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188 of 197 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2003
This is an excellent and original work of philosophy, closely related to the contemporary ideas of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but quite unique and not reducible to their work. I find it to be one of the best books (indeed one of the few books) to use to teach existentialism in introductory classes. I recommend skipping the first chapter, because it is self-consciously "literary," (in an obscure way), and contributes nothing essential to the book. Chapter 2 is the core of the book, and it is an incredible and compelling piece of writing that brilliantly discusses the distinctive nature of childhood experience, and then develops a dialectic of "bad faith" that offers a sort of system for understanding personality types--ways, that is, of embracing (imperfectly) our freedom. The third chapter studies politics in a very thoughtful way, (though I find it is often lost on my intro students because they just don't have enough experience of political realities to appreciate the significance of what she is saying). This text is often wrongly belittled by commentators (and, indeed, de Beauvoir herself wrongly said disparaging things about it), but I think it is one of the classic texts of existential phenomenology and deserves to be widely read.
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76 of 81 people found the following review helpful
"There is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him, as when one empties and fills the same ditch indefinitely, when one makes soldiers who are being punished march up and down, when one forces a schoolboy to copy lines."

What will the modern man do when slapped in the face with the absurdity of his own existence? Become an adventurer, passionate, serious, intellectual? Where will his values come from when there are no values -- how will he create them out of nothing? Is it easier to adopt a game full of illusions created by someone else? de Beauvoir forces the reader to come face to face with the absolute absurdity of the human condition, and then, proceeds to develop a dialectic of ambiguity that will enable the reader not to master the chaos, but to create with it. This book will probably alter many well-rooted philosophical perceptions -- so, reader beware! I could have done without the dramatic image of how the Nazi's conditioned themselves to become insensitive to human suffering (de Beauvoir used as an extreme example), but oh well... This book is a keeper, and very quotable! Highly recommended, especially for those diving into the Realm of Existentialism! --Katharena Eiermann, 2006
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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2003
By exploring the meaning of "existence before essence" and the fundamental reality of choice, Beauvoir presents the reader with a livable program for life in the modern and multiplicit world; namely existentialism. Ethics is both concise and poetic, maintaining a clarity that Being and Nothingness lacks. The Second Sex is essentially an entailment of the ideas explored in this book. Few other philosophers of the 20th century were able to combine practical philosophy and rigorous metaphysics with such eloquence.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2003
This is an excellent and original work of philosophy, closely related to the contemporary ideas of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but quite unique and not reducible to their work. I find it to be one of the best books (indeed one of the few books) to use to teach existentialism in introductory classes. I recommend skipping the first chapter, because it is self-consciously "literary," (in an obscure way), and contributes nothing essential to the book. Chapter 2 is the core of the book, and it is an incredible and compelling piece of writing that brilliantly discusses the distinctive nature of childhood experience, and then develops a dialectic of "bad faith" that offers a sort of system for understanding personality types--ways, that is, of embracing (imperfectly) our freedom. The third chapter studies politics in a very thoughtful way, (though I find it is often lost on my intro students because they just don't have enough experience of political realities to appreciate the significance of what she is saying). This text is often wrongly belittled by commentators (and, indeed, de Beauvoir herself wrongly said disparaging things about it), but I think it is one of the classic texts of existential phenomenology and deserves to be widely read.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
The Ethics of Ambiguity is a first rate philosophical study, and important contribution to ethics, that demonstrates the radical freedom proclaimed by existentialists to carry with it ethical responsibilities. The insight that the essence of human being is freedom, or that we are just what we make of ourselves and there are no absolutes does not lead to nihilism, but rather to the recognition that we are answerable to the others with whom we must collaborate in the construction of human existence.

The core of the book is in the second chapter, where Beauvoir outlines a progressively more adequate series of responses to the awareness of freedom. The child can remain ignorant of the ways in which her choices reflect back upon her, and begin imperceptibly to define who she is and determine a destiny; but in adolescence we all grasp, in varying degrees, that if who we are has been shaped by the free and somewhat arbitrary choices of our parents and guardians, who we will become is up to us. It's easy, at that point, to deny or reject our freedom and fall into complacency or routine, but to do so is to be not fully human, a "sub-man" who rejects responsibility and lives just to live and according to habit. Such are easily manipulated by trends and marketing and political slogans of whatever content.

