Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999


Kristina Arp

Moral Obligation in Simone de Beauvoir's 

The Ethics of Ambiguity

In her 1947 work The Ethics of Ambiguity Simone de Beauvoir lays out the framework of an existentialist ethics. One of the central tenets of existentialism is that all values spring from human freedom. So an existentialist ethics must be founded on freedom. Whereas all humans are free for existentialism, according to Beauvoir the moral person takes a certain stance towards his or her freedom. If one wills oneself free by affirming one’s freedom instead of running from it or denying it, one can achieve what Beauvoir calls genuine or moral freedom: “To will oneself free is to effect the transition from nature to morality by establishing a genuine freedom on the original upsurge of our existence.” (1)

In postulating two different levels of freedom like this, namely, natural freedom and moral freedom, Beauvoir undoubtedly was influenced by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. (2) In his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Moral Kant contends that “a positive concept of freedom . . . which is so much the richer and more fruitful” flows from what he calls a merely negative definition of freedom as a will “effective independently of foreign causes determining it.” Furthermore, Kant identifies this positive concept of freedom with morality, saying: “a free will and a will under moral laws are identical.” (3) There are references to Kant in a number of places in The Ethics of Ambiguity. For instance, Beauvoir states that her “precept will be to treat the other as a freedom, so that his end may be freedom," (4) inviting a comparison to Kant's formulation of the Categorical Imperative wherein we are enjoined to treat others never as a means only but always as an end. She also states that her ethics is an individualistic ethics in the spirit of Kant in that “it accords to the individual an absolute value and that it recognizes in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence." (5) But Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics ends up being quite different from Kant’s ethics. One way this is apparent is in the positions that Beauvoir takes when discussing concrete cases of personal moral obligation. What Beauvoir says should be done in these cases usually presents a stark contrast to Kant.

From these previous quotations one can safely infer that Beauvoir’s ethics is strongly anti-paternalistic. Whatever an individual human's happiness may turn out to be, it is not something that can be determined by someone else and imposed from the outside.The good of others is “an absolute end,” Beauvoir states, “but we are not authorized to decide upon this end a priori.” (6) Yet by postulating two levels of freedom, Beauvoir avoids the overly rigorous position that one may never intercede in the decisions of others. For instance, Beauvoir gives the example of a young girl who, saved from a suicide attempt, goes on to get married, have children, be happy. Her friends were right to enable this girl subsequently to reject “this heedless act”, she judges. While undoubtedly a free act, this girl's suicide attempt was not an exercise of genuine freedom.In it she was not acting in common with others to pursue a joint end.Yet she is certainly capable of doing so.By saving her life her friends were enabling her to act not just freely, but so that her end might be freedom.

Against this example Beauvoir balances the example of the desperate melancholic patient who is kept from committing suicide by the cheerful tyrants controlling his care.The implication is that it is wrong to stand in his way.A more problematic example that Beauvoir gives is that of an addicted friend desperately begging for money to support his habit.Such an individual ideally should be made aware of the “real demands of his freedom”, in order to seek a cure.But if one can do nothing to bring about such a conversion, one might as well give into his pleas, she says.At this point, Beauvoir turns consequentialist.If denied, the addict might resort to truly desperate measures.In a disguised gibe at Kant she adds: “It is no more necessary to serve an abstract ethics obstinately than to yield without due consideration to impulses of pity or generosity; violence is justified only if it opens concrete possibilities to the freedom which I am trying to save.” (7)

Beauvoir also asks the same question of whether intervention in someone's life offers real hope to the person in another case she considers, the case of Gregers in Ibsen's The Wild Duck. Should Gregers tell his friend that his adored daughter was really fathered by another man?No, Beauvoir judges:

