Thursday, July 10, 2014
Review of The Ethics Of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir
Existentialism was, for a sweet minute, the new way to think about self and the world in the 20th century; but few—so very precious few—understood anything about it. Christians were probably the primary reason it bombed among traditionalists, but its novel language, complex ideas, and deep avowal of the value of personal choice were strong determinants of its unrecognized benefits. So what is it exactly that Existentialism offers? Simone de Beauvoir does a wonderful job drawing out the practical significance of existentialist ideas, such as:
1. An affirmation and value of one’s own self as the center of the universe
2. Confidence in one’s own powers to shape the world
3. A confidence in the importance and necessity of others and their happiness
4. A call to action and responsibility within the context of a limited understanding
5. A framework to understand the world in a more practical way which exposes and utilizes the subject-object tension consistently evident in our experience.
She offered answers for postmodernism and post-traditionalism and post-“what the heck do I do now that I realize I have to decide for myself?”-ism. Besides defining a new method for ethics, she also took on crass communists and gross capitalists and staunchly defended a philosophy of authentic, vulnerable, courageous living against a petrified, simplistic code of morals that for centuries has enabled instant action but not an understanding of the nature or goals of one’s existence. It will always be difficult to defend a new idea against deeply ingrained and widely accepted customs, but then again, there’s air conditioning. Old ways of thinking, no matter how convenient, are like Missouri summer weather, while the ethics of existentialist ambiguity is like air conditioning. Who wants to live in Misery without air conditioning? You sir? Be my guest, but I’m thinking air conditioning will ultimately win the day.
This book is especially for anyone wondering what the blank they should do with the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Many summarize Sartre’s philosophy by his words, “Man is a useless passion”, and though some women may agree (ha!), I think mostly his words are being wrenched out of context. In Being And Nothingness Sartre laid out that humanity is a lack in that every existing person has a consciousness which has, in effect, stepped away from the world of things (thus a lack) to be able to comprehend the world of things. In other words, the subject-object relationship is fundamental and absolute, for if all were object there would be no consciousness of objects at all. And because this subject-object disparity is the foundation of consciousness, there is no going back. The subject strives to expand in the universe, to “disclose its being” and define its dimensions. Its goal is to continue to become more without becoming all, because in becoming all it would be object (in that there would be no object besides itself), and it would cease to exist, theoretically, as conscious subject. Beauvoir sums it up nicely, “If I were really everything there would be nothing beside me; the world would be empty. There would be nothing to possess, and I myself would be nothing.” In other words, we strive to remain conscious as a limited, transcendent being-away-from-objects, but we also strive to assimilate things we are becoming conscious of. This is the paradox and “useless passion” that Sartre spoke so frankly about, but I would think the words “endless passion” would better characterize the tension.
Beauvoir, Sartre’s compatriot in country and mind, takes up existentialism where Sartre left off, and tackles how one should live with these new ideas. She believes with Sartre that our existence is concerned with disclosing and expanding our being, but she is chiefly concerned with how to do so healthily and happily for the best results. In the wake of WWII and communist turmoil, France, and the rest of the world, someone needed to point the way with a new species of ethics that wouldn’t land us all in the awful mess and global suffering the world at that time found itself in.
So Beauvoir did what Sartre was never able, or interested enough, to do. She recognized with him that the ethical character of existentialism was ambiguity—no external right or wrongs that absolved individuals from their essential responsibility to decide for themselves and all the risk that entails, and that this ambiguity would become a perceived stumbling block for the uninitiated; but she also believed that something might be done to help people embrace their freedom and love their life, and she hoped to provide ideological support to assist people in making more rewarding decisions in the game of life. “The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning.”
