Prompts 3: The Ethics of Ambiguity
Explain Sartre’s modes of being, i.e. the existential terms being-for-itself, being-in-itself, and being-for-others. What role does Sartre claim “The Look” plays in our relations with others?
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is characterised as ‘an essay in phenomenological ontology’. ‘Ontology’ refers to the study of being, while ‘phenomenological’ means of or relating to perceptual consciousness, meaning that essentially, it is a study of the consciousness of being. It is guided by Sartre’s theory of reality which involves the distinction between the unconscious being or ‘being-in-itself’, and the conscious being or ‘being-for-itself’ (Sartre, 1993; Spade, 1996). He later goes on to introduce a third component, ‘being-for-others’. In this essay, I will examine Sartre’s modes of being, including being-for-itself, being-in-itself and being-for-others in relation to freedom, consciousness and bad faith, and explore the role that “The Look” plays in our relations with others.
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In order to understand Sartre’s stance in Being and Nothingness, it is important to understand the essentialist concept of ‘essence’. ‘Essence’ is defined as a set of pre-determined core properties that are necessary, or essential for a thing to be what it is (New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2017). If those properties were missing, the thing would be a different thing. For example, wheels are essential properties of a bike because they give it its purpose and function. Many essentialists have extended this concept to human beings, suggesting that we are substances with fixed properties and purposes in life, which is often attributed to a higher power (Crowell, 2017). Sartre refutes the notion that a higher power made the universe, our world, or us, for any particular purpose, rather than rejecting the existence of a higher power all together. He proposes that existence proceeds essence and therefore, humans have no pre-determined purpose, but rather, an abundance of freedom (Sartre, 1966).
Sartre views freedom as synonymous with human consciousness or the first mode of being, ‘being-for-itself’ (Spade, 1996). ‘Being-for-itself’ is the being of conscious entities (human beings) and is characterised by its consciousness of its own consciousness, as well as a lack of identity with itself or nothingness (Onof, n.d.). The second mode of being is being-in-itself, which refers to the unconscious being and is characterised by being concrete, unaware of itself, lacking the ability to change and existing without justification in relation to other things (Sartre, 1966). Examples of things that are in-itself include rocks, water and plates. For the for-itself, their identity lies not in relation to things within, like the in-itself, but in relation to something else. This consciousness of other objects results in self-consciousness, where the for-self is conscious of itself not being the object. This desire or project for being gives for-itself a radical freedom to make itself from nothingness. However, this abundance of freedom is daunting to the for-itself, causing it to have a tendency to escape its freedom by striving to become an in-itself or an absolute, even though this is ultimately not achievable (Catalano, 1985). The act of trying to escape this freedom is viewed by Sartre as ‘bad faith’ (Sartre, 1993). This is apparent when considering the social roles that people adopt in their every-day lives, such as ‘teacher’, ‘mother’, and ‘husband’. People often adopt these roles as essences of being, rather than functional personas, which is an example of the person rejecting the task of determining what these roles are not, and ultimately, acting in bad faith. To act in good faith, is to continually confront the responsibility of freedom by engaging authentically in/with the world (Sartre, 1966).
Sartre later introduced a third component to the equation, ‘being-for-others’ which refers to the human version of ‘being-in-itself’. ‘Being-for-others’ refers to the act of being reduced to an object for others and is in constant tension with ‘being-for-itself’ (Sartre, 1966). The ‘other’ has the ability to steal the world of the person who’s being looked at away from them, displacing them as the centre of their own universe (Dolezal, 2012). ‘Being-for-others’ is viewed by Sartre as a negative mode of being as it involves the self being reduced by the other to an object-state to be judged. This process is described by Sartre as ‘one makes the other be, and at the same time apprehends the other in situation as who one has to not be’ (Sartre, Being and Nothingness: 296). ‘Being-for-others’ causes the self to project an embellished version of themselves in the presence of others to avoid being judged negatively. This is evident in social networking such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, where people present an ‘edited’ or ‘selected highlights’ version of themselves to validate themselves and avoid negative judgement.
