Simone De Beauvoir always said she was not a philosopher which seems strange when she was one of the brightest philosophy students in France in her year and wrote lots of philosophy during her life. She said it because in her view a philosopher was one who had developed an entire philosophical theory – Kant, Hegel etc. She always regarded her public persona to be that of a novelist first and foremost. Given her reticence it is perhaps easy to see how her importance in developing and expanding philosophical discourse was relatively underplayed until the emergence of feminist theorists in the seventies and eighties. Since then her contribution to philosophy has been explored in more depth. So I was really pleased to attend a course on The Ambiguous Ethics and Politics of Simone De Beauvoir in February this year.
It was another in the regular series conducted by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. Our lecturer was Sameema Zahra from the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland and she was great; personable, engaging and clear.
The course focussed on De Beauvoir’s philosophical ideas; not specifically about existentialism or about her contribution to feminist thought. And on this subject, her contribution to philosophy has not been properly recognised because whilst De Beauvoir was scrupulous about acknowledging what she took from other philosophers they rarely acknowledged what they took from her. Nor did the course focus on her much publicised and pondered relationship with Sartre; whilst important this was not the totality of her contribution to philosophical ideas. Over the course of the week we discovered where and how she differed from Sartre in aspects of existentialism. Her most significant contribution was to provide an ethical framework for existentialism.
I found it all completely exhilarating; exactly as I had found my introduction to existentialism – Sartre’s Being and Nothingess – under Max Charlesworth at Melbourne University all those years ago. Having reviewed our five days of lectures in writing this, including discussions with Joe, here is a summary of De Beauvoir’s philosophy:
* As humans we are all matter (immanence) and consciousnesses (transcendence) – this is our fundamental ambiguity
* We are act as individuals and at the same time are deeply engaged with others, who we need to be fulfilled – a second source of ambiguity
* We cannot resolve this ambiguity but have to live it
* We all have bodies and specific attributes that are a given and which we cannot change (facticity)
* We are all free (freedoms)
* We cannot refuse our freedom so have to constantly be making choices
* How we exercise our freedom is affected by our facticity, our situation
* We are deeply engaged with others who, like us, are both objects and subjects – this is the source of our ambiguous situation
* We are always taking action and moving forward to an open future (to transcendence)
* In doing so we appeal to others to join us in our projects and they appeal to us
* Appeals can only be to and from people who are free
* Ethical actions are those that expand both our freedom and the freedom of others
* Oppression occurs when your capacity to make and respond to an appeal is constrained
* Violence is always a possibility in our world and may be justified depending on the particular situation
* Absolute evil is when a person’s freedom is denied completely and they are treated solely as an object
* Violence is always justified in opposition to absolute evil
* There is no single set of rules, principles or maxims to guide ethics or the justification of violence
* We always have a choice, and have to choose and accept responsibility for our choices
Here is how we got to that succinct understanding.
De Beauvoir describes the work of a philosopher as being not merely to describe the internal, lived experience of individuals, it is as well to examine those same experiences from an external perspective, that is, to look at the meanings ascribed to them by society via such means as science, history, and politics .. it is through this process of articulating the particular in its fulness that the universal is elucidated. Her studies of, amongst others, women and of the elderly were not limited in time and space but transcended the particular and grasped something of what was essential.
This is a phenomenological method: you start with consciousness, the essence and bracket, put on hold, anything that you’ve imbibed about something; removing all learning, prejudices and anything else that has been added on – in order to get to the pure consciousness. Feminists are opposed to this approach because they say you can’t get rid of prejudices especially those relating to a woman’s difference as a woman. De Beauvoir says you can’t get rid of your own particularity. Her addition to traditional phenomenology is that while you bracket prejudices, you must keep them close to you, recognise how they are impacting on you and keep engaging with them. Being a woman is such an important part of a woman’s particularity you have to start with that difference.
Trying to understand the structure of existence from a phenomenological point of view we get the two modes of being. Being-in-itself; a paper knife is a paper knife and nothing more, it is complete as it is. Being-for-itself; a person is a consciousness and is never complete – every part of my life is moving forward towards something. Humans are not just consciousness but have bodies and concrete situations e.g. when and where they are born. This is our facticity.
Existentialists don’t talk about human nature; rather they focus on the human condition. This is because we are free – free to be what we choose to be. My situation limits my choices but within my facticity I am free to choose. Freedom means I have a responsibility to exercise my choice. I can’t hide behind a mask. I cannot say: I am a painter therefore I painted this. Rather I have to say:I am choosing to paint and I have chosen to paint this.
