Existentialism, like anarchism, is a philosophy which places the human individual as the starting point of our thoughts about the world. The individual, says the existentialist, is thrown into the world as a free subject along with other free subjects who both came before them and will come after them. Outside of the individual, other free subjects appear to be objects with which the individual exerts her will. However, the individual is an object on which others exert their will. This realization creates a unique situation: the individual is always among a collectivity on which she depends to define herself, but she is never fully subsumed by it.
This is one of the ways human existence is ambiguous; that is, as individuals, we are both subjects and objects at the same time. This ambiguity is the starting point for Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of ethics titled The Ethics of Ambiguity, which serves as both an adaptation of and improvement on Jean Paul Sartre’s work on existentialism, most notably his book Being and Nothingness. De Beauvoir wrote Ethics as a response to the criticism brought up concerning Sartre’s work, namely that existentialism is solipsistic and gives no recourse for the individual to morally act in the world due to its focus on human failure to be both a being in-itself (objects of the external world) and a being for itself (human). De Beauvoir, however, finds that existentialism is the only philosophy where an elaboration of ethics can take place because it “gives a real role to evil” (pg.34). In other words, evil is not reduced to the “error of man” as with other philosophies, but exists because humans can choose to be evil. This happens because the individual is defined as a negativity (at a distance from oneself) rather than a positivity (coincided with oneself) such as in other meta-ethical theories. She can escape her existence and freedom by fleeing into the world of the serious, whether that is taking recourse in ideas which place values outside of us (inhuman objectivity) or placing oneself in nihilistic despair.
Though individuals can flee from their freedom through mistake or through the exercise of their will, existentialism does give rise to a genuinely positive existence. If we accept that our failures exist and that to have this failure is to be human, we can deny these failures as failures and accept our existence. In de Beauvoir’s words “man makes himself a lack, but he can deny the lack as a lack and affirm himself as a positive existence” (pg.13). Whatever failures we as humans face, whether it is our inability to have absolute knowledge or absolute freedom, if we assume these to not be failures, we can positively assert our existence and work to attain the most from life that we can.
This is an act of indefinite transcendence, also known as existentialist conversion. We are surpassing ourselves as long as we are continually willing ourselves toward ends which lead us into further surpassing. However, we must acknowledge our past acts and justify them with the projects we are working on in the present. This is what it means to continue our transcendence indefinitely, that our past acts not uselessly fall back upon themselves and that our ends in the present allow us the possibility to surpass ourselves in the future. This is important for us as anarchists to take note of, as we are pushing toward a world with more freedom, we do not want to set up an end, once realized, blocks any chance of surpassing further in the future. Whether an anarchist’s desired end is a market freed from capitalism or full communism, said end must not allow us the possibility to surpass it — so that freedom may be realized indefinitely. We must also acknowledge the acts of both our individual and historic past and justify them with our current projects, or else our transcendence toward freedom falls on itself and becomes just a useless fact and we become lost in our transcendence. To quote de Beauvoir:
To exist genuinely is not to deny this spontaneous movement of my transcendence, but only to refuse to lose myself in it … And just as phenomenological reduction prevents the errors of dogmatism by suspending all affirmation concerning the mode of reality of the external world …, so existentialist conversion does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions. It merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up as absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them (pg. 13-14).
The above outlines just the meta-ethics of de Beauvoir’s ethical thought. What are the actual ethics? How do they concern anarchists and what actions are ethically valid if we accept them?
The ethics of ambiguity are first and foremost an individualist ethic. This ethic “accords to the individual an absolute value and recognizes in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence” (pg. 156). It is against any doctrine or totalitarianism which places some cause, idea, or system above the individual person. The first ethical action point that the ethics of ambiguity reiterates, “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” (pg. 142). Analogous to the egoists, existentialists deny any external justifications to values; values are always tied to the individual. Ends, whether they be good or bad, must be left as a choice made by the individual who will learn from their success or failure, and our ambiguity lies in the fact that there exists opposing values. “…[O]nly the subject can justify his own existence” (pg. 106). To take the analogy to egoists further:
Politics always puts forward Ideas: Nation, Empire, Union, Economy, etc. But none of these forms has value in itself; it has it only insofar as it involves concrete individuals … We repudiate all idealisms, mysticisms, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself (pg. 145).
However, it is foolish to assume that the collective plays no part in the creation of these ethics. “The individual,” de Beauvoir writes, “is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others” (pg. 156). This is consistent with the first ethical action in the ethics of ambiguity since it requires us to treat others with freedom so that their end may be freedom. In order for the individual to will that she be free, she must also want others to be free. Unlike other philosophies that consider the collective, the existentialist seeks the liberation of others and herself through her own projects, not as a full surpassing into the abstract form that the collective is. “[I]t is true,” de Beauvoir writes, “that each is bound to all; but that is precisely the ambiguity of his condition: in his surpassing toward others, each one exists absolutely as for himself; each is interested in the liberation of all, but as a separate existence engaged in his own projects” (pg. 112). If we want freedom for ourselves, we must want freedom for others or it becomes an inconsistent freedom.