“The Look” is a central concept in Sartre’s phenomenology and involves the process of a consciousness recognising that it exists not only as the center of its own being gazing outward, but also as an object in the world of others (Dolezal, 2012; Sartre, 1966). In other words, we can only become aware of ourselves when confronted with the gaze of another. This involves self-reflective consciousness, where one is not only conscious of the world, but aware of itself and its relation to others by having its consciousness turned inwards towards itself (Dolezal, 2012). Sartre uses the ‘keyhole’ example to illustrate how ‘The Look’ influences his various modes of being. In this analogy, Sartre relates one’s experience of the world with the act of looking through a keyhole. Most of the time, we survey the world as if we are invisible, with the mentality that “I am the one who looks, and others are the ones that I look at”. However, in the instance that we are caught ‘peeping’ by the look of another, we
momentarily become an object for them which causes us to ‘see myself (ourselves) because someone sees me (us)’ (Sartre, Being and Nothingness: 284). This causes us to become visible or accountable for/reflect on our actions, by experiencing feelings of shame (or pride). The experience of being looked at by the other involves a fundamental alienation of the self’s world which is described by Sartre as ‘a fixed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralising of the world which undermines the centralisation which I am simultaneously effecting’ (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 279). The look of the other is objectifying in the sense that it steals our inherent freedom, causing us to deprive ourselves of our existence as being-for-itself, and instead falsely self-identify as a being-in-itself (Dolezal, 2012). This is because we perceive ourselves being perceived and objectify ourselves in the same way that we are being objectified. For example, if the other views you fishing in a lake, he or she views you simply as a fisherman, and if you are aware of their gaze, you too will objectify yourself in the same way. Sartre states that we live with the permanent possibility of being seen and that ‘man’ is the other who is able to see us, which affirms our status as ‘being-for-others’ (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 396). Sartre concludes that the experience of being looked at and the permanent possibility of being seen is simultaneously a source of terror as well as a source of hope, as the subject needs the other’s gaze to confirm its existence in the world (Sartre, 1993).
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In conclusion, I have examined Sartre’s modes of being, including ‘being-in-itself’, ‘being-for-itself’, and ‘being-for-others in the light of consciousness, freedom, and bad faith, and explored the role that ‘The Look’ plays in relation to others and our modes of being. I have arrived at the conclusion that although ‘the look’ is daunting because it objectifies and alienates oneself, it is necessary to confirm one’s existence in the world.
- Catalano, J. S. (1985). A commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s being and nothingness. Chicago, United States: University of Chicago Press.
- Crowell, S. (2017). Existentialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/
- Dolezal, L. (2012). Reconsidering the look in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Sartre studies international, 18(1), 9-28. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/42705181
- New World Encyclopedia Contributors. (2017). Essence. Retrieved from
- Onof, C. J. (n.d.). Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism. Retrieved from
- Sartre, J. P. (1966). Being and nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. New York: Washington Square Press
- Sartre, J. P. (1993). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, United States: Washington Square Press.
- Spade, P. V. (1996). Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Retrieved from
In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir discussed with several philosophical concepts, which are freedom, human’s choices, responsibility, ethics, and the meaning of life. In order to understand the significance of these concepts, an understanding of existentialism is needed. Existentialism focuses upon the analysis of existence, and how individuals recognize themselves as existing in the world. Existence precedes essences. Human beings create and discover meanings in their lives through free wills, personal responsibilities choices and subsequent actions. Human beings cannot avoid making choices, even doing nothing is still regarded as a choice. The believe is that individuals aim to find out who they are through their lives as they made choices based on their own experiences, believes and moral laws. “Freedom” is one of the main concepts that is essential to existentialism. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir brought up several archetypal ways of being, each related to a way that human beings either turn away from their freedom or fail to understand the meaning of their freedom. Existentialists believed that every individuals’ moves and choices are weighted upon the ethical exercise of freedom; even if they try to escape of misunderstand the meaning of freedom. As Beauvoir claimed, the views on freedom work as the base of moral and ethical obligation.
Beauvoir claimed that the principle of freedom is the foundational premise of the discussion of the exercise of ethical theories. By explaining this, Beauvoir mainly brought up six archetypal ways of being in which each refers to a way of freedom. These archetypal ways of freedom could be divided into two categories. One is that people failed to understand freedom, and they claimed that life is not in itself meaningful and free, they do not take up the responsibility that comes with our human freedom, which may lead to misuse of freedom; the other is that it should plays as the role of understanding the ethical exercise of freedom, but beings may have turn away from what their freedom stands for.