Existentialists look at the question: how do I live in the world, not the traditional question asked by philosophers: how do I know the world. The interest of existentialists is in the common features of how we experience the world.
A key feature of existentialism is that as humans we are all free. At distinction arises here between Sartre and De Beauvoir. Sartre says: You are free. De Beauvoir says: You learn to be free. She’s more aware of the restrictions on an individual’s freedom and how we relate to both our situation and to other people.
The authentic human existence uses freedom to go beyond the present – this is transcendence. We have projects through which we accomplish freedom. We are always moving to an indefinitely open future.
There are two freedoms:
* Ontological freedom – we are free to choose anything.
* Moral freedom – we must acknowledge our responsibility to ourself and to others. This applies to even those living under oppressive conditions who must ask, how am I complicit in my own oppression? and, who is responsible for this situation?
Exercising moral responsibility can result in anguish once you become aware of your responsibility. It also results in anxiety, all the time, as there is often no clear cut choice between good and bad choices. But you need to be authentic and live with your choice. To do otherwise is to live in Bad Faith. Authenticity requires you to acknowledge your project, your responsibility and to accept the consequences of the choices you make.
The Ethics of Ambiguity
One of the key works by De Beauvoir explored in the course is, unsurprisingly given the course name, The Ethics of Ambiguity. We were able to finally track down a copy of this essay in this beautifully presented, very old, book As you can see we borrowed it from Deakin University via one of Joe’s fellow German pupils. .
Deidre Bair, in what is still the best biography of De Beauvoir,
tells us this was written while Sartre was in America with a woman with whom De Beauvoir feared he might form a permanent relationship. Bair quotes from De Beauvoir’s memoirs what the author thought about it. Of all my books, it is the one that irritates me the most.
Bair goes on to say: at the end of her life she called it ‘a frivolous, insignificant thing, not worthy of attention’. She attributed its inadequacy to the fact that ‘it’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s supposed to be a defence of Existentialism and a definition of morality, but at the time I wrote it I was too conscious of myself to think objectively’. Bair then notes that most readers would agree that this is her least popular work and that scholars have generally tended to ignore it. Not any more.
The language is quite straightforward and easy to read; but the ideas are hard to absorb on a single reading. There are so many ideas contained within what is a very short book – often referred to as an essay – it could take you a very long time to unpack it all unaided.
I was grateful Joe referred me to a terrific podcast called Philosophize This! which I listened to before reading it. Even then I had to listen to it a couple of times. The podcast host, Stephen West, is terrific, giving short, clear and accessible talks about the basic ideas put forward by a whole host of philosophers. He’s up to podcast 141. He often has more than one on an individual philosopher and on a particular work. If you enjoy philosophy this is a terrific resource. He has two, and they can be accessed here, and are very strongly recommended, if you’re interested, on The Ethics of Ambiguity.
De Beauvoir writes: 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. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance.
Instead we should recognise ambiguity and live with the choices we have made. This is how we live an authentic life.
De Beauvoir identifies five human types that demonstrate inauthentic attitudes. These types are avoiding living their freedom; the quotes below come directly from The Ethics of Ambiguity. I found the blogs referred to above very useful in explaining these.
Sub Man – They have eyes and ears, but from their childhood on they make themselves blind and deaf, without love and without desire. This apathy manifests a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies. They don’t think about their responsibility, just live their lives. As a result they can be used by others for their own ends and easily become a mob that can be manipulated by others.
Serious Man – Chooses to live in accordance with an absolute – for example by following the edicts of a church or a political party – and by doing so avoids making choices. The serious man chooses to live in an infantile world, but to the child the values are really given. The serious man must mask the movement by which he gives them to himself, like the mythomaniac who while reading a love-letter pretends to forget she has sent it herself.
Nihilist – Believes has has no values at all and has renounced making choices but is hypocritical because that amounts to a choice in itself.
Adventurer – Doesn’t recognise values but just throws himself into actions without involving others; he deliberately makes himself a lack of being; he aims expressly at existence; though engaged in his undertaking, he is at the same time detached from the goal .. throwing himself into a new enterprise to which he will give himself with the same indifferent ardor.
Passionate Man – Takes away the subjectivity of the Other, impinging on the other’s freedom. That is,he sets up the object as an absolute, not, like the serious man, as a thing detached from himself, but as a thing disclosed by his subjectivity.
There are three states of Being:
* Being-in-itself as in a bench, it is a bench and nothing more.
* Being-for-itself as in individuals who are consciousnesses constrained by their facticity and situations but always involved with projects taking us into the future.
