Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Ethics of Ambiguity: Review, Context, and Summary

I read the version which is online free.

Summary and Context

I'm going to do a brief break down to help guide your reading of the text:
  1. Part 1: Ambiguity and Freedom - illustrates her concept of ambiguity better than later chapters arguably, explains the central relevance of freedom using various Hegelian concepts, summarizes the rest of the book in a way that is often difficult to follow.  Situates her account in a historical tradition that includes Kant.  Discussions of Marxism abound.  The most difficult part to read in my opinion.
  2. Part 2: Personal Freedom and Others - presents cases of imperfect or immoral people and explains their failings in a systematic way, moving towards a better alternative to them all, the existential hero of sorts.  The final argument for what Beauvoir takes to be the correct morality is given in very minimal detail at the end of the chapter, draws upon some explanations given in the first chapter but overall might be worth reading this one first.
  3. Part 3: The Antimonies of Action, The Aesthetic Attitude - provides another immoral character to watch out for which allows for further elucidation of the fact that we have no alternative but to act.  Discusses further the meaning of freedom.
  4. Part 3: " ", Freedom and Liberation - discusses oppression, the oppressor, and violent responses to oppression as a sort of case study for this moral theory.  Criticizes typical conservative rhetoric on these matters.  Discusses Marxism again.
  5. Part 3:" ", The Antimonies of Action - presents a tension between the obligations of liberationary struggle previously described and the problems with violence.  Generalizes this tension a bit.  Criticizes typical utilitarian methods of collapsing this antimony, suggests further moral positions based upon the existence of this antimony.
  6. Part 3:" ", The Present and Future - Discussion of time as an experienced phenomenon, recognizing two distinct phenomena connected with the experience of time.  Further use of the antimony to make moral arguments.  Discussion of the sorts of ends that ought to be strived for (short term or long term).
  7. Part 3:" ", Ambiguity - elucidations on ambiguity, cautions to avoid falling into the trap of a certain previously mentioned immoral character ("seriousness"), further condemnations of oppression in various forms in her society and discussion of violence.
This book leans heavily on Hegel (especially Phenomenology of Spirit), Sartre (especially Being and Nothingness), Beauvoir's other work (especially Pyrrhus and Cineas for a crucial premise), generic Marxism, and draws from numerous sources both literary and philosophical for various allusions (none crucial).  It can be understood without having read Hegel, it cannot be understood without a reasonable grasp on Sartre or at least some help from somebody with expertise in Sartre (I had the latter).

Overall this is a short book that can be read over the course of a few days or weeks, and it is much less difficult than nearly any other non-fiction book in existential philosophy.  That honour is highly dubious, as this book is still not an easy read.  It also serves as perhaps one of the seminal texts of existential ethics.


This book was an impressive combination of eye-opening and frustrating.  I do not pretend to understand the entire thing, but there are a few features of her argument I feel confident addressing.  The first thing I must say is that I feel that the work is incomplete because it is so dependent on other works, that said this is more reason to look into those other works for further explanation because her project is highly compelling.

It must be acknowledged that Beauvoir pulls off an incredible feat.  If she is right, she finds the grounds for a universal ethics in our separate and particular subjectivities and intersubjectivity.  Even if one finds her answers inadequate one must acknowledge that she has hit upon an interesting method of getting to an ethics.  I could go further and say that I think that she might have hit upon the right answer to many questions throughout her work.

There are problems however, and these are particularly striking in the third part of her work.  I'll deal with two off the bat.

First, she gets a great deal out of the major antimony of action she describes, including intrinsic human value among other things that I'm not sure whether they sit well with the rest of her philosophy.  Overall these seem to be more a source of confusion than anything else.  While I understand that these might be too basic moral values to let go, I do not believe the antimony of action can do the necessary work to justify them.

Second, it seems like the description of the obligations to will the freedom of others go beyond the phenomenological premises she has to work with.  This is complicated because of connections with one of her other works previously mentioned, but when we are told that to will our freedom is to will others free I'm not sure that really requires liberationary struggle on the level she describes.  Sure I may need to desire the freedom of others sincerely and act on that desire, but if I do so in a discriminatory way without considering universal liberation, what do I lose?  She describes problems in terms of limitations on our own freedom for not willing other's freedom and risks of falling into our facticity.  However these seem to be remedied just as well by liberation for my friends as they are by liberation of the world which is what she seems to desire.

Despite these misgivings, I think this work is well-worth reading.  It sets out on an interesting course into new ethical possibilities, in that capacity it is incredibly original.