient and the freedom of the Trump supporter at a MAGA rally and the freedom of my 9-year old daughter trying to improve her reading are all intertwined. As Beauvoir teaches, implicitly in this reading and explicitly elsewhere, to be free is to work on behalf of freedom—of all freedom, not just one person’s or one party’s or one gender’s. Even when this is practically impossible, when fighting for the freedom of one requires limiting the freedom of another, we must try to remain aware of the fact that we are ethically obligated to be on the side of freedom—and in opposition to oppression.

What do you think? In the discussion for today, explain whether you agree with Beauvoir about ethics, and how the primary obligation each of us has is to advance the cause of every person’s freedom. If she’s wrong, what makes her wrong? But if she’s right, what’s one concrete step you could take in the direction of freedom as she understands it?