* Being-for-others as described in Being and Nothingness is when we become a subject when an Other looks at us. That Other observing me becomes a sinkhole affecting the whole space in which I exist as a consciousness, changing that space; the other demands a response from me. The Other’s freedom disturbs my meaning in the world.
The Peeping Tom example from Being and Nothingness demonstrates the point: observing through the key hole a person is pure consciousness, totally unaware of anything other than what he is seeing. Until another person observes him, then he feels shame and is aware of his body, what he is doing, how he appears to others.
This is a very negative interpretation of the effects of others on a consciousness. The Other can turn me into an object at any time leading to constant fear, anguish and living in bad faith. Sartre doesn’t talk about ethics at all.
De Beauvoir looks at lived experience. In some instances reciprocity between people is lost, but mostly there is a measure of reciprocity between me and other people: between villages, clans, nations, and classes there are wars, agreements, treaties and struggles that remove the absolute meaning from the idea of the Other and bring out its relativity; whether one likes it or not, individuals and groups have no choice but to recognise the reciprocity of their relation. Absolute otherness cannot be established unless the other accepts it.
The Second Sex
This takes us to De Beauvoir’s great work, The Second Sex. I’m interested in the different covers given to the different editions of this book. This one is mine; from the 1970s. I didn’t ever read it completely. I got bogged down in myths – all so awful! I like the cover.
The latest edition has a corset on the cover which I think is strange. We borrowed it from the library. I tried compared some passages in both the old and the new translation and the latest is more direct. They say it contains a lot more of De Beauvoir’s philosophical sections which were excluded in the first translation. For all that I really enjoyed the course I’m not sure I’ll be going back to it.
It’s incredible that De Beauvoir, studying alone, in the 1940’s produced this work. We take it for granted now that what she describes is an accurate description of the position of women at the time. It wasn’t accepted by many of her peers at the time. Phenomenal. I was really pleased to participate in this course which gave me an accessible deep dive into it. Again Stephen West gives a lovely overview in his Philosophize This! podcast here.
All of the quotes below come from the latest edition.
She asks: How is it then that between the sexes this reciprocity has not been put forward, that one of the terms has been asserted as the only essential on, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative, defining the latter as pure alterity? Why do women not contest male sovereignty? No subject posits itself spontaneously and at once as the inessential from the outset; it is not the Other who, defining itself as Other, defines the One; the Other is posited as Other by the One positing itself as One. But in order for the Other not to turn into the One, the Other has to submit to this foreign point of view. Where does this submission in woman come from?
The whole of her investigation into the position of women in The Second Sex identifies the complete subjugation of women across all cultures and from time immemorial. She identifies how facts and myths are inter-related. How you read facts depends on your biases. Biological facts have been influenced by prejudices, language is loaded with meaning, everyone approaches everything from a point of view. You need to be aware of your prejudices and hold them close. All facts are seen from a mans point of view. Biology has been created by men, from a male perspective.
The second section of this book looks at the woman’s point of view. How women have responded to the limited options available to them. They have accepted the position created by men but in different ways. For example by focussing on achieving beauty as a project or by beautifying a home. Both of these responses are not authentic – you can’t avoid your transcendence in this way.
Myths have played multiple roles regarding our encounter with the Other. For men, the Other is always a man. It is the existence of other men that wrests each man from his immanence and enables him to accomplish the truth of his being, to accomplish himself as transcendence, as flight towards the object, as project. But this foreign freedom, which confirms my freedom also enters into conflict with it. Nature is a purely abstract opposition – it is an obstacle and remains foreign – or it passively submits to man’s desire and allows itself to be assimilated by him; he possesses it only in consuming it, that is, in destroying it. .. he remains alone. Woman is the perfect intermediary between nature that is foreign to man and the peer who is too identical to him. She pits neither the hostile silence of nature nor the hard demand of reciprocal recognition agains him.
So woman, because she is not identical to man, does not demand reciprocal recognition. The is a myth created by man. Men subliminally know that this is a myth and they are uncomfortable about it. They know that their possession of women is not real. The duality that can be seen in one form or other at the heart of society pits one group of men against another: and women are part of the goods that men possess and a means of exchange between themselves.
Myths perpetuate woman as the Absolute Other. But she is not the Absolute Other. This is bad faith on the part of man – he fears his immanence and finitude and projects this fear onto woman to avoid his carnality. She embodies everything that is bad about being human while he embodies transcendence, that is, everything good about being human – pure Idea, absolute Spirit.
Remembering birth foreshadows death. Man denies his ambiguity. The organ by which he claims to affirm himself does not obey him; heavy with unsatisfied desires, unexpectedly becoming erect, sometimes reliving its feeling during sleep, it manifests a suspect and capricious vitality. Man aspires to make Spirit triumph over Life, activity over passivity; his consciousness keeps nature at a distance, his will shapes her, but in his sex organ he rediscovers life, nature, and passivity.
