Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, existentialist philosopher, political activist, social theorist and feminist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, her enduring contributions to the fields of ethics, politics, existentialism, phenomenology and feminist theory and her significance as an activist and public intellectual is now a matter of record. Unlike her status as a philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir’s position as a feminist theorist has never been in question. Controversial from the beginning, The Second Sex’s critique of patriarchy continues to challenge social, political and religious categories used to justify women’s inferior status.
De Beauvoir first worked with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Levi-Strauss, when all three completed their practice teaching requirements at the same school. While studying for the agrégation , she met École Normale students Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan, and Rene Maheu. The jury for the agrégation narrowly awarded Sartre first place instead of de Beauvoir, who placed second and, at age 21, was the younger person ever to pass the exam. The Neo-Hegelian revival led by Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite in the 1930s inspired a whole generation of French thinkers, including de Beauvoir and Sartre, to discover Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
In 1944 de Beauvoir wrote her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion of an existentialist ethics. She continued her exploration of existentialism through her second essay The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947); it is perhaps the most accessible entry into French existentialism. In the essay, de Beauvoir clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and Nothingness. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir confronts the existentialist dilemma of absolute freedom vs. the constraints of circumstance.
The Ethics of Ambiguity begins with the central existentialist premise that ‘existence precedes essence’. Basically, this means that we humans create our own essence or nature through our choices and actions. When de Beauvoir discusses human essence, she refers not only to this general notion, but also to Heidegger’s assertion in Being and Time that our creation of ourselves in the present is based both on our past actions and on the choices that we make while projecting ourselves into the future. The aspect of de Beauvoir’s ethics dealing with choice stems from Sartre’s distinction in Being and Nothingness between the ‘in-itself’ and the ‘for-itself’. However, De Beauvoir sensed a contradiction in Sartre’s thinking. A summary of her argument might read: Humans are inherently free; to be moral is to will oneself free; but not every human acts morally: so is it not a contradiction to suggest that all humans are free? De Beauvoir resolved this contradiction by drawing a distinction between two kinds of freedom: ontological freedom and moral freedom, such that though we are always ontologically free, we aren’t always morally free. It is moral freedom which forms the basis for de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity.
For our discussion we'll be focusing on Chapter I and II as well as well as Section 2, 'Freedom and Liberation' of Chapter III.
Below are some links that discuss Simone de Beauvoir and Ethics of Ambiguity:
Overview of her work and life; https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/#EthAmbBadFaiAppArt
Discussion of Ethics of Ambiguity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ethics_of_Ambiguity