“The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play.”
In her incisive inquiry into the intelligence of emotions, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote: “Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.” But the moral system itself — what comprises it in a philosophical sense, how it is enacted in practical terms, and what it aims at in the daily act of living — remains one of the most conflicted ambiguities within and between human beings.
Those elements of the moral machinery are what the great French existentialist philosopher and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) examines in The Ethics of Ambiguity (public library) — the paradigm-shifting 1947 treatise that gave us De Beauvoir on vitality, the measure of intelligence, and what freedom really means.
To wrest a graspable conception of morality, De Beauvoir turns to art and science:
Art and science do not establish themselves despite failure but through it; which does not prevent there being truths and errors, masterpieces and lemons, depending upon whether the discovery or the painting has or has not known how to win the adherence of human consciousnesses; this amounts to saying that failure, always ineluctable, is in certain cases spared and in others not.
For this reason, she suggests, success and failure bear no equivalence with right and wrong. If we are to seek an understanding of morality, the equivalence is to be found not in the outcomes of art and science but in their methods. She writes:
Which action is good? Which is 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. One can merely propose methods. Thus, in science the fundamental problem is to make the idea adequate to its content and the law adequate to the facts; the logician finds that in the case where the pressure of the given fact bursts the concept which serves to comprehend it, one is obliged to invent another concept; but he can not define a priori the moment of invention, still less foresee it. Analogously, one may say that in the case where the content of the action falsifies its meaning, one must modify not the meaning, which is here willed absolutely, but the content itself; however, it is impossible to determine this relationship between meaning and content abstractly and universally: there must be a trial and decision in each case. But likewise just as the physicist finds it profitable to reflect on the conditions of scientific invention and the artist on those of artistic creation without expecting any ready-made solutions to come from these reflections, it is useful for the man of action to find out under what conditions his undertakings are valid.
In a sentiment that calls to mind her compatriot Albert Camus’s insistence that happiness is our moral obligation, De Beauvoir considers the ethic of happiness at the heart of freedom:
It must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between freedom and existence; to will man free is … to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness.
Echoing the poignant and increasingly timely rhetorical question which Bertrand Russell posed two decades earlier — “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — she adds:
If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy. The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play.
The Ethics Of Ambiguity remains a cultural classic of timeless insight into the human experience. Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being, German philosopher Josef Pieper on why leisure is the basis of culture, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition, then revisit Sartre’s stunning love letter to De Beauvoir.
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