Simone de Beauvoir is mostly remembered as one of the greatest feminist intellectuals this world has ever seen. But she was also one of the leading French Existentialists with Sartre and Camus. Where Sartre tried to create an ontology for existentialism and gave the groundworks for an ethical theory, de Beauvoir took it upon herself to complete Sartre’s work for him. For an ethical theory was sorely needed.
Sartre created an ontology in his work L’Être et le néant for existentialism inspired by Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. Consciousness of the subject is a certain nothingness. This means that the consciousness is something negative and can focus on something positive, something that exists, namely the outer objective world. For Sartre, the world exists because we give our attention to the world. Our negative consciousness is filled with positive existence.
De Beauvoir created an ethics of ambiguity, taking a quite Hegelian approach to existentialism. For de Beauvoir, our lives are full of ambiguities. We are free but bound at the same time. We live but also die. Ambiguities characterize our lives, and we either to embrace those ambiguities or we run away from them.
Since the consciousness of the subject is a kind of nothingness, there is also freedom. This is because we are not determined by our consciousness. We are free to fill our negative consciousness with whatever we want. We are free to set the projects we want as well. Those projects are important for existentialist ethics.
For the existentialists God is dead, and so there are no longer objective values which are given to us by God. The values we get now are given to us by the projects we set for ourselves. Here another ambiguity rises. We are free to set the project we want, but we aren’t free to not set a project. Trying to not set a project is a project in and of itself. For de Beauvoir we have to accept that we have to choose a project. We can run away from our freedom and acknowledge it, or we can try and ignore it. This is facing our ambiguity.
But there is a problem here. Because God is dead the projects one sets are just a “useless passion” according to Sartre. There is no objectivity which gives them an intrinsic meaning. As humans, we try to become God, but since we are limited always fail. But de Beauvoir sees a way out. Indeed, the definition of “use” is empty when we regard the external objective world as the one who gives things meaning. This is not the case. Things only get meaning because we humans give them meaning. That means that “use” gets a meaning whenever we set a new goal. A basketball is useful for me when I want to be able to play in the NBA but isn’t very useful when I’m studying for my philosophy exams. Usefulness depends on the goals we set, and it is with these goals that an existentialist ethics is made.
I have already said that we don’t have the choice to not set goals or projects. But why do we set goals? According to de Beauvoir, we set goals because we have a certain absence. We want something and then we set a goal to get that something. Morality only exists when a problem needs to be solved. An absence is a kind of problem, because you want the thing that is absent, otherwise you wouldn’t experience it as an absence. This does mean that goals aren’t absolute. They can change as you change. As you fulfil absences or change as a person, new goals and projects will emerge.
For de Beauvoir, our freedom projects itself unto us as a demand. We can’t choose not to be free, for that would be a free decision. Whether we do something with that freedom is up to us. We need to give freedom a specific content, which we do by setting goals.
This however includes the need to take our responsibility. Freedom implies responsibility. The fact that we have freedom goes along with taking your responsibility. As I have written in my essay about existentialism and responsibility, responsibility is one of the key factors in its ethics. Nothing is given to you by something divine or objective. You are responsible for the life you create for yourself.
De Beauvoir proceeds to give different modes of being in the world according to if you accept your freedom and responsibility or not. The child lives in the world of children, where adults are regarded as gods who know everything. There are those who stay in that world forever, naively accepting everything someone with some power says. Not thinking critically and living in immediacy has its benefits. You don’t have to take on the burden of responsibility and the existential despair that goes along with it.
In line with the children, you have the ‘half people’, who fear existence itself. They are willfully blind towards their freedom and existence. They fear the risks that life brings. They refuse the passion that comes with existence, the passion for setting goals. They are aimless and are willfully pretending they are not free, so they don’t have to face their own existence. According to de Beauvoir, we feel contempt for that kind of person. It’s the type of person who might nag about something in their life which they are very much capable of fixing, but just don’t do because they “can’t”.
The serious person doesn’t care about the nature of the thing he does, the project he has. Rather he just does it because he does it. He believes to believe; he wants to want. He tries to actualize his freedom through indifference. This person doesn’t choose his own projects. Rather, he chooses them because he has to choose something and takes the first thing that comes in his way. Think about the college student who has to pick what he has to study but doesn’t really know and so he just chooses something random. The only thing is that the serious person doesn’t question the project he’s working on. That would mean that he gets confronted with his existence, but that is exactly what he’s trying to avoid. Because of this, serious people easily become tyrants.
These are some examples of what de Beauvoir gives of people who deny their existence. The good man acknowledges his existence and with it his freedom. He sets projects that are valuable and aims at them. He takes responsibility for his projects and thus his life. That way he can make a good life and try and conquer the existential despair. De Beauvoir gave us something which most of the other French intellectuals of that time were struggling to give: decent ethics. For that alone, Simone de Beauvoir deserves to be on the pages of any history of philosophy.