The first stage along the way of accepting freedom, according to Beauvoir, more pernicious perhaps but still an advance on the "sub-man," is what she calls the "serious man": the one who subordinates freedom to a cause - a war, an ideal, a gang, a program or a religion - whatever it is, and embraces that cause as if it were the one and only thing worth choosing, as if choice itself were not what matters and as if any and all freedoms that stand in the way of the cause are to be suppressed.

Beauvoir outlines a series of "ways of being" - the adventurer, the passionate person, the lover, the artist and intellectual - each of which can be understood as overcoming the deficiencies of the prior, in living up to the demands of freedom. Ultimately, she argues, to be free involves dedicating oneself to the cause of freedom, realizing some good that allows others also to discover that good. Teaching could fit this pattern, but so could revolutionary activity; she argues that in some situations that may be what is called for, and in such situations the ambiguous nature of free activity would be evident: that in order to achieve freedom I must struggle against the choices and activities of those who suppress freedom.

Beauvoir's argument in this book is provocative and compelling, and leaves one with much to reflect on. While some of the works once considered pivotal for the existentialist "movement" may appear to be directly bound to a particular time and place (e.g. the cafes and lounges of postwar Paris), Simone de Beauvoir's excellent little treatise on existentialist ethics has lost none of its relevance or urgency. Highly recommended!
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2002
This book changed my life. In precise, but understandable terms, this book offered a compelling view of existentialism, devoid of the terminological wilderness of other books on the subject (e.g. Being and Nothingness).
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2012
"As soon as one considers a system abstractly and theoretically, one puts himself, in effect on the plane of the universal, thus , of the infinite. That is why reading the Hegelian system is so comforting. I remember having experienced a great feeling of calm on reading Hegel... But once I got into the street again, into my life, out of the system, beneath a real sky, the system was no longer of any us to me... I think that, inversely, existentialism does not offer to the reader the consolations of an abstract evasion: existentialism proposes no evasion." -- Simone de Beauvoir

"The Ethics of Ambiguity" is the most concise overview of Existentialist ethics I have read. In "Being and Nothingness" Sartre eschewed an ethical system in favor of focusing almost exclusively on ontological relationships. Here, Beauvoir takes "Being and Nothingness" and extends it into an ethical system.

There are two major parts to "Ethics of Ambiguity". The first part focuses on different degrees of personal freedom. Degrees of understanding range from: the sub-man, serious man, nihilist, adventurer, passionate man, and, finally, the independent man. The independent man understands his own freedom. He also understands the necessity of freedom for other men for him to be free.

The second part of the book is a description of how to use personal freedom. Man must live for a concrete objective. This objective is constantly transcending and can never be captured. The object of transcendence is determined by individual freedom within the context of social freedom.

Beauvoir's prescriptions to political change remain both critical and revolutionary. She constantly stresses the need to evaluate the situation and not act rash. The individual must not submit to dogma. However, a choice must be made. Many times the choice will not be ideal and blood must be shed. Beauvoir's Existentialism does not feign from making tough choices.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I first read this book forty years ago for an undergraduate class in social philosophy. I've re-read it five or six times since, and benefitted from each re-reading. Though it was not DeBeauvoir's intention to write an introduction to existentialism, this is the best one available.

What is the meaning of life? It has none save that which we give it, an inescapable process which the author terms "disclosure of being in the world." This view is strongly relativistic, to be sure, providing no basis for preferring a painfully abscessed molar to good sex.

Unlike the early Sartre, moreover, DeBeauvoir recognizes that we disclose being in the world -- learn what it means to be -- in very specific ways, in socially determined contexts. The meanings we discern are bounded by the social worlds of which we are the ongoing creations and which we help to create.

DeBeauvoir's answer to what-is-the-meaning-of-life kinds of questions is not spiritually uplifting, but it's an answer, given without equivocation or hollow appeals to faith. As such, I think it's the right answer. She makes a compelling case.

Can we organize our lives around "disclosure of being in the world?" I don't think so. Its much too abstract, fraught with anomie, positing a sort of Durkheimian nightmare. Still, at least we know where we stand: right in the middle of a universe that anticipates by two or three decades post-modern rejection of any sort of natural and durable foundation.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 1999
compared to Being and Nothingness, the Ethics of Ambiguity is a cakewalk to read. which does not at all make it a bad choice. Beauvoir constructs an ethics (but not a set of mores(inflexible)) that is livable. an ethics that works in this world. all readers of The Second Sex should read the Ethics first, especially the english readers since the only(?) Second Sex translation available to us was written by a scientist who didn't comprehend/care about the types of things the Ethics addresses. also of interest is how well this book flows moderately seemlessly (other than he-centered language) into contemporary feminist theory. like sarah hoagland's Lesbian Ethics, for example.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon February 24, 2015
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir (1908-1986), was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist, who was closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism. She wrote many books, such as The Second Sex,The Mandarins ,She Came to Stay,The Woman Destroyed,Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter);The Prime of Life;Force of Circumstance);All Said and Done,Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre,Letters to Sartre,Wartime Diary, etc.