An individual lives in a situation of falsehood; the
falsehood is violence, tyranny:shall I tell the truth
in order to free the victim?It would first be
necessary to create a situation of such a kind that the
truth might be bearable and that, though losing his
illusions, the deluded individual might again find
about him reasons for coping. (8)
There is one factor that can explain why Beauvoir takes the position she does in all of these cases.The key lies in whether an act works to open up a future for the person involved.Saving a young and healthy person from suicide does open up a future, or at least keeps a future open that would otherwise be closed.Keeping a terminally ill or chronically incapacitated person from committing suicide, on the other hand, is not an act that opens up a future, because due to that person's situation the future is closed off.It is not just a matter of the number of years left to live or even “the quality of life” to be expected during those years, but more of the opportunities that those years will offer.And these opportunities cannot be measured in terms of impersonal criteria.According to Beauvoir's conception of temporality the future only exists as the future of a distinct individual or group of individuals.
But the criteria used to judge what the future offers cannot be wholly subjective either.To the young girl who attempts suicide the future looks hideously bleak.But since her life is intertwined with others, her actual future, with its distinct concrete possibilities, intersects and is embedded in the future of these other people.They thus hold a good vantage point from which to judge her assessment of the future wrong.
In the case of the drug addict, his future is a matter of much more uncertainty than the incapacitated patient or even the young girl. Only he can choose to open up a future for himself that contains real possibilities for free action by seeking a cure; his friend by denying him the money for drugs cannot force him to do so.So the friend can only take into account the addict's immediate future, the next day or hours, which given the addict's situation, remains very volatile. The friend may be justified in giving him money just to forestall disaster in this period.Remember that Beauvoir is not arguing here that one has an obligation to supply the addict with funds.Nor does her argument rule out the possibility that one may be justified in deciding that giving into him is unwise because it might join his future to one's own, thus incurring responsibilities that one does not choose to take on.
In the example of deciding whether to tell the truth to a person whose whole life is set up on the basis of an illusion, this is a case where, according to Beauvoir's viewpoint, the truth does not necessarily set one free. To tell the truth to a person completely unprepared for it would be to open a future for him in one sense: it would be to introduce a wholly new future completely severed from the past and the present. But the important question for Beauvoir is whether this future would be one containing concrete possibilities for the person involved. Normally due to the nature of human temporality, the future is always of a piece with the present and the past. Action, to be meaningful, must be anchored in this continuum. By robbing someone of all his illusions in one fell swoop, one explodes this person's past, floats his future out of reach and turns the present into a knife's edge. This is not to say that people do not sometimes receive shocks of this sort, due to historical events, say, and go on to survive them psychologically. The point is that it is cruel for one person to play this role in another person's life. If one intervenes in a person's life like this, one has a responsibility to engage oneself in the whole of that life.
The relation that one's own actions have to another person's future, then, is the crucial issue for deciding one’s obligations to others. The importance of this relation to her ethical thought can also be seen in Beauvoir’s analysis of our interactions with children.We are constantly constraining the freedom of children, she notes, but we do so with the goal, first, of insuring that they have a future and, secondly, of opening up a future rich with possibilities.She says: “To treat him as a child is not to bar him from the future but to open it to him.”(9) This rationale does not justify too great a severity, though:the child is a developing freedom who must be consulted about its needs.(10) A child's future stretches out farther into the distance than perhaps any other being's and the child's connection with the future give its needs a certain moral priority. Beauvoir says that the wishes of a couple who persist in living in unhealthy conditions should be honored, except if they have children: “the freedom of the parents would be the ruin of their sons, and as freedom and the future are on the side of the latter, these are the ones who must be taken into account.” (11)
