Throughout the course of this essay, I will show that Simone de Beauvoir’s response to the advocate of the claim that morality requires the existence of God is defective. To do so, I will first consider de Beauvoir’s argument to theistic claim that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. In turn, I will raise a new problem for de Beauvoir’s argument and consider how she will respond to that criticism. Finally, I will discuss and illustrate whether or not that response is adequate.
The initial theistic argument that Simone de Beauvoir responds to states that if God does not exist then everything is permitted. To the theist, all value depends on God so if God does not exist then nothing is important, and since importance is tied to permission, this follows that without God there is no morality and thereby everything is permitted. De Beauvoir agrees with the theist in the sense that if God does not exist then nothing is objectively important but according to her existentialist standpoint, things can still be subjectively important. This is because, to de Beauvoir, value gets into the world through human choice and action where humans make choices and undertake certain projects that imbue their lives with meaning and importance without having to appeal to an outside agent or an external basis for ethical judgement.
A natural criticism that then arises to de Beauvoir’s initial response is that if subjectivism is true, then one can make anything permitted. This criticism is different from the initial claim above because it is possible for one to make anything permitted without making it the case that everything is permitted. So, it follows from subjectivism that one can make anything previously important to do not important to do by simply undertaking a new project. Therefore, one can make any given thing permissible by just taking it to be important. De Beauvoir responds to this argument by imposing constraints on the kinds of projects that could actually imbue one’s life with value and meaning. She also suggests that the only projects that make person’s life meaningful are ones that do place certain restrictions on how that person can treat others.
This new criticism forms part of the basis for de Beauvoir’s ethical framework. In the Ethics of Ambiguity, she emphasizes that human freedom is the source of moral obligation and draws upon this principle of freedom as a foundational premise of her work. According to de Beauvoir, human beings are condemned to be free, we are condemned without our prior consent to a life where we have to be constantly making choices. The fact that we are condemned to freedom is the very thing that allows us to create meaning in our lives. In other words, our essence ultimately relies on this more fundamental aspect of the human condition that we are free, and if we examine this freedom closely, de Beauvoir claims that there are certain values, like murdering people, that are just contradictory to arrive at. She acknowledges that we have the ability to freely choose any project we desire, but freely choosing any project does not mean that it will automatically instill our life with meaning.
Thus, projects have to be of a certain nature in order for them to assign meaning to our lives. Such projects need to constitute an assertion of our own freedom. In other words, an individual has to take on a project in part for the sake of expressing and exercising their freedom and only then will their life be given importance by pursuing that project. (This is because the entire idea of what is important for us or what we are morally obligated to do is directly connected to the amount of freedom we have in any given situation. It follows to de Beauvoir that any serious discussion about what assigns meaning to our lives or what we are morally accountable for at the very least needs to begin from the place that maximizes the default state that we are born into; condemned to be free).
However, de Beauvoir thinks even further. For her, realizing one’s own freedom does not negate other’s ability to do the same; in fact, the freedom of others is required for our own freedom to be preserved. So, in order for a project to imbue my life with meaning, I will need to assert my own freedom. But, in order for me to assert my own freedom, I will also have to asset the freedom of others. Therefore, for me to imbue my own life with meaning, I have to recognize others as beings for-themselves or as free independent consciousnesses. So why does de Beauvoir affirm that true freedom requires the freedom of others? To her, human beings exist in a duality, we are both simultaneously those indi
However, what happens if a person chooses to live in bad faith and not assert their own freedom or acknowledge the freedom of others? According to de Beauvoir, such an individual will have no value in their life. But, if permissibility depends on value and value depends on asserting freedom, then that individual can escape impermissibility by simply choosing to live a meaningless life. Thus, the way de Beauvoir develops her ethical framework leaves open the possibility that in fact for some people everything is permitted. Now the original argument has force because it seems like certain people will not have any moral requirements if they choose to not undertake a project freely.
As a result, de Beauvoir faces two dilemmas: say that meaning is fully subjective, then anything can be made important by undertaking it as a project which potentially leads to the case where anything can be made permissible. On the other hand, impose restrictions and say that only certain kinds of projects are meaning generating, then people who do not undertake such projects have no meaning in their lives thereby qualifying nothing as impermissible for them.
Throughout the course of the Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir reminds the reader that nothing is really meaningful outside of subjective human perspectives, and that it simply does not make sense to hold human morality to the standard of objective truth, which no individual human could ever access. But by centering morality on people’s finite projects and affirming individuals’ potential to make concrete contributions to the world only through embracing their own freedom and the freedom of others, she distances meaning from just living such that people can still live while being in bad faith. Therefore, basing her ethical framework on such grounds exposes the prospect for everything to be permissible for us individually if we simply choose not to live a meaningful life, and this problem ultimately renders her conception of subjective moral value ineffective and inadequate against that of objective morality.