By Codie Distratis


The introduction of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in France, 1949, brought the peculiarities of woman’s situation into philosophical inquiry. In alignment with the existential ethics she outlined in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) [1], Beauvoir opposes the Sartrean notion of bad faith, maintaining that the ambiguous existence of human beings [2] ensures the possibility of not only “moral fault”, but also “oppression” (a distinction that I outline below). [3] This essay argues that Beauvoir’s distinction between moral fault and oppression is fundamental in revealing that a woman does not have complete freedom [4] in choosing her immanent (inauthentic) state in the patriarchal context. [5] This is evidenced through Beauvoir’s analysis of women in, firstly, their obligation to fulfil the naturalised conception of their reproductive, biological role; secondly, their complete devotion to the other sex in pursuit of romantic love; and, finally, their only means to transcend their condition, namely, to develop and maintain subject-subject intersubjective relationships.

Beauvoir gives oppression ontological significance when she distinguishes between two forms of inauthenticity (moral fault and oppression). Notably, this is first developed in The Ethics of Ambiguity, where she identifies, and attempts to correct, the deficiencies of Sartre’s notion of ontological error. [6] Sartre holds that whenever individuals—escaping from the anxiety of their transcendence—fall into a state of immanence, they are responsible. That is to say: they are in “bad faith”. [7] Beauvoir’s “moral fault” is similar insofar as it recognises, firstly, the responsibility and consent that the subject must have to become an object, and, secondly, the fact that falling into a state of immanence results in the degradation of one’s existence as it disables the development of what they are—free. [8] However, her emphasis on the influence of (for example, ideological) oppression takes into account what Sartre neglects to—that there are instances where one may be, consciously or unconsciously, forced to become an object. Since human beings have an ambiguous existence, Beauvoir maintains that they are existentially free, and hence, have a subjective element to their existence, which allows them to create and pursue projects. However, the inevitability of them being tied to their object-being renders them capable of having inauthenticity inflicted upon them within their cultural and circumstantial constraints. [9] In the patriarchal context, for example, a woman would be deprived of the same opportunities that a man has to assert himself and develop agency. Considering this, Beauvoir’s introduction of oppression aids in intellectualising how women are forced to become inert because of social structures that naturalise woman’s position.

Through exploring the naturalisation of the reproductive role of women, Beauvoir illuminates how an inauthentic life can be imposed upon them. In this instance, Beauvoir’s theorisation of woman as ‘Other’ is significant; if a woman’s position is defined in relation to man, then this Othering is not attributed to her physicality, but rather, the repeated patriarchal conceptions about her way of being in the world. [10] In accordance with the fact that human beings have an ambiguous existence, women’s bodies having the ability to reproduce, and thus provide for the continuation of the species, would ensure that she has a partial immanence. [11] However, as Beauvoir asserts, “maternity dooms woman to a sedentary existence,” because the patriarchal domestic dichotomy of man and woman totalises women’s immanence, as man’s freedom is privileged (he can pursue projects in his mostly-transcendent being). [12] The woman’s inauthenticity that results from this is reflected in the results of a study by A.V. Chari et al.—the educational outcomes of child brides, who are commodified, and thus, obligated to perform the duties of a wife (which would include procreation), are disadvantaged because of their early confinements to marriage. If the delay in marriage, as the study deduced, increased her participation in education, it follows that her inessential role disables her pursuit of projects. [13] However, Beauvoir’s association of oppression to that of the reproductive role of women is controversial among many feminists who claim that she disregards any freedom found in parental aspirations. Nevertheless, Kruks notes, “the importance of Beauvoir’s account lies in its adequacy as an explanation of oppression per se than in what it implies more generally about the relation of freedom and subjectivity to embodiment.” [14] Thus, the oppression conveyed by Beauvoir, regarding maternity, highlights that women do not freely choose their immanence, which is also revealed in their engagement with romantic love.