So man is associated with – reason, culture, transcendence and is active. Woman is associated with – emotion, nature, immanence and is passive. Man is in control; woman is not. She just ‘is’, has no power.
This leads to a discussion about oppression. For Sartre acceptance of oppression amounts to bad faith. For De Beauvoir, oppression is evil but it can only be a moral fault if the subject of oppression consents to it. She asks: how far is woman complicit in her oppression? This depends on the extent of the oppression. If there is a possibility of escape from oppression it is a moral fault not to take it. However women live in a completely oppressive world – from childhood onwards. This oppression has been internalised and women have been taught to accept limitations on their possibilities.
What is denied to women is the opportunity for an open future which is what makes us complete human beings. We need to be engaged in projects with others and choice must be exercised by engaging with the world.
Which leads to a discussion of the ambiguities of the inter-subjective world.
Tension with the Other is needed to fulfil my freedom but it also turns me into an object. For Sartre the meaning of his famous hell is other people is that to accept being an object is automatically evidence of bad faith. For De Beauvoir oppression is evil but if it is forced on you it is not bad faith on your part. Woman, by being forced to be an Absolute Other has been reduced by men to permanent immanence. In the hierarchies set by society mans world is a world of transcendence and womens world is a world of immanence. She asks: how did this hierarchy come about?
Looking at how interdependent we are we see women rely on men and men rely on women. There is no objective reason to make mens contribution more important. There is mutual dependence (mitsein).
The hierarchy has been established due to values that have been adopted. Work associated with masculinity is given a higher value – as being acts that illustrate transcendence. Humanity survives by moving forward – always looking to go beyond the present. Mans acts are aimed at forging a future, are an expression of freedom, acts of transcendence. Whereas womens acts are regarded as acts aimed at maintaining the species, acts of immanence.
These values give superiority to the sex that kills rather than the sex that gives birth. This is the key to the whole mystery. It’s justified by pointing out all animals give birth but in risking his life to kill an animal a man raises himself up above the animal. Therefore motherhood has not value. It’s not a choice (De Beauvoir was writing before accessible contraception / abortion). It’s a natural process, it’s not moving forward, changing the present, not taking humanity to a new future. Whereas hunting is taking humanity forward with the development of new tools, new techniques. This is why celebrations normally follow male achievements – the successful hun, victory in war.
Patriarchy values man’s acts as acts of transcendence and devalues women’s acts as acts of immanence.
Which leads to a discussion of the Hegelian Master-Slave Dialectic. Two self-conscious individuals are equal which means they must engage in a life and death struggle to raise their certainty of being. I turn the Other into and Object because I know you are turning me into an Object. I have to get you to acknowledge that I am superior to you. You have to risk your life in this encounter.
This is a critical feature of existentialism. This struggle goes on forever. Some allege De Beauvoir sees man as having won this struggle. This is not so. De Beauvoir says women have never challenged man. Woman has never risked her life in this encounter. Woman to man is not a contest between two free consciousnesses because woman is always in the situation of being oppressed.
A master and slave fight to the death. The master is prepared to lose his life. The slave decides he wants to live and gives up the fight. The master has vanquished the slave; the slave acknowledges the master as superior. We all want to be master but we go back and forth between these positions. It is a continuous battle.
But woman has never risked her live, has never fought, has never known what it is to fight, to be free, to make a choice. You have to learn to recognise freedom – to learn to be free. Woman has not had this opportunity.
Woman’s position is worse than Hegel’s slave. From the time she is born woman has not learned freedom. She has given pure recognition to man, has been possessed by the master who knows she won’t challenge him.
De Beauvoir takes Hegel’s ideas about risk and reciprocity and borrows from Sartre but criticises him (although not openly). She moves away from conflict. Hegel says there is a fundamental hostility between the two consciousnesses – the subject posits itself in opposition to assert itself as essential and set up the other as inessential.
De Beauvoir recognises humans do want to have solidarity and friendship but there is also conflict. Sartre says we need to dominate the Other. De Beauvoir says the two ideas can coexist but asks: where do we draw the line between solidarity and separation?
Her ethics of ambiguity posits that separate existents can be bound together and individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all. I become and individual through others; we define the world together for example through research, collaboration on projects etc. It is others who open the future to me. Freedom is opening up a future – others have to contribute to the future – therefore my freedom has to be exercised jointly with others.