We are left with an interesting approach to freedom with echoes various anarchist thinkers of yesteryear. In existentialism, freedom and existence are considered absolutes, but only insomuch as they are projects individuals engage with themselves and the world rather than values that exist outside of them. It is also important to realize that they have no limits; if they did “all human effort would be doomed to failure, for each step forward the horizon recedes a step” (pg. 79). This coincides with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “anarchy as approximation” and critique of governmentalism. Proudhon considered progress as his main goal; he was against systems because they impede progress and create factors which lead to governmentalism. These factors are better known as “external constitution of society” which is anything that attempts to come in from the outside to realize our relations to others. Anarchy can then be seen as a relation that the individual has with other individuals. As long as our projects will us toward freedom, we will continue to rid ourselves of our “external constitutions” and get closer to anarchy without fully realizing it. Anarchy, taken as an existential factor, is the project that we transcend toward though never allowing ourselves to be fully subsumed by it. If our end is freedom, freedom must have no end.
Now we must consider what kind of actions we can take and who we can take them for. As mentioned above, we must treat others as a freedom so that their end may be freedom. This requires us not to serve an abstract ethical code placed in the realm of the serious, but to consider how we go about treating others as freedoms. The actions we take will be diverse because there are many concrete individuals that we must consider. There is risk involved with this; one could easily commit a tyranny that she did not mean to commit in an effort to help and she will have to seek pardon for it from others. This is a complex situation because:
…[O]n the one hand, one must not make himself an accomplice of that flight from freedom that is found in heedlessness, caprice, mania, and passion, and that, on the other hand, it is the abortive movement of man toward being which is his very existence, it is through the failure which he has assumed that he asserts himself as a freedom. To want to prohibit a man from error is to forbid him to fulfill his own existence, it is to deprive him of life (pg. 138).
In treating others as freedoms we need to keep in mind just how we are trying to do so or else we become tyrants ourselves.
Who we do help also lies in a state of ambiguity. Our second ethical action point says that our generosity is better served “the less distinction there is between the other and ourself and the more we fulfill ourself in taking the other as an end” (pg. 144). This means that our efforts toward freedom and liberation are best when considered with either those in our immediate locality or those we share close bonds with. That these efforts “… not contradict the will for universal solidarity” (pg.144) is left open ended because our freedom requires that our ends not be determined a priori. However, de Beauvoir notes that “if a nation can assert itself proudly only to the detriment of its members, if a union can be created only to the detriment of those it is trying to unite, the nation or the union must be rejected” (pg. 145). Our goal is freedom, and if a cause or Form impedes that freedom such cause or Form must be thrown out.
Some people will consciously choose evil and be an oppressor. Can we justify the use of violence against such people? For de Beauvoir “[V]iolence is justified only if it opens concrete possibilities to the freedom which I am trying to save; by practicing it I am willy-nilly assuming an engagement in relation to others and to myself” (pg. 137). This opens up a wide range of actions we can take against oppressors, but violent acts are tricky and must be engaged with honestly. Violence is a crime; even if we engage in it as a way to attain freedom for ourselves and others it is still a crime. A revolt may be called for but the violence committed must be seen for what it is, violence. Our negatives (revolt) must be affirmed and return to the positive (freedom for ourselves and others); otherwise our transcendence falls back upon itself. Those who deny violence for what it is or seek to prove it as necessary remain in the negative, and the revolt ends up as a failure. This is because they place the Cause above the liberation of ourselves and others. By denying violence or use necessity to prove it’s importance, “they do so because they know well enough that the soldier may act otherwise than he does, otherwise than the way they want him to, that he may disobey” (pg. 110).
This gives anarchists a vague but useful checklist when working toward liberation. We must consider what gains can be made by education and peaceful means and what may only be taken by violence considering that it liberates man. If violence is a method we must take, then we need to face that the violence we commit is a crime which neither can be denied nor rationalized as necessary to the Cause. It can only be used if it opens up the possibility of freedom for us and others. It is a difficult task, but it will ultimately lead to better concrete actions as long as we continue to treat others as a freedom so that their end may also be freedom. This gives us considerable amount of breathing room that the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) doesn’t. While the Ethics of Ambiguity and the NAP may be similar in their critique of violence, Ethics doesn’t outright reject it whereas the NAP rejects all non-defensive aggression.
The Ethics of Ambiguity is an important work not just for ethics but for us as anarchists. Instead of trying to justify anarchy through abstract Forms and system building, it asks us to take reality for what it is and to work with that. We don’t need more deontological or consequential justifications, let alone material conditions, to lead us to revolution. If we want freedom for ourselves and others, it is as individuals that we make this commitment. Our projects lead us to relate to others, and if we want this freedom we will start to leave behind our “external conditions” and form anarchic bonds. Systems will not bring us freedom, only we as individuals can will ourselves to it.