Beauvoir highlights how the degradation of woman’s existence is most apparent in their engagement with romantic love. She unravels the meaning of love for the two sexes, according to the reality of their hierarchical relationship (with the man as dominant, and the woman, subordinate), identifying how romantic love is androcentric and engenders self-deprivation for the woman. The transcendent (active) qualities of a man seem to be eroded if he submits himself to that which is considered inferior. [15] On the contrary, however, romantic love for a woman becomes alluring, in light of her inessential position, and the impact of oppressive ideologies. Morgan maintains that the ideas regarding a woman’s economic reliance on man, that she internalises at a young age, for example, manifest in her desire to be dependent on a man in a romantic relationship. [16] In addition to this, her position as Other, contrasted with the naturalisation of man, the Subject’s, active and aggressive character, deems her as affectionate and gentle, enforcing her pursuit of love to be a valuable project. [17] Thus, she undergoes self-delusion, striving towards submission, as Beauvoir writes:

She chooses to desire her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her the expression of her liberty; she will try to rise above her situation as inessential object by fully accepting it; through her flesh, her feelings, her behaviour, she will enthrone him as supreme value and reality: she will humble herself to nothingness before him. Love becomes for her a religion. [18]

Examples of women’s quest for freedom through immanence are notably embedded in popular culture’s portrayal, and romanticisation, of women’s submission to their partner. Lana Del Rey’s lyrics in Video Games (2012), “it’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you/… Heaven is a place on earth with you,” reinforce Beauvoir’s notion that the woman in love can adopt inauthenticity. Such cannot be a case of moral fault, however, for the oppression women internalise from a young age compel them to assume the submissive position, which can only be transcended outside the confines of the patriarchy.

A crucial feature of Beauvoir’s analysis of women is her identification of the conditions that would allow for them to become essential, and thus, have the capacity, if they so desired, to commit moral fault. In alignment with Beauvoir’s phenomenological position—that human beings have an ambiguous existence—it is clear that an individual’s situation is constantly affected, and perhaps even negotiated, by others. [19] In other words, freedoms are all inextricably linked through their relations with others; one freedom will rely on another to transcend and to be liberated. In the case of a woman assuming a masochistic position in her relationship with a man, as she does, for instance, in romantic love, Beauvoir would maintain that, “to serve is to give oneself a master; there is no reciprocity in this relation.” [20] In other words, subject-subject intersubjectivity is a pre-requisite for reciprocal recognition, but reciprocal recognition is not achievable in the patriarchal context because it subjects women to ideological oppression, resulting in an inequality between the sexes. [21] The solution, Beauvoir holds, lies in woman’s engagement with authentic love, lesbian relationships, or even friendships and filial relations with other women; all ensuring that an individual (in this case, the woman) has reciprocal encounters with the other (the man or woman involved). [22] Therefore, she does not have her inessentiality inflicted upon her to limit her transcendence—detached from the Sovereign, she can act and live authentically, or inauthentically (by committing moral fault); in this state, the latter can result through free choice.

Through a discussion of how Simone de Beauvoir’s moral fault and oppression distinction operates in relation to her analysis of women, it is abundantly clear that, because women are not regarded as free, transcendent beings in the patriarchal context, they do not have the freedom to assume an inauthentic state. Ultimately, a woman as Beauvoir highlights in her existential ethics, has, like any other human being, an ambiguous existence, so she can never hold full responsibility for living an inauthentic life. There are three prominent instances that demonstrate the fundamental role that Beauvoir’s distinction has: first, a woman’s commitment to the maternal and reproductive facets of her being are normalised to maintain their inessentiality; second, her submission to man in romantic love, which degrades her existence; and third, her only means to transcend her condition, namely, to develop and maintain subject-subject intersubjective relationships. Thus, Beauvoir’s philosophical considerations of the oppressive structures, embedded in culture and society, paved way for new existentialist thought, accounting for the complexity of woman’s experience—a woman’s “bad faith” is not always freely chosen, sometimes it is chosen for her.


Codie Distratis is a second-year student who studies Philosophy as an extended major in the Advanced Humanities program at the University of Queensland. She is particularly interested in Continental philosophy, affect, and Feminist and gender studies.