I have a bond with the Other. I appeal to the Other to become part of the whole human world. This is subject to two conditions being met. First that the Other does not oppress and secondly that I participate in the world with others.
Looking at how we do that takes us to a consideration of action, justification for action and the appeal.
Thus far then we have seen that according to De Beauvoir:
* Existence is ambiguous
* Every person is both a ‘thing in the world’ and ‘a point of view’
* Every person is both separate from others and bound to them
* Others make a person a part of an open future
* Others can oppress a person by reducing them to absolute otherness
She wrote this in 1944 and it is her first published philosophical work. It was intended as a defence of existentialism against charges of pessimism and amorality. Sartre had already attempted such a defence in his essay, Existentialism is a Humanism but it was seen as more of a lecture rather than a persuasive philosophical argument. De Beauvoir sought to provide a more rigorous argument. This takes us to the politics part of this course in which we look at political action, though from a philosophical point of view rather than a political one.
This builds on her phenomenological approach which starts from consciousness; the world comes to me through my consciousness, I see the world – subjective consciousness, the Other, the world, appears to me in my consciousness. This is extended in The Second Sex to the Other in the situation and notions of reciprocity. At this stage in her thinking De Beauvoir believed (she moved from this later) that even in a situation of oppression – there is reciprocity. A woman still tries to justify her existence even though her freedom is compromised.
In this essay De Beauvoir seeks to build an ethics of existentialism. She situates this in our experience of the Other. An authentic human experience depends on how we deal with the Other. All human existence is ambiguous – consciousnesses are both immanence and transcendence. We are neither separate nor bound to others but we are both individuals and social beings. What I do in my private life is built through my public life. We can’t draw a hard line between private and public. We are intermingled – we cannot draw a line between them. I exist because of them. I have a deep level of dependence on others. It is others who make me part of an open future. I become part of the world with others. This makes oppression possible, if I am excluded by the Other from the world of today, from the world of today, I am excluded from the world. This is De Beauvoir’s central idea.
She considers the dialogue between Pyrrhus (318-272BCE) and Cineas (Plutarch and Montaigne) which starts with Pyrrhus outlining which countries he is going to conquer – Greece, Asia Minor and Arabia, the Indies. To which, after each country, Cineas asks: And then? After the final victory Pyrrhus announces he will rest to which Cineas says: Then why don’t you rest straight off? Pyrrhus did set out to conquer these countries but lost most of his army and so went back to Epirus; thus the term Pyrrhic victory. The quotes below are all from this essay.
De Beauvoir takes from this these question: If we realise the futility of action, why start any action? If actions don’t give any meaning why take action? Why go through all this pain? If we are all going to die why do anything instead of just enjoying life? Her answer is that rest has no meaning without action, pleasure has no meaning in the absence of pain. And rest is itself an action. You can’t choose not to act. Even to die is an action.
The nature of our existence is we are always acting, moving forward. So the question is not whether to act? But what justifies my action? What are the ethical underpinnings that justify my act?
In my consciousness I always choose actions; but it cannot ever be an absolute. You can’t hide behind a God even if you believe in a God; you are always choosing how to act.
Our freedoms are all to be exercised in specific situations. You cannot search for a justification outside of your situation. It is always in your situated freedom – it’s always related to you, in your situation and the choice of action is always your decision, your responsibility.
She considers the position of Voltaire’s Candide who starts thinking he is in the best possible world but after suffering one trouble after another comes to the position at the end to retreat to cultivate our own garden. I can’t solve the problems of the world I will just act in my own garden. This does not help provide a justification for your action. The option of keeping to yourself in your own space is not an option. We would need to have clear boundaries between my garden and others, decide who should come in or be excluded. But these lines are ambiguous. You can’t be definitive. You have to choose your boundaries, your neighbours. There is no single recipe for ethical action; you have to look at the particular situation. You must find an original solution for your own situation every time.
It is up to you to determine who your neighbour is in terms of actions. You might say your action is to help people in need but this doesn’t justify your action either. You still need to decide between different options; who needs assistance more e.g. the trolley problem (Do I save 1 young person and condemn 10 old people or save the 10 and condemn the 1?)
You cannot take yourself out of the decision. Your project must speak back to you. Ethical action starts with you. We must choose what direction we take. There are no clear rules about moral justification for actions. Being connected to others helps but is not definitive.
All of these issues are matters of choice by the person taking action. There are no absolute moral choices. We still don’t find justification.
Two key points are first I must avoid false objectivity – that is I can’t rely upon an end defining the project and giving it an intrinsic value. For example God. She rejects the Hegelian idea that we are moving towards an Absolute. She rejects an objective point of view completely. Actions that treat their goal as an absolute end in itself are antihuman and must be rejected.
