By Yuka Kamamoto
Both Simone de Beauvoir and Zhuangzi recognize that humans do not have a fixed essence and are concerned with constructing an ethics that respects and prioritizes human freedom. In this paper, I explore the similarities of both thinkers with regard to their rejection of absolute moral standards, and their views on personal moral freedom, and on respecting the freedom of others.
In Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir describes human existence as ontologically “ambiguous” because we are a combination of both facticity and transcendence. Although we are restricted by the brute facts of our existence (facticity), for instance, our birthplace, social status, past choices, etc., we nevertheless yearn to surpass our situation, to exercise our freedom we are to become what we are not (transcendence). For example, a person might be born into slavery but he is free to choose whether to submit to his master, to rebel or to take his own life. It is tempting for him to pretend that he has no other options other than to remain a slave because of the oppressive situation he finds himself in. But that would be denying his freedom to make choices and denying his responsibility of having to live with the consequences of those choices. A person who denies his freedom in this way is what de Beauvoir calls a sub-man. Another way in which a person denies his freedom is by “losing himself in the object in order to annihilate his subjectivity”. This is the serious man who makes himself a slave to the project that he has set up. It does not matter to him what the content of the project is. It could be Art, Philosophy, Communism, Feminism, or Religion, etc. The point of selecting a project is so that he can get rid of his freedom. The project becomes the absolute source of meaning for the serious man, and he tries to become the author of meaning, i.e. God, so that he can avoid willing his freedom. But the serious man is destined to fail because he is fundamentally free and can never escape his freedom.
Similarly, I think Zhuangzi also recognizes the unstable condition of the serious man in Chapter 2:
If you regard what you have received as fully formed once and for all, unable to forget it, all the time it survives is just a vigil spent waiting for its end. In the process, you grind and lacerate yourself against all the things around you. Its activities will be over as quickly as a horse galloping by, unstoppable— is it not sad? All your life you labor, and nothing is achieved. Worn and exhausted to the point of collapse, never knowing what it all amounts to—how can you not lament this? (2:10)
When the serious man regards the values he has taken up as absolute, he is subjected to constant worry, because he has to dispute all other contesting values that threaten his whole world of meaning. In the end, when he is finally cut off from his project, he feels that all his efforts are in vain because the project was never willed from his freedom in the first place. It was simply willed for the sake of willing.
Although we can never succeed in becoming what we are not, we nevertheless still have a desire to disclose the meaning of being. De Beauvoir quotes Sartre: man “is a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being”. The fact that we do set up goals and projects indicates that we choose to make ourselves a lack of being. When I set up the goal of, say, becoming a writer, I essentially make myself a lack of being, because I lack being the thing I want to become, that is, I lack being a writer. By making myself a lack of being, I disclose the meaning of being and I desire that disclosure. So even though I can never become being by making myself a lack of being, I can still desire this tension even if it involves failure because through the realization of concrete projects, I am also willing my freedom.
This points towards a positive ethics where moral freedom is achieved by the constant choice to will our freedom, that is, to actively engage in the activity of transcending our facticity and throwing ourselves into the future. I think that Zhuangzi promotes a similar activity in Chapter 4 where Confucius advises Yan Hui on the “fasting of the mind” (4:9). Yan Hui asks, “Before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real. But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist. Is this what you mean by being ‘empty’?” By emptying our minds, we make ourselves a lack of being and keep our future possibilities open. This gives us the flexibility to respond accordingly to various difficult moral situations, which is useful, since we are nevertheless a part of the serious world, and no doubt we will encounter serious people who might try to exert political power on us. If we were to also take on a serious attitude towards values as absolute, we would have a dangerous urge dominate other human beings. But according to de Beauvoir, we must recognize the transcendental aspects of the Other, and in willing our own freedom we must also will the freedom of others, since we depend on others to disclose the meaning of the world.
In conclusion, both de Beauvoir and Zhuangzi attempt to create an ethics that does not discount the freedom of others. Rather, they recognize the inseparability of the self and others and the world, due to fact that meaning is inherently shared and that humans depend on one another to disclose the meaning of the world. It encourages us to first embrace our freedom and responsibility, and to realize them by setting up projects without losing ourselves in the goal. In doing so, we are willing the freedom of others at the same time.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1948.
Ziporyn, Brook. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2009.
Image Credits: ManchesterHistorian