An Analysis of Ambiguity in Humans

by Sanjana Sankaran, November 12, 2021

The existentialist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir explained in her book titled, The Ethics of Ambiguity, why humans are ambiguous creatures. Beauvoir first proclaims that humans have felt the ambiguity of the states of life and death for a long time. However, even if people recognize the ambiguity of life and understand that as humans we will all die, they eliminate ambiguity by proclaiming religious immortality, and by saying one should become pure internally and externally (Beauvoir 7). As an advocate for women’s rights and human rights, she believed that in order for people to achieve a sense of freedom they must recognize and appreciate the ambiguity. I will further analyze the importance of ambiguity of life and why Beauvoir’s assessment of the human condition as fundamentally ambiguous is correct. 

After recognizing the concept of ambiguity, Beauvoir then differentiates between the two main types: fundamental ambiguity and the simpler ambiguity.  The fundamental ambiguity of the human experience has two parts: the first being that humans are free, we have the ability to think about the world (consciousness), and we can decide how we wish to act and have a private life (internal) (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). This knowledge gives us strength and power to act (Beauvoir 8). The second part contradicts the first by stating that we are not free because humans cannot escape death in any way. Humans, in many ways, are objects by which external forces can act, so we therefore also have an external existence that cannot be controlled. The simpler ambiguity also has two parts: one is factual and deals with our bodily existence, while the other is free and deals without conscious existence (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). Again, philosophers have been dishonest about the ambiguity of life in two ways; they either deny its existence or they disparage it and deem it as negligible to understand and recognize. So, in this process, their style of ethics try to assert one of the ideas of this dualism of life, complete freedom, and determinism, where all your actions have already been determined and you have no control (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). 

Ambiguity is extremely important to Beauvoir’s style of ethics because she argues that the concept of ethics itself only makes sense within the context of ambiguous creatures like humans. She states that ethics is brought about by the tension of what is and what ought to be. ‘What is’ is the reality of a situation, such as “there is social injustice.” ‘What ought’ is how things should be –  our opinion –  such as “there should not be social injustice”. She argues therefore that ethics becomes valid when we recognize the ambiguity between what we are and what we could and should be (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). Beauvoir’s ethics is the ethics of freedom for humanity, which she claims is the source and goal of all ethics. Freedom is what lets humans express meaning and value about certain things and thus must be willed because humans are ambiguous. To will freedom, humans must first recognize the ambiguity instead of denying it to open up their future and keep the ability to act in multiple ways (Lecture Notes 11/11/2020). 

The human condition is fundamentally ambiguous for three main reasons: we cannot escape death,  there is freedom in the uncertain or ambiguous and, lastly, humans live in constant doubt. Humans cannot escape death; philosophers and other thinkers have tried to escape death by arguing that it does not matter what we do in life as long as we end up pure enough to be in heaven. The same goes for religions that discuss reincarnation; however, we live it does not matter because we will be reincarnated. However, as Beauvoir states, the ends do not always justify the means, nor should one be focused on the means and forget about the end. In the first case, when people ignore the means to achieve their goal, they will commit atrocities to get there (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the case of the serious man, they find a single value the absolute and will become a slave to this value, and find everything else as unimportant. This ultimately results in a fascist regime, cult followers, and other heinous crimes against humanity. The serious man fails to recognize the ambiguity in human existence and that humans are free to set up their own values and not blindly follow the values of others (Lecture Notes 11/16/2020). Nietzsche, one of the fundamental philosophers of the existentialist movement, explains the avoidance of death as an end to asceticism – humans will endure severe self-discipline, abstinence, or a denial of our own enjoyments in favor of the spiritual world, a kingdom of God. He argues that humans have used this to endure suffering under the pretense that it can give life meaning. However, Nietzsche wonders how to avoid ascetic ideals without falling into the trap of nihilism (Lecture Notes 11/2/2020). “The ascetic ideal has an aim – this goal is, putting it generally, that all the other interests of human life should, measured by its standard, appear petty and narrow” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 23). Asceticism allows for ethics of certainty, not ambiguity; in doing so traps them, and restricts their future. The ascetic ideals, when taken advantage of by cult leaders and tyrants, are often used as a method of oppression. The goal of human life is freedom, not the ascetic ideal. As Beauvoir states, this is achieved by humans having to create their own values, constantly living in doubt, and in the process, gaining genuine freedom. Genuine freedom is something humans have to produce on their  own; we must will it ourselves (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). As Nietzsche states, “Man, the bravest animal and the one most inured to suffering, does not repudiate suffering in itself: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided that he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 28). Ambiguity states that life has the ability to be meaningful; however, humans must make life meaningful. Humans have made life meaningful by choosing to stand up for the oppressed and not just assuming an existing value system; they have made it meaningful by protesting injustice and changing unjust laws. They may suffer while standing up for the oppressed as Nietzsche states, but there is a greater purpose for it, and that is freedom. 