She begins by laying out what human beings want: freedom over and above the world of objects, disclosing one’s being in that world, and a future open with possibilities to continue to expand and define one’s presence in that world. “My freedom must not seek to trap being, but to disclose it. The disclosure is the transition from [unconscious] being to [conscious] existence.” The autonomy of the human being must always float above the objective world, never equating itself with a thing or finding itself on a crash course collision with objectification and the ‘stillness’ of absolute and unconscious being. This is why “freedom is not to be engulfed in any goal; neither is it to dissipate itself vainly without aiming at a goal.” The idea of an open future and a continually retreating, but partly-realizable goal, is what everyone wants in balance, and oppression occurs when one is prevented by another from feeling fulfilled in balanced and meaningful pursuit.
To highlight the different ways in which imbalances are struck in the subject/object tension from person to person, Beauvoir provides a brilliant list of six different types of personas who try to evade their freedom—their separation from the world of objects—and thus begin to limit the freedom of others.
1. The Child
Literal and figurative children simply wish to remain in a stage of innocence and insignificance.
“[The child is] in a state of security by virtue of his very insignificance. He can do with impunity whatever he likes. He knows that nothing can ever happen through him; everything is already given; his acts engage nothing, not even himself.”
But this is an illusion. The child has, from his very birth, been active in creating his world, albeit without a clearly formulated concept of his having been doing so. Every child changes the shape of his world with every act, with every cry, with every laugh. His choices warp the world, twist it this way and that, bring that thing closer and move that other thing further, influence places and positions and people.
“The child set up this character and this [his current] universe little by little, without foreseeing its development. He was ignorant of the disturbing aspect of this freedom which he was heedlessly exercising.”
Many who are frightened at the thought of having to take responsibility for their world or admit that they create, and have always created, their own experience, attempt to remain a blameless child in any way they can by denying responsibility, becoming dependent on others, and refusing to acknowledge the full power and horror (“anguish”) of becoming the “prey of a freedom that is no longer chained up by anything.” Anyone who has ever had to drive a car, pay mortgage, manage employees, or have children of their own can appreciate the struggle of first realizing the full consequences of power which can be both creative and destructive. One can understand how some people regressively pretend to be an insignificant child who can’t do anything great, nor cause great harm; but of course this is a flight from the reality that even as a child a human being is choosing for herself, even when she is choosing to submit to another’s authority.
2. The Sub-Man
The Sub-Man is one who, like the child, attempts to avoid the significance and responsibilities of his existence, but instead of attempting to regress to a relinquishment of power to others, the Sub-Man attempts to passively ignore his situation and failure-to-launch. “This apathy manifests a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies. The Sub-Man rejects this ‘passion’ which is his human condition, the laceration and the failure of that drive toward being which always misses its goal, but [this passive way of life] is the very existence which he rejects.” There is no escape, there is only denial and a failure to thrive, and the Sub-Man in his fear and refusal to spend his life on something worthwhile, spends it nonetheless on his evasions.
3. The Serious Man
The Serious Man, like the Sub-Man, takes the external, objective world more seriously than he does himself. A spontaneous freedom is an unwieldy and unpredictable thing, and he wants a stable, predictable, unmoving world which poses no threats to him. “He [tries to keep] himself from existing because he is not capable of existing without a guarantee...[but] he will always be saying that he is disappointed, for his wish to have the world harden into a thing is belied by the very movement of life.” He resents being the subjective viewer, the controller of an objective experience which he still can’t completely master, and in his denial of his freedom, he attempts to kill his uniqueness by regarding himself as just another object. He wants to be an effect, a corollary, a pre-determined and fated thing like all other fated things. Unlike the Sub-Man, he works hard so that, one fine day, he no longer needs create or take responsibility for his actions. It is a race to escape one’s self. He thinks he has established that nothing is responsible for itself if it is conditioned, so he longs to become a thing among things, which, if he is not free, really takes off the pressure to perform as if he were free.