Secondly we must avoid false subjectivity which would deny humans capacity for transcendence. An objective must be subjective but must be linked to humanity. De Beauvoir rejects this as well. The notion of humanity is too abstract. There are lots of different aspects of humanity; but we are always talking about people. Any action taken for humanity will affect people differently. There is no single action that can only be used for the good of all. An action will always be positive for some and negative others. For example a cure for cancer may ultimately divide people into those who have access to it and those who do not.
You can’t make humanity a justification for your actions. You must always serve some humans rather than humanity as a whole. No matter what noble cause you seek to rely upon for justifying your actions you will always disadvantage some people, dividing people into groups. It goes to the ambiguity of being our need to be separate but together. This does not help provide an ethical basis for decisions about actions we take.
De Beauvoir also rejects the Kantian idea that we all see the world the same way, our understanding of the world, our perception of the world is the same. There is an objective moral ethics; the same moral justification for action. Humans should always know the right choice if we act rationally we recognise the same moral objective. If we don’t take actions consistent with this moral objective it is because we don’t want to do the ‘right’ thing because of our own emotions or passions. For De Beauvoir this is still too abstract. Different people are in different situations and different situations require different actions. We need to look at each action in relation to its particular situation.
De Beauvoir then looks at whether my relationship with others can justify them. Can I base my actions on serving others? Is it ethical if I can say I am taking this action for other people, recognising that there may be a conflict with other people. For instance if an Other needed me and their existence had an absolute value. For example a child in need of its parent. You cannot free yourself from the risk and responsibility of choosing by doing everything for another. You make the other an absolute; say a God, or a child. In devotion you avoid your moral responsibility. You are not fulfilling your freedom. It’s bad faith. You cannot justify your existence once and for all.
All kinds of devotion can become tyranny; you assume what is good for the Other and make choices for the Other. You are capturing the Other’s freedom. This applies to colonisation, liberation movements and actions such as taking care of the poor. A lot of immoral actions are supposedly justified by devotion.
A person can never abdicate their freedom; their claims to renounce it are only a masquerade that they freely perform. The slave who obeys chooses to obey, and their choice must be renewed at every moment. De Beauvoir later moved away from this depiction of the slave by recognising the oppression in their situation. This essay was early in the development of existentialism.
De Beauvoir then moves on to generosity. Most relationships are based on give and take. I take an action and expect something in return from you. Generosity in which you give something and don’t expect anything back is rare. You do expect acknowledgement of yourself as a freedom. In oppressive structures generosity can be taken for granted. For example the generosity of mothers to their children is taken for granted. Lucid generosity is the gift to another of freedom with no expectation of anything in return. It’s a free gift and not a bargain. The Other can take the gift and go in any direction.
In all of our acting towards others we are not doing anything for or against them. We are just creating situations for them. This will form the background within which others act. I don’t create what you become. I must assume my acts, take responsibility for them. In choosing what situation I create for the Other and deciding what situation they require I need to act in a way that acknowledges my freedom and which acknowledges the Other’s freedom.
There can be conflict between my requirements and the other’s requirements. For example a young Nazi threatens me: Do I give him a lecture or does the urgency of the situation require that I kill him? In this situation I need to give an ethical response to the Other. I must not be oppressed but I should be able to acknowledge your freedom. How should I act with respect to the other that acknowledges the others freedom. But I can’t decide what they require. Another example is how I join the bus queue; do I push in or take my place in the line? In every engagement with the world I am creating situations.
In lots of situations there are differences and conflict. All my acts are an appeal to the Other to join me. That require a response. The peeping tom example S says the other is turning me into an object – people are objects to the Other, there is necessarily conflict. For De Beauvoir there is more, the Other is judging me but is also appealing for a response. I can ignore the peeping tom or ask him to stop. My whole response to you is an appeal for action. In this she is similar to Merleau-Ponty. He talks about questioning others, D talks about appealing.
For example, language only makes sense if others understand it. Language is an appeal to the Other’s freedom since the sign is only a sign through a consciousness that grasps it again.
When I am in a situation with someone I am engaging with them as an object, but I also appeal to them to do something. I talk to you and understand you are a subject. This is the point of reciprocity. So, I don’t merely make the other an object; I also recognise their subjectivity.
She sees the possibility of conflict but in most of our engagement with others we are making an appeal to the other. This is a key element in her philosophy.
The Other influences my choices of what to do through what they do and the way they respond .. The Other is not only a threat but may prompt me to action… assuming our responsibility and sense of this fact is the authentic and moral attitude.
