Towards the end of part I in Simone De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, she outlines some thoughts regarding Kant and the difference between Kantian ethics and existentialism. In this post, I would like to summarize some thoughts I had, and interpret De Beauvoir’s ethics as a form of consequentialism.
First, there are two differences between Kantian ethics and what De Beauvoir is claiming. These differences are:
- De Beauvoir’s ethics does not ask us to deny the exercise of freedom at the expense of our particular concrete situation and desires.
- De Beauvoir’s ethics can make sense of moral evil.
In Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative shows us what is morally required to act rationally, and acting rationally presupposes the very freedom that should be at the heart of ethics. For the Sartrean existentialist, freedom is both the ontological condition of human subjectivity (the moral agent) and the value. I’ll distinguish De Beauvoir later from this reading. In this way, I do not think it is wrong to suggest that Sartre conflates the descriptive and the normative. For Sartre, we should strive to be free as we are ultimately free ontologically.
For Kant, any notion of evil will involve deviation from the categorical imperative, and the freedom to adopt maxims that deviate from what morally right maxims demand of us. And following Nietzsche, Kantian ethics can be seen as secularized form of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Radical evil cannot be made sense of even though much of the Religions is devoted to answering the question. In general, Kant sees radical evil as dependent upon human nature (6:29-32) and a disposition to deviate from the categorical imperative either by choice or human nature. Such a conception of evil does not fit since evil can only be a privation in Christian ethics since creation is all-good, and in Kant, evil can only be a privation of rationality. Therefore, the existentialist suspicious of metaphysics will react to both the metaphysical beliefs that creation is entirely good, and that human beings are entirely rational. Now, I cannot give these issues, but a cursory glance here. I ask that we leave them in their lightly sketched form, and let’s move on and state what I find the De Beauvoir’s ethical principle to be.
I would put her ethical principle as follows:
DB’s Ethical Principle: To will oneself as moral equals willing other people’s freedom and oneself (p. 32, EoA).
If we take this as the moral principle in her ethics, then this principle entails a logic of reciprocity.
Logic of reciprocity: I must will other people’s freedom in the exercise of my very own.
This logic of reciprocity looks a lot like Kantian universalism that requires us to treat everybody as an end-in-themselves (human dignity). As such, one could ask whether or not De Beauvoir’s principle amounts to treating everybody as an end? Kant requires that to act in obedience with the moral law is a call of our rational nature to do what the categorically imperative requires. Kant’s Principle of Humanity emphasizes respect and dignity, claiming that these alone serve as the basis of morality.
Principle of Humanity: Always treat a human being (yourself included) as an end, and never as a mere means.
In other words, armed with this principle, a person can find those categorical reasons that apply equally to everybody—what Kant calls maxims. These moral judgments filtered through the categorical imperative apply to everybody since we are rational. The freedom for Kant is in our ability to incorporate these maxims, and in our ability to override and suspend our emotional natures.
In this exercise of personal freedom, the Kantian and the existentialist come close. Both De Beauvoir and Kant think we can take ownership/take a step back and “own” our own action. Let’s see how to square these two conceptions of freedom in the following thought experiments. Initially, I formulated these thought experiments for students.
Thought experiment 1: You’ve gotten into several schools, and your live-in Aunt is very sick. You’ve been helping take care of her, and your parents cannot really afford any other arrangement. Both your parents work, and they want you to go to school part-time and locally. However, you want to go to school full-time, and you’ve gotten into an excellent program somewhere in Indiana (or several states away). Yet, to do what you really want means that nobody will be around to take care of your aunt. If you stay, then you will lose out on being admitting to such a wonderful program. If you leave, then you will put additional stress onto your family. What do you do?
Thought Experiment 2: You’ve worked all summer to save up for a new used car. If you buy the car, then you will have no money to take Fall classes, but you need the car to commute to class. If you do not buy the car, then you will have money to take Fall classes. What do you do?
Both of these thought experiments are unfair. The exercise of our freedom comes at the price that there are real consequences to exercising it, and we must be accountable (responsible) to others for its very control. In the first, what does one do? If I take care of my aunt, I have to own that possibility, not live in a past choice that never was. I must come to grips with that choice. Likewise, even in the second scenario, without the car, I cannot attend classes in the future. I’ll have to take ownership of that situation as well. We must take ownership of the situation, and taking ownership of one’s freedom involves a simultaneous acknowledgement about the limits of its exercise in the situation. This leads to two ways in which ownership can take place for the Kantian and the existentialist.
In owning action:
- Kant wants us to deny what is particular to our situation. Reason is what makes us take ownership of our inclinations.