For many, the serious mindset is most prominently manifested in religious notions about being a God-slave so as to escape human responsibility. Reasoning goes thus: God made human beings, he gave humanity a chance to be free-but-miserable instead of enslaved-but-happy, humanity offended God and brought upon itself God’s wrath for acting freely, God offered forgiveness for humanity’s freedom back, and now humanity must suffer with their own freedom, or relinquish that freedom and live happily in bondage to God for all eternity. That, for the serious person, is at least a guarantee of happiness. So why would someone give up a slave’s happiness for the anguish of freedom? Beauvoir hit it square when she writes, “After having lived under the eyes of the gods, having been given the promise of divinity, one does not readily accept becoming simply a man with all his anxiety and doubt.” Of course Beauvoir doesn’t believe freedom leads only to misery, but there is no denying that there is some anguish involved in being your own person. It’s that old proverb, where no oxen are, the stables are clean.
4. The Nihilist
The Nihilist is just one step beyond the Serious Man. He is the Serious Man become conscious and, as the poet Ted Hughes so well put it, “Unwinding the world like a ball of wool, found the last end tied round his own finger”, and he laments his ownership. He is the Serious Man disillusioned. He realizes that he can’t become an object, a history, a determination. He’s not an episode in someone else’s memoir. He despairs when he realizes he must always be the self-determining author of his own life. So, he attempts to lose faith in the whole system. “Conscious of being unable to be anything, man then decides to be nothing.” Now begins his war against his own projects and the projects of others. Here Beauvoir really gets the ball rolling down a path towards what she will later clarify as the category of ‘evil’, citing political tyrants as examples of peaking Nihilists. This Nihilist is the apex of the types of flight from life which seek to lose themselves in the objective world and thereby annihilate their subjectivity.
5. The Adventurer
After the Nihilist, Beauvoir backs up to start a new track in the types of flights from freedom. She describes a more moderate flight from existence in the form of an attempt to become swallowed up in subjectivity versus losing oneself in the objective world. The Adventurer is someone who takes life for what it is, in the moment, in her personal moments more specifically, and makes the most of them as if the moment is all that is. Adventurers are those who, as Beauvoir stated at the beginning of the book, “enclose themselves in the pure moment” and “become pure inwardness to escape the sensible world.” If it weren’t for the fact that they are escaping their intrinsic human need and responsibility to develop more distant, meaningful goals, then there might be some virtue in their self-affirmation and sportsmanlike engagement in their projects. But the problem comes in an escapism which cares nothing for what appears outside of their self and their narrow range of solipsistic values. Life is a big game—play it while it lasts, aim no higher, and regret nothing.
“[The Adventurer] seeks a pretext in [things] for a gratuitous display of activity…Hoping for no justification, he will nevertheless take delight in living…he likes action for its own sake...[but] though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal.”
The detachment from a further goal leaves him with a short-range concern for life, which is ultimately delusive because he fails to acknowledge that his consciousness is dependent on his inter-being/inter-consciousness with others. This devaluing of life around him makes him immediately a threat, a potentially dangerous person, especially if someone gets in the way of his fun. “He carries the seed of [a tyrant] within him, since he regards mankind as indifferent matter destined to support the game of his existence.”
Beauvoir’s bottom line for her views in general really surfaces in her discussion about the Adventurer. “No man can save himself alone…[the Adventurer] will enclose himself in a false independence which will indeed be servitude.” That is probably the nearest to a pivot for the entire work, and is probably the thrust of her ethics and extended philosophy.
6. The Passionate
The Passionate person is a more obsessive form of the Adventurer. He makes a goal out of his goal-lessness and solipcism. He is more conscious and relentless in his obsession to sacrifice himself to his activities which are ultimately self-evasive. The Adventurer and the Passionate person both realize they cannot become an object and know they will never find validation in becoming a controlled thing, but in rushing madly to sacrifice or spend their lives to zero, they are attempting to burn out the objective world and along with it their freedom and separateness in the consuming fire of passion, numbing busyness, and maniacal risk which leads to finality.
“[For the Passionate person] nothing exists outside of his stubborn project; therefore nothing can induce him to modify his choices…The cause of the passionate man’s torment is his distance from the object; but he must accept it instead of trying to eliminate it.”
