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De Beauvoir On The Ambiguous Human Condi…tion

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On Simone De Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), parts I and II.

We return to existentialism! Instead of describing our predicament as "absurd," de Beauvoir prefers "ambiguous": We are a biological organism in the world, yet we're also free consciousness transcending the given situation. Truly coming to terms with this freedom means not only understanding that you transcend any label of character ("villain") or role ("doctor") that you or anyone else has put on you, but also recognizing that your freedom requires the freedom of others.

And this is the challenge of her book: In an existentialist world view that denies pre-existing moral laws, whether given by God or Reason or anything else, how can ethics be possible? Wouldn't it just be all subjective, or relative, if, as Nietzsche says, we are the ones who create values? What prevents an existentialist from being a self-consistent monster à la the antagonist of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men?

The key is recognizing and preserving this human ambiguity. We are things in the world, yet qua consciousness, we're really a hole in the world, a little pit of desire, an unpredictable action behind a pair of eyes, and to embrace our negativity means recognizing not only that no external, alien moral law causes or commands our behavior, but also willing that being exist, i.e., the being of the things we desire, the projects we want to enact in the world, and the happiness of other people and improvement of the world. Self-consistently embracing our free nature therefore means willing the good, and this willing is an act of creation much like creation of an artwork.

Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan are all on board this time to fill out this picture and try to figure out whether de Beauvoir is right that not only does this existentialist picture support ethics, but in fact it's the only way to support ethics: a pre-existent, objective standard would not allow us the freedom to actually choose the good. Think about how, for Plato, we never knowingly choose evil; we always want what we think is good but sometimes are just mistaken. De Beauvoir, like Augustine, thinks that we really can perversely choose to deny our nature, deny our freedom (though that denial remains a free choice), where pretending like Aristotle and (in a different way) most theologians that we have a built-in teleological "good" that by our nature we were meant to pursue is just another way of actually denying our total freedom.

Recommended prerequisites: De Beauvoir's book is a great introduction to existentialism, if you haven't read any, and our discussion should be mostly clear, but it may help you especially to listen to our ep. 10 on Kant's ethics, which also argues for the "self-legislation" of ethics. Other touchstones are Nietzsche (most centrally ep. 84), Camus (ep. 4), and especially Sartre (ep. 87). We also bring up Augustine (eps. 121 and 122), Eva Brann's take on Nietzsche (ep. 120), and stoicism (ep. 124). [Part One ]

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