The first type of being is the child. The base of childhood is characterized by the process of the child finding himself casting into a universe, which he has not helped to establish, and appears as an absolute to him. Being a child, the world appears as something which has already made for them; since in the children’s view, human inventions, words, customs, and values are all given facts. They lived in a serious world, but it does not mean that they are serious (Beauvoir, 35). The children are allowed to do whatever they like and to expend their existence freely without paying any responsibility under the ceiling built by human generations; since nothing can ever happen to them. Their actions mean and engage nothing, even if they escape from the anguish of freedom (Beauvoir, 36). Since the children have no connection to the past or the future, they are considered as neither moral or immoral. As a result, it is easier for them to misuse their freedom engaging in both ethical or unethical acts, because they are in a state of security. This is quite a compelling glimpse of moral life, because it is true that children would receive less or even no punishment when they act unethically, since they are too young to be taught. All of their values are given, instead of chosen by themselves individually. However, they will be taught by their parents or the society during the process as they grow up. Each person was once a child, it is not to say that children live in bad faith, since they are not aware of their subjectivity.
Once one mature in one’s subjectivity, and are able to acquainted with one’s freedom, the desire for freedom and the denial of one’s responsibility constitute bad faith. As soon as children realized their existence, ethical actions are possible. The individual is able to feel free and would not be defenseless before obscure powers which directed the course of things (Beauvoir, 39). This may make people feel anxious, because they step into the world which they have to face without any security from childhood; which they may be nostalgic after. This brought up denial or made individuals turn away from freedom. Beauvoir mentioned several types of bad faith and put them into a hierarchy.
The sub-man is those who refuse to have any positive engagement with the world. He takes no responsibility for himself, and have no desire to feel. He manifests a fundamental fear in the face of existence, in the face of the risks and tensions which it implies. The sub-man is far from freedom due to his refusal to take his ownership of his existence of the world. He believed that the less he exists, the less is there reason for him to exist, since reasons are created by existing (Beauvoir, 42). The sub-man is afraid of engaging himself in a project, or being in a state of danger before the future or with other beings in the word; he rejects them completely. Thus, this lead him to take refuge in the ready-made values of the serious world. Although we define the sub-man as a denial and a flight, he is not a harmless creature. The sub-man realized himself in the world as a person who can easily controlled and recruited by anyone. The sub-men are the group who do the actual dirty work (Beauvoir, 44). They turn away from their freedom, since they try to denial their existence. Therefore, the meaning of life under their perspective is ambiguous, because meanings of actions are brought from the existent’s spontaneous act of choice. However, it is impossible to get rid of his existence, which means that he cannot efface the agonizing evidence of his freedom. This brought up the issue of the misuse of freedom, since the sub-men are grown-ups, who can make their own choices individually. Although they deny their existence, they cannot deny that they are engaging in unethical behaviors. Denying is just a way for them to run away from their responsibility of the consequences or guilt from the dirty work. They are aware of how they should operate freedom, but they still misuse it. It is compelling to moral life, because sub-men do exist in our society, which some do engage in unethical and inappropriate acts because of their misuse of freedom. it is hard to find fulfillment being sub-men. It seems that the sub-men are always trying to avoid disappointment, engagement, etc., meaning that if they do not try, they would not fail. This reminds us it is important to try, to find other possibilities of being a being, and use our freedom appropriately; so that we act morally and contribute to the world.
The attitude of the sub-man passes logically over into the serious man, which he forces himself to submerge his freedom in the content which the latter accepts from the society (Beauvoir, 45). The serious man gets rid of his freedom by claiming to subordinate it to values which are unconditioned, external and absolute. He fulfills themselves as a being who escape from the stress of existence and responsibility. Beauvoir claimed that the thing which matters to the serious the most is not the nature of the object which he prefers, but the fact of being able to lose himself. Since all actions lose meaning if it is not willed from freedom, so that setting up freedom is the serious man’s goal. By achieving the goal, the serious men sacrifice themselves, and others. They ignore the value of subjectivity and the freedom of others, and persuade themselves that what they sacrifice are nothing. However, this breaks the serious man, because he is forced to acknowledge the subjectivity which undermines his understanding of existence (Beauvoir, 46-49). The serious men’s freedom is always remained, not denied. It is compelling to the moral life, because as being powerless and ignorant individuals, human can know the truth of existence and raise themselves to a proper moral life. The serious man is turned away from freedom. In order to live authentically of freedom, people should not set up the end and goals of actions as absolute. This goes against the rule of serious man, so that they lose the meaning of their lives. Thus, they treat everything as a threat threatened by the whole universe (Beauvoir, 51). They misuse their freedom that their actions towards other are so absolute that would cause immoral and unethical actions on others. Sacrificing themselves and others put all of them into an end.