She wrote in the first chapter of this 1947 book, “It is rather well known that the fact of being a subject is a universal fact and that the Cartesian ‘cogito’ expresses both the most individual experience and the most objective truth. By affirming that the source of all values resides in the freedom of man, existentialism merely carries on the tradition of Kant, Ficthe, and Hegel, who, in the words of Hegel himself, ‘have taken for their point of departure the principle according to which the essence of right and duty and the essence of the thinking and willing subject are absolutely identical.’” (Pg. 17) She adds, “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.” (Pg. 18)

She explains, “it is precisely because an evil will is here possible that the words ‘to will oneself free’ have a meaning. Therefore, not only do we assert that the existentialist doctrine permits the elaboration of an ethics, but it even appears to us as the only philosophy in which an ethics has its place. For, in a metaphysics of transcendence…evil is reduced to error; and in humanistic philosophies it is impossible to account for it, man being defined as complete in a complete world. Existentialism alone gives---like religions---a real role to evil, and it is this, perhaps, which make its judgments so gloomy.” (Pg. 33-34)

She suggests, “If what is called women’s futility often has so much charm and grace… it is because it manifests a pure and gratuitous taste for existence, like the games of children; it is the absence of the serious. The unfortunate thing is that in many cases this thoughtlessness, this gaiety, these charming inventions imply a deep complicity with the world of men which they seem so graciously to be contesting, and it is a mistake to be astonished, once the structure which shelters them seems to be in danger, to see sensitive, ingenuous, and light-minded women show themselves harder, more bitter, and even more furious or cruel than their masters. It is then that we discover the difference which distinguishes them from an actual child: the child’s situation is imposed upon him, whereas the woman… chooses it or at least consents to it.” (Pg. 37-38)

She argues, “The nihilist is right in thinking that the world POSSESSES no justification and that he himself is nothing. But he forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to make himself exist validly. Instead of integrating death into life, he sees in it the only truth of the life which appears to him as a disguised death. However, there is life, and the nihilist knows that he is alive. That’s where his failure lies. He rejects existence without managing to eliminate it. He denies any meaning to his transcendence, and yet he transcends himself.” (Pg. 57)

She asserts, “to the extent that passion, pride, and the spirit of adventure lead to this tyranny and its conflicts, existentialist ethics condemns them… because, if it is true that every project emanates from subjectivity, it is also true that this subjective movement establishes itself by a surpassing of subjectivity. Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men. .. I concern others and they concern me. There we have an irreducible truth. The me-other relationship is as indissoluble as the subject-object relationship… To will oneself free is also to will others free. This is not an abstract formula. It points out to each person concrete action to be achieved.” (Pg. 72-73) She adds, “Thus, every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings.” (Pg. 74)

She observes, “We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is only interested in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom. I am oppressed if I am thrown into prison but not if I am kept from throwing my neighbor into prison.” (Pg. 90-91)

She admits, “It will be said that these considerations remain quite abstract. What must be done, practically? Which action is good? Which bad? To ask such a question is also to fall into a naive abstraction. We don’t ask the physicist, ‘Which hypotheses are true?’ Nor the artist, ‘By what procedures does one produce a work whose beauty is guaranteed?’ Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art.” (Pg. 134)

She says in the concluding chapter, “we can set up point number one: the good of an individual or a group of individuals requires that it be taken as an absolute end of our action; but we are not authorized to decide upon this end a priori. The fact is that no behavior is every authorized to begin with, and one of the concrete consequences of existentialist ethics is the rejection of all the previous justifications which might be drawn from the civilization, the age, and the culture; it is the rejection of every principle of authority. To put it positively, the precept will be to treat the other … as a freedom so that his end may be freedom; in using this conducting-wire one will have to incur the risk, in each case, of inventing an original solution.” (Pg. 142)

Sartre promised at the end of Being and Nothingness to write an “existentialist ethics,” but he never carried this out. But De Beauvoir’s book fulfills much of this purpose, and it has definitely been “undervalued” as a work of philosophy in its own right.
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