Endnotes

[1] Matthew Braddock, “A Critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s Existential Ethics,” Philosophy Today 51, no.3 (2007): 303.

[2] One’s subjectivity ensures their separation from others, yet, their object-being simultaneously, deems them as interdependent. See: Eva Gothlin, “Simone de Beauvoir’s Notions of Appeal, Desire, and Ambiguity and their Relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Notions of Appeal and Desire,” Hypatia 14, no. 4 (1999): 84.

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley, (London: David Campbell Publishers, 1993), lix; Kristina Arp, “Simone de Beauvior’s Existentialist Ontology,” Philosophy Today 43, no.3 (1999): 266.

[4] This refers to a freedom of choice affected by others, where the woman always feels a compulsion, provoked by the domination of others (predominantly men).

[5] In the patriarchal context, man positions woman as Other (inessential). See: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, xlv.

[6] Matthew Braddock, “A Critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s Existential Ethics,” 303.

[7] Michéle Le Doeuff, “Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism,” Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (1980): 279.

[8] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, lix.

[9] Matthew Braddock, “A Critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s Existential Ethics,” 303; Kristina Arp, “Simone de Beauvior’s Existentialist Ontology,” Philosophy Today 43, no.3 (1999): 266-267.

[10] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, xlv; Sara Heinämaa, Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference, (United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), xv.

[11] Sonia Kruks, “Beauvoir: The Weight of Situation,” in Simone De Beauvoir: A Critical Reader, ed. Elizabeth Fallaize (London: Routledge, 1998), 66.

[12] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 73.

[13] A.V Chari et al., “The causal effect of maternal age at marriage on child wellbeing: Evidence from India.” Journal of Development Economics 127 (2017): 42.

[14] Sonia Kruks, “Beauvoir: The Weight of Situation,” 67.

[15] Kathryn Pauly Morgan, “Love, Altruism, and Self-Respect: An Analysis of Simone De Beauvoir,” Hyptia 1, no. 1 (1986): 118-119; Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 675.

[16] Kathryn Pauly Morgan, “Love, Altruism, and Self-Respect,” 127.

[17] Ibid., 119.

[18] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 675.

[19] Sonia Kruks, “Beauvoir: The Weight of Situation,” 63.

[20] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 394.

[21] Sonia Kruks, “Beauvoir: The Weight of Situation,” 59.

[22] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 439 & 700.


Works Cited

Arp, Kristina. “Simone de Beauvior’s Existentialist Ontology.” Philosophy Today 43, no.3 (1999): 266-271, https://search-proquest-com.ezprozy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/1301475897?accountid=14723.

Braddock, Matthew. “A Critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s Existential Ethics.” Philosophy Today 51, no. 3 (2007): 303-311, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/205389909?accountid=14723.

Chari, A.V, Rachel Heath, Annemie Maertens and Freeha Fatima. “The causal effect of maternal age at marriage on child wellbeing: Evidence from India.” Journal of Development Economics 127 (2017): 42-55.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. London: David Campbell Publishers, 1993.

Gatens, Moira. Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives of Difference and Equality. United Kingdom: Polity Press, 1991.

Gothlin, Eva. “Simone de Beauvoir’s Notions of Appeal, Desire, and Ambiguity and their Relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Notions of Appeal and Desire.” Hyptia 14, no. 4 (1999): 83-95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810828.

Heinämaa, Sara. Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference. United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.

Kruks, Sonia. “Beauvoir: The Weight of Situation.” In Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader. Edited by Elizabeth Fallaize, 43-71. London: Routledge, 1998.

Le Doeuff, Michéle. “Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism.” Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (1980): 277-289, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177742.

Morgan, Kathryn Pauly. “Love, Altruism, and Self-Respect: An Analysis of Simone De Beauvoir.” Hyptia 1, no. 1 (1986): 117-148, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810066.


Featured image by Liu Dong’au via Wikipedia Commons

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