This is contrary to Sartre’s view that the Other is always turning me into an object (maybe because he was ugly). Right from the start De Beauvoir has a different position; the Other is also seeking a response from me. As a person you are part of the world and you relate to others, engage with others, appeal to others to join you in your project. This is gives meaning to our world. She acknowledges our situated freedom and recognises we mostly deal with others as our peers.
I need to try to make you an ally to continue the meaning of my projects … We need to risk that not everyone will support what we do, and appeal to those who I have made my neighbour .
There is always the possibility that the Other will oppose my action and try to block my way, stop my project. We know this. I can’t force others to agree with me. I can only appeal to the Other, and they are free to respond or not. How can we deal with this potential opposition.
There are two conditions to our appeal: I have to be allowed to call the Other, and people must be free to respond to the appeal. People who have conditions of practical freedom, health, free time, knowledge and security are the only ones who can be in solidarity in contesting injustice. These are the basic conditions of human beings. People living under oppression can not make an appeal, nor be able to respond to an appeal. Oppression divides the world into these two categories – those who can make an appeal and those who cannot.
Even when the two conditions for an appeal are met, some people will reject my appeal, so what can I do? She says that in some circumstance violence is justified; but it all depends on the circumstances of each situation in which we are required to choose to act. There will always be uncertainty and risk, and that is precisely the essence of freedom.
The issue of violence is an extremely important issue for De Beauvoir and she writes a lot about it. This has only recently been recognised but it is a feature in a lot of her work, including all of the books discussed above.Why does she insist on violence? One reason that she insists that violence must be recognised and dealt with is that she was writing at a time, during the war and under occupation and then immediately afterwards, when violence was very present. She was very aware of the presence of violence. Looking at our own world we see that it is still very much in evidence.
To determine whether violence can ever be justified we need to look again at her overall philosophy. Of which the central point is there is no single recipe for ethical action. De Beauvoir identifies the ambiguities involved and points to the types of justification that we can look for. Her ethics doesn’t provide you with recipes. We must question our actions and the try and understand the ethical implications of our actions. As a phenomenologist she starts with our beings as a consciousness with a position in a world created with others. The situation of the man- woman relationship is based on oppression. This shows something is wrong in the structure of our society.
Our relationship with the Other is critical. On the one hand the Other can give me meaning in the world and on the other hand the Other can exclude me from the world. This is the ambiguity of our being – and it can’t be overcome. We have to live with it. All her writings are about how to take authentic action notwithstanding this ambiguity and in light of the possibility and actuality of oppression.
De Beauvoir’s central theme regarding political action is how to take authentic action in a situation of oppression. How can you bring change about? In all of her writing, The Second Sex and her book on the treatment of the elderly, she both raises awareness of what is wrong and also issues a call to action.
In this she is being consistent with her philosophy. We are always appealing to others. We can never bear not neutral bystanders – because we are both separated from and bound to each other.
All my appeals to the world require a response from the Other. Unlike Sartre’s view, we are not reducing others to an object in every situation. Making an appeal I make myself an object and a subject and I make the Other an object and a subject. I am not judging you as a thing – I am appealing to your subjectivity. But I can’t force people to respond to my appeal in a particular way.
To make an appeal I need to be free and the people who I make an appeal to must also be free. If you are living in a situation of oppression you are not in a position to make an appeal or to respond to my appeal. I need to be free and I need free people around me. I cannot blame someone living in a situation where their basic survival is critical for not responding to my appeal. Where structures are skewed you can use violence to overcome oppression.
An Eye for an Eye
This essay was written to justify why she refused to sign the petition to save Robert Brasillach from execution after World War Two. He was an intellectual found guilty of collaboration and sentenced to death. He had been editor of a newspaper that had published the names of French Jews. Many Parisian intellectuals signed this petition including Albert Camus signed, Sartre was out of the country and avoided the issue. De Beauvoir very publicly refused to sign.
All crimes are not equal. Murder and theft are crimes committed to further a need. When crimes have a reason they are not crimes against humanity. Perpetrators of these crimes are not considering you as an equal subject but are still dealing with you as a human being.
On the other hand crimes of torture and assassination treat a person as a thing, denying them their subjectivity and humanity. And they are not committed because the perpetrator wants something from the victim. They are aimed at setting an example, demonstrating that the perpetrators are victors and victims have been defeated. In that situation victim is treated on a below human level -absolute thingness – there is no possibility of reciprocity.