Beauvoir emphasizes that intervening in other people's lives like this is usually only justified if one has a “concrete bond” with them. As a parent, nurse, friend, she says, I take on a commitment to others that can justify using the harsh measures against them that are sometimes necessary to help them. And indeed, barring cases of evident danger or other obvious hazard, an individual usually does not feel free to do the same things to other people's children as one would do to one's own. If, as Beauvoir says, “love authorizes severities which are not granted to indifference,” (12) it is because I do not have concrete responsibilities to humanity as a whole. I have them rather to those persons with whom I am engaged in the actual everyday relations I have committed myself to.
Beauvoir's constant emphasis on concrete relations rather than universal standards, as well as the greater moral authority she assigns to love rather than impartiality, stands in stark contrast to Kantian ethics. Furthermore, in her treatment of the four examples she gives (the same number that Kant uses in his Groundwork), she takes a position counter to the one Kant would take almost every time. For Kant suicide is always prohibited out of a perfect duty that one bears oneself, no matter the circumstances. And one is always obligated to tell the truth despite the consequences. Lastly, supplying an addict with drugs could never accord with the Categorical Imperative.
Beauvoir never furnishes us with any readily stated principle like the Categorical Imperative to support the positions she takes in each of these cases. She says, “Ethics does not furnish recipes any more that do science and art.” (13) Beauvoir of course does not think that Kant's Categorical Imperative is the same thing as a recipe. But she does stress that ethical questions cannot be settled “abstractly and universally”. (14) The situations in which ethical choices arise are so particularized, so complex that long analysis is required in order to bring out their relevant features, a long analysis we often do not have time to complete.
Furthermore, there always remains the possibility that we have made the wrong decision, for no fact, principle or argument can guarantee that we have made the right one.Beauvoir asserts in referring to Kierkegaard's treatment of the Biblical figure of Abraham that: “morality resides in the painfulness of an indefinite questioning.” (15) It is often objected against existentialism that very few people's lives are marked by the angst and anguish that Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre describe.
But such feelings do seem to be a permanent feature of our experience of moral dilemmas.Even when I am convinced that I am making the right choice, the experience of making it is often painful.For one thing, as consequentialist ethics at least takes into account, usually whatever choice I make someone must suffer.Often, as Beauvoir stresses, the choice is not just restricted to a matter of my suffering versus someone else's; many people can be involved in complex ways that no equation can ever capture.
Beauvoir's ethics, based as it is on an analysis of human temporality and the concrete bonds between particular individuals, ends up being one that is very sensitive to the context of moral choice. Someone might object that it ends up being too sensitive to context and individual circumstance. Indeed, one objection often raised against existentialist ethics is that it can supply no positive guidelines for conduct whatsoever. In her conclusion Beauvoir replies to the potential objection that her ethics condones “the anarchy of personal whim” in a very Kantian fashion: “Man is free; but he finds his law in his very freedom.” (16) Actually Beauvoir supplies no law of freedom here or elsewhere. But she does make the Kantian move of basing the positive precepts of her ethics on an enquiry into the conditions of human freedom. In order to be fully free according to her a person must take on certain responsibilities to herself and others. 
A human being is genuinely free, she argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity, only if she desists in the vain desire to achieve the status of being and accepts her existence as a lack of being by actively seeking to disclose the world.Actively seeking to disclose the world can take many different forms.But on the whole it involves, as Beauvoir's locution in her previous work Pyrrhus et Cinéas goes, throwing oneself into the future in some way.Additionally (this is the distinctive new approach to freedom that Beauvoir takes in The Ethics of Ambiguity) to achieve genuine freedom one must also will others free.For one cannot throw oneself into the future without the cooperation of other free existences by means of whom the future is sketched out.This requirement for achieving genuine freedom leads to a negative injunction, Beauvoir notes. To be free oneself one must reject “oppression for oneself and others.” (17) The genuinely free person not only should not oppress others, but should work to realize the conditions under which others around one can develop their own genuine freedom.Whereas some critics charge that an existentialist ethics must end up holding that ‘anything goes’, Beauvoir’s conception of what genuine freedom involves gives rise to rather demanding standards for living a moral life.