Life is uncertain, and acknowledging this uncertainty opens up our future and allows us to be free. When humans follow ethics of certainty instead of uncertainty, they leave themselves in an echo chamber where they may become narcissistic, brainwashed, and tyrannical. If humans choose freedom they must live in this ambiguity, as many of us do. Humans live in a constant state of doubt, questioning what is right and wrong, seeking advice from others, and learning from different resources (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). This doubt is  why humans read books – to learn more about the world they live in. Ethics can therefore not tell us exactly what to do, for this would be ethics of certainty; one must determine right from wrong while making decisions as they question value systems already in place. Those who reject the fundamental ambiguity are those who do not reject the previous value systems. According to Nietzsche, the value systems in place are the aristocratic value system and the slave value system. The aristocratic system is one where good is associated with characteristics of nobility, and bad is associated with characteristics of common people, or the minority. The slave value system was developed from the original system as ressentiment or resentment, causing an inversion of values; good is only derived by comparison to the aristocrats and evil is a term of vilification where it represents narcissism, racism, and so on (Lecture Notes 10/19/2020). Nietzsche states that both the aristocratic value system ‘good and bad’ and the slave value system ‘good and evil’  have existed in our society since the aristocratic times; however, humans must question the values already present (Lecture Notes 10/21/2020). Beauvoir goes on to state that, “an ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existants can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all” (Beauvoir 18). In other words, the ethics of ambiguity can only exist when people acknowledge the separation that exists between humans, especially of different minority groups. By acknowledging the imbalance that exists, all humans of separate groups have the ability to develop a new value system where there is freedom for all.   

We do not live in the future, and we cannot wait for it; the future is created. In the present, we make choices as we live in a state of doubt that builds a better future for others. This is shown in politics all the time (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the state of this pandemic, people in the present should stay at home and make the decision in the present to protect themselves and others, in order to build a future where COVID is no longer a major concern. Over the summer as people increasingly doubted the structure of our governmental system, people intervened and criticized the justice system, standing up for black lives. This doubt of the certainty that existed allows for freedom in the future. Beauvoir elaborates, “one must attempt to judge the chances of success that are involved in a certain sacrifice; but at the beginning, this judgment will always be doubtful […]” (Beauvoir 148). Choices in the present must be made by doubting the chances of success in the beginning. When people assume the world to go a certain way, this leads to events of destruction and oppression with Nazi Germany being a key example.  Hitler, in this case, is a serious man, who took a value that already existed, did not doubt it, and oppressed many. Those who questioned his assumptions are those who accepted the concept of ambiguity. 

In conclusion, Beauvoir was correct, humans are fundamentally ambiguous creatures because death is inescapable, even through religious means. Life will end at any time, and we live in this uncertainty and create a sense of meaning on our own. Humans live in constant doubt making dynamic choices in the situation that they are currently in while deciding how to create a better future. This is how humans live life to the fullest and by recognizing this we are free, but not from circumstances out of our control.

References/Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity: Pour Une Morale De L’ambiguïté. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, Open Road Integrated Media, 2018.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 9 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 11 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 16 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 2 Dec. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 19 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 2 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 21 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. “On the Genealogy of Morals (A Modernized Translation with a New Introduction and Biography).” Edited by Bill Chapko. Translated by Horace B. Samuel, 2010.

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