Reciprocity requires the perpetrator to feel what they have done – but this cannot be forced on them them. You can attempt to establish reciprocity by treating them the same but can’t achieve it. Can impose pain but can’t force them to feel. This is an extreme level of objectification, humanity denied completely. Treating a person as a thing to set an example – to show that you can reduce people to a thing. This is absolute evil. That is never justified regardless of purpose. Even a revolutionary seeking a lofty cause cannot justify this level of violence.
Using violent means in response to absolute evil may be justified but De Beauvoir doesn’t specify a single rule. Even in cases of absolute evil you can see whether there is a possibility of redemption and try it, but if the perpetrator is continuing to conduct torture / oppression they may be killed if that is the only way to remove that situation.
That is the extreme example. She gives no clear answers about what other sorts of conflict justifies the use of violence. You have to identify each situation for itself. This is in the context of De Beauvoir saying that violence is unavoidable: If you wait for world peace to act, you will wait forever. There will always be situations where people seek to oppress each other, oppose each other and so there will be conflict all the time.
De Beauvoir believes violence is a constitutive part of our existence. It might not be apparent all the times but there is the possibility of violence erupting any time which makes us vulnerable. We are connected to others therefore it’s always present. In saying this she is not encouraging violence, as is sometimes asserted, but pointing to the need to have an ethical way of dealing with it.
In Pyhrrus & Cineas she says: We are condemned to violence because man is divided and in conflict with himself, because men are separate and in conflict with themselves. Through violence the child will be made into a man and the horde into a society. Renouncing the struggle would be renouncing transcendence, renouncing being. Some have criticised De Beauvoir for what is regarded as a very masculine approach, promoting violence. But it is merely acceptance of a truism, of the role of violence in the structure of society. To avoid consideration of violence is naive. This is the current source of much debate by feminist theorists who are engaging with new ways of understanding vulnerability and violence and De Beauvoir’s contribution is valuable.
De Beauvoir addresses the differences in attitudes towards violence addressed to young girls and boys in her chapter on girls in The Second Sex. Boys are given an apprenticeship in violence and girls are not. Violence is constitutive of the human condition. Violence is the authentic test of every person’s attachment to himself, his passions and his own will; to radically reject it is to reject all objective truth, it is to isolate one’s self in an abstract subjectivity; anger or a revolt that does not exert itself in muscles remains imaginary. It is a terrible frustration not to be able to imprint the movements of one’s heart on the face of earth..
Boys are encouraged to be violent, girls are discouraged as reflected in the adage boys will be boys girls will be girls. This is the structure of our experience. Violence is always present because we are open to others. If this is missing from your experience as a person entirely, your subjectivity is compromised. This is not saying we should be encouraged to be violent but showing how boys are taught how to engage with violence, to have confidence in their bodies and understand others bodies whereas girls are not encouraged in the same way but rather to avoid using their physical strength.
Because violence is one of the elements in our society if you are denied knowledge of physical strength there will be a lack in your subjectivity. Two examples from The Ethics of Ambiguity demonstrate this. A black person cannot use violence against a white person and is therefore condemned to passivity. People under occupation who sought to avoid violence found their world profoundly overturned when they realised they could be turned into objects by the occupying soldiers.
For all women, there is always the possibility of violence. Given women have not had the experience of dealing with it, no lessons in how to use their physical strength they are reduced to passivity and dependence as is the example of the Tom Boy in The Second Sex. The subjectivity of women is compromised. De Beauvoir doesn’t argue women should become violent; but at the end of The Second Sex the solution she seeks if for women to be accepted into brotherhood with men, which is a deeper concept (despite sexist terminology) than equality.
Even if you haven’t experienced violence, because of our dependence on others it cannot be ruled out. There is always the possibility of violence – it can erupt at any time. We have to live with this reality. If persuasion fails, only violence is left.
Moving onto political action in The Ethics of Ambiguity, she argues against any notion of ends justifying means always. Every action must be legitimised concretely. A calm, mathematical calculation is here impossible. People are not numbers; all have a value. If you concentrate on numbers you remove ethical considerations.
All political choices are ethical choices. When deciding what is to be done we are always risking something. For instance in revolutions you are taking risks and you cannot be sure how the situation will turn out. Nor do you know how other people will act within that situation. You seek to overthrow tyranny but others may take the revolution in another way. You measure the risks and you make a choice; you give it a value by saying this is the best choice.
While you can try to minimise violence, it can never be entirely avoided.
In the presence of absolute evil, which is when a man treats fellow men like objects, when by torture, humiliation, servitude, assassination, one denies them their existence as men … the degradation of a man into a thing we may be justified in using violence.
In conclusion, as De Beauvoir writes in The Ethics of Ambiguity: There are cases where a man positively wants evil, that is, the enslavement of other men, and he must then be fought.