In fact, some critics judge the moral perspective Beauvoir adopts in The Ethics of Ambiguity to be unduly stern instead of too lax. Anne Whitmarsh, for instance, in her 1981 study of Beauvoir's thought, argues that Beauvoir's ethical stance betrays a puritan, even a Calvinist streak, in spite of Beauvoir's explicit break with all religious value systems. Whitmarsh assumes that the responsibility to oneself and others that Beauvoir conceives moral freedom to entail leads one to feel a constant sense of guilt. (18)

The impression that Beauvoir does feel that the moral person should be constantly aware of the burdens of moral responsibility can be drawn from her fiction, in particular her novel The Blood of Others.In it the ruminations of her main character, Blomart, on his responsibilities for the lives of others border on being a parody of angst ridden guilt.But as the literary critic Elisabeth Fallaise has pointed out, at the end of the novel Beauvoir reveals that Blomart's perspective has been false all along (thus making Blomart one of the unreliable narrators that Beauvoir's later fiction in particular relies on). Through the words of his dying lover, Hélène, Beauvoir shows that Blomart was wrong to assume that he is responsible for the fate of others, because others too are free and thus responsible for their own choices.

Neither can it denied that Beauvoir sometimes sounds as if she is exaggerating the extent of human responsibility, even in The Ethics of Ambiguity.In the closing pages she states that the proper response to the wholly contingent and sometimes abysmal circumstances we find ourselves in lies in “taking the given, which at the start, is there without any reason, as something willed by man.” (19) Such a stance seems to go beyond the mere assumption of personal responsibility for one's life, verging instead on becoming the type of heroic affirmation of suffering that Nietzsche preaches. But one must keep Beauvoir's constant focus on the interconnections between individuals in mind when unfolding the consequences of her statement here. For her, to take the given as something willed by humans does not mean taking the sins of the world upon my shoulders so much as it means taking them on our shoulders. As a particular group of humans living in our particular historically conditioned circumstances we should affirm these circumstance as something willed by humans, and thus see them as neither immutable nor final. 

In any case, it seems to me that any system of ethics, in order to merit the name, must assume a judgmental posture.Beauvoir can even be seen to be more forgiving than some moral theorists in that she recognizes the necessary element of failure involved in all our attempts to live morally. In this way Beauvoir's perspective also does justice to the actual nature of moral experience. I imagine that many people judged by others to have lived a life absolutely free of any taint would refuse to affirm that they had lived a completely moral life.And if no one can lead a perfectly moral life, then there is no standpoint from which to judge the rest of us as irredeemably flawed. All we are called on to do is the best we can, come what may. (20) Beauvoir merely asserts that this necessary element of failure should not serve as a reason to give up on the project of living morally. The possibility of human failure can be eliminated only in death. However, and here the stern side of Beauvoir does surface, not consenting to this failure commits us to “struggle against it without respite.” (21)


(1)Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991), p. 25.Henceforth referred to as EA.

(2) In her memoirs Beauvoir records how she used Kant as "a focal point or a sounding board" for her own philosophical ideas during this period.Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962), p. 547.
(3) Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: The Bobbs Merrill Company, Inc., 1959), p. 64, 65.
(4) EA p. 142
(5) EA p. 156
(6) EA p. 142
(7) EA p. 136 & 137.
(8) EA p. 143.
(9) EA p. 141.
(10)  “. . . the child has a right to his freedom and must be respected as a human person.”EA p. 141.
(11) EA p. 144.
(12) EA p. 137.
(13) EA p. 134.
(14) EA p. 134.
(15) EA p. 133. 
(16) EA p. 156.
(17) EA p. 156.
(18) See Anne Whitmarsh, Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 46
(19) EA p. 156.
(20) Beauvoir appeals to “the very old saying which goes: Do what you must, come what may.” EA p. 159.
(21) EA p. 157.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1948. Pyrrhus et CinéasParis: Gallimard.
_____. 1962. The Prime of Life. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.
_____. 1991. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Carol Publishing Group.
Fallaize, Elizabeth. 1988. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. London: Routledge.
Kant, Immanuel. 1959. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.Indianapolis: The Bobbs Merrill Company, Inc.
Whitmarsh, Anne. 1981. Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.