- De Beauvoir wants us to keep in view the particular concrete situation, and this underscores the first difference.
In Kant, there is a conception of humanity that limits us to take ownership of our situation since we must respond to that situation through our shared rational nature. In existentialism, the concrete situation belongs to the responder of the situation to her and her alone. While the action will affect other people, the existentialist is not required to subordinate her freedom at the expense of an impersonal and universal norm. At least, I think this is where the discussion goes when the existentialist and the Kantian think through their differences.
Let’s revisit the fact that Kant cannot understand evil. De Beauvoir cites Kant on his definition of man. Kant defines man as a “Pure Positivity.” De Beauvoir leaves it quite open as to what that means, but clearly she means the term to be a contrast against the existentialist. By “pure positivity”, I define this term as meaning a subject that gives reasons to itself could not understand why someone would choose against its own nature. Hence, radical evil is unthinkable in Christian thought and in Kant since we are inherently good, rational, and in this positivity, evil as a negation contradicts the metaphysical claims that bolster the apparent positivity. Both Kant and Christianity are based on a metaphysics of presence to put it in Heideggerian terms.
By contrast, De Beauvoir defines man as a Pure Negativity. Negation is a necessary category of thought to think through how she defines the subjectivity through Sartre. Man must make himself a lack of being so that there can be being. That involves not only a subject that gives reasons to determine herself. Instead, she makes herself a lack, and because of that indeterminate self-grounding underlying the existential conception of freedom, she is entirely responsible for that self-directed creativity. This leads me to the following division:
Pure Positivity Pure Negativity
Man as free rational agent vs. Man as a free creative agent
Push aside desires Embrace the particular concrete situation
Grounded in rational human nature Ungrounded self-affirming reasons/desires, not authorized
by a static human nature
In existentialism, one must decide in every moment without recourse to an independently authoritative set of reasons (in utilitarianism and Kantian ethics). Therefore, the individual becomes exemplary in moments where we are completely alone in the exercise of our freedom whereas Kantian ethics is a moment where we are joined by our rational natures with other rational people. Noting this difference of the individual experiencing exemplary moments, we can understand the relevance of Kierkeegard’s Abrahamic exemplarism for Christian existentialism (that is, the experience of Abraham’s solitude in trying to decide whether or not to ill Isaac is one of “fear and trembling”) and why both Sartre and De Beauvoir model the exemplarism off the artist. The artist is the only individual capable of the robust freedom they both demand since the demand of that robust freedom leads to the experience of anguish.
Anguish is an experience persons feel when they must confront the gulf between the consciousness about to realize this freedom and the uncertain unmade future. The realization of our projects is a determination of something. It’s that point when the exemplar of the artist is the only metaphor for experiencing this radical freedom of human life. Such freedom is unnerving, and many can flee from it. Others like the artist can embrace it. How does this apply to the observation evil we’ve mentioned already?
According to De Beauvoir, evil is a choice. Human beings can determine themselves in this way; evil can be accounted for as a groundless choice better than Kant due to the fact that in existentialism human beings are free and ethics pays attention to the concrete situation facing the individual. Since there is no ground other than human beings, values are brought into the world by humans and can be altered by our response to them if we so choose. We can bring “good” or “evil” into this world insofar as we also keep in mind that we do not need the extra metaphysical baggage of either theology or philosophical conceptions of human nature to address the reality of “evil.”Given the metaphysical truth of human freedom in consciousness, values emerge only from us. That means that the meaning of human life and values we choose occur because of the choice of individuals to sustain them.
I find the whole existentialist program quite drab. If I were to offer some criticisms, they might be. First, Warnock was right about the conflation of the descriptive and the normative, and this is instructive for recuperating De Beauvoir against Sartre in reading her as a consequentialist. Second, this radical notion of freedom finds its exemplarity only in individuals with an artistic temperament in much the same way that Nietzsche’s “Overman” is suited to the same prominent self-confidence and assertion of egoistic personalities fetishizing their projects over other concerns. Such exemplarity need not belong to the artists, however. In fact, I think there’s another way of retrieving De Beauvoir’s insights.
We should think of her moral principle as a consequential call to maximize other people’s freedom all the time in everything we do, including our life projects. In this way, we honor the accurate insight in De Beauvoir and Sartre that the exercise of our freedom is indistinguishable from the assumed sociality of freedom’s exercise. Then, her ethics becomes an ethics of hope, and we can then read (even if against what De Beauvoir would not want us to claim about her thought) this freedom back into the Ethics of Ambiguity. We can see her embrace of the ambiguity of being a lack of being to bring about being as a meditation on the importance of freedom for all human experience since to impede the freedom of others impacts my very being. Perhaps, more on this later…