The problem with all of these various ways to escape oneself and one’s responsibility is that they become not only destructive to self, but destructive to others. In other words, the Sub-man and the Passionate person both threaten me because they have assigned me a value of being just another object in their world in which they are not invested. The failure to see others as critical components of one’s own consciousness leads to a reduction of others’ worth in a subordinate role. This idea of interdependence of the frameworks for consciousness is what Sartre referred to as “intersubjectivity” in his work, Existentialism Is a Humanism, and it underpins all of Beauvoir’s philosophy of the human concern for one another. The existentialists fought hard to make people see that we are all woven into a tapestry of consciousness which comes into being together and cannot function rightly without each other. “The freedom of one man almost always concerns that of other individuals… his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.” In the repeated emphasis of human solidarity one can clearly understand how French existentialism was birthed in crisis amid the political and communistic oppression of the mid-20th century, not to mention the Nazi occupation.
So, now that we know how NOT to act, how DO we act? Essentially Beauvoir heads towards a “greatest good for the greatest number” form of rationale, and it stands up pretty well. She offers well thought-out and cogent responses to humanitarian quandaries like using force against others, sacrificing a few that more may live, sacrificing many so that one with a more hopeful future can live, and using means in the light of ends while making sure that the ends are present in-part with the means.
However, while it seems that Beauvoir is presenting a hard-and-fast ethic—being concerned for others—the whole point of human existence is realizing our fundamental freedom from external influence that would condition or determine human beings’ actions or choices, and it is this which introduces ambiguity as the freedom from the restraint of rules, traditions, dogma or imperatives of any kind. There is no external authority to be blamed or praised for an individual’s unique and unqualified personal choice, not even the authority of thinkers like Beauvoir. My choice is my own, and no one else’s. It is mine alone, and will always be so. Therefore, the other can only suggest tools that I can use to help me achieve more success with my actions, and even then, I have to assess those tools and experiment with them at my own risk. I am liable only for myself to myself. This is why Beauvoir proposes personally utilized ‘methods’ and not universal absolutes, even when it comes to things like human oppression and murder. “Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.”
Probably the most uncomfortable part of existentialism, and of this work in particular, is the deflating assertion that we must accept risks in ethics as in the rest of life without having complete information, being always in a state of partial doubt; and this, says the author, is the most fundamental trait of human existence.
“The movement of the mind, whether it be called thought or will, always starts up in the darkness…we must [at bottom] maneuver in a state of doubt… Man always has to decide by himself in the darkness, [and] he must want beyond what he knows.”
For many, this will not sound consoling, but for those who have already begun to recognize that this is indeed our situation, it is freeing to be able to admit it, and maybe to start loving it for what it is. For one like myself who has come to the realization that they may not have been one hundred percent certain of anything at any point in their life, it comes as an affirmation to know that all the good that could ever be achieved can only be achieved, and has only ever been achieved, by courage and love with all of their concomitant dangers. That feels pretty good to know.
If ethics are not absolutes but only proposed methods, what about the people who may not adopt the methods which I believe ultimately benefit humankind, and instead employ methods which produce only devastation? This, my dear, is what war is for. “There are cases where a man positively wants evil, that is, the enslavement of other men, and he must then be fought.” I assume Beauvoir believes that her method-of-proposing-helpful-methods must be somewhat effective in producing authentic living and honest thinking which naturally engender a human concern for one another; but it’s easy to see that she isn’t opposed to a very physical approach to attitude adjustments when all else fails. And this would still fit within her philosophy of being concerned for others, even those fought against, because another’s unwarranted violence against their own self or another person “is an attempt of the individual against his own freedom”; and so violence against violence can be justified, and only justified, if the fight is against a person, for a person, and for others’ ultimate welfare. “The tyranny practiced against an invalid can be justified only by his getting better.”
Some may ask, “How dare you? How dare you, Simone de Beauvoir, though your name is like a honeyed song rolling off the tongue? If you are so concerned with the Other, what right have you to hurt another human being?” She would answer (and she did), “… love authorizes severities which are not granted to indifference.”
Now THAT’S a woman.