Serious man who is unable to be anything can decide to be nothing. Beauvoir defined this as nihilism. The nihilist is close to the spirit of seriousness, but instead of realizing his negativity as a living movement, he conceives his annihilation in a substantial way. They wish to be nothing, but this nothing is still a sort of being. Nihilism is disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself. They would reject everything around them, and destroy the object of their goal. When rejecting his own existence, the nihilist should also reject the existences which confirm it (Beauvoir, 52-55). In order to deny the existence, they annihilate themselves and others who present the prove of existence, referring to all mankind. It defines man as a lack at the heat of existence, and freedom is not fulfilled in this case of rejection. The nihilist rejects existence without managing to eliminate it, and denies any meaning to his transcendence (Beauvoir, 57). Nihilism is not an authentic choice, since it does not assert nothingness in freedom, but in the sense of denial. Therefore, they realized their freedom, though it is different from the reality of freedom mentioned by Beauvoir, claiming that they are turned away from it; and what they deny is the meaning of the world. It is compelling to moral life, since the negation of aesthetic, spiritual and moral values have become an ethics even if they are denied by the nihilist. They did not misuse freedom, because they are aware of it; but it brought up considerations towards the ethical exercise of freedom. The meaning of actions, either ethical or not, are granted from existence. If the nihilist denies the existence and meaning of all mankind, it is not possible for them to act genuinely towards freedom.
An adventurer is one who throws himself into life, and likes actions for its own sake. He finds joy in spreading through the world a freedom which remains indifferent to it content. He needs leisure, fortune, etc. to maintain freedom to any end. It always implies that freedom is realized as an independence regarding to the serious world. Any man could define himself as an adventurer after adolescence (Beauvoir, 58, 62). The movement of the adventurer engaging freedom is quite close to the attitude of a genuinely free man, but he thinks that he could assert his own existence without taking into account of others. According to Beauvoir, the adventurer is the first among the hierarchy to experience freedom, meaning that it is also the first to be able to make moral choices as an existentialist. The reason is that the adventurer deliberately makes himself a lack of being, which he aims expressly at existence; thought engaging in his undertaking, he is detached from the goal at the same time. The adventurer can be genuinely free only by seeking to expend himself through the freedom of others. Thus, they must respect others’ freedom, and help them to be free (Beauvoir, 59-60). However, the adventurer only care his own freedom, causing him to embodied a selfish and probably tyrannical attitude. It is compelling to moral life. The adventurer devises a sort of moral behavior when he assumes his subjectivity positively (Beauvoir, 63). This brought issues in ethical exercise of freedom, since the adventurer asserts his freedom quite forcefully, because having his freedom at the expense of others brought oppression to them. Therefore, in order to justify their existence, the adventurer may act unethically to others. They have the foundation of ethical exercise, which is freedom, what they need is to adjust their of justifying their existence morally.
The antithesis of the adventurer is the passionate man. Unlike the adventurer, whose content is not genuinely fulfilled; it is the subjectivity which fails to fulfill itself genuinely in the passionate man. Passionate man who, like the adventurer, treated others as things on their way to achieve freedom; but instead of destroying everything that gets in the way of freedom, they attempt to give themselves a full realization of the object. The passionate man seeks possession to attain being, believing he could confirm his existence (Beauvoir, 63-65). Beauvoir claimed that the passionate man inspires a certain admiration and horror at the same time, making the realization of freedom in a distance; and himself a potential tyranny. Not intending his freedom for men, the passionate men does not recognize them as freedom. The passionate man is the closest to freedom, who must accept the eternal separation from the thing which he aims to possess. Passion is converted to genuine freedom only if one destines his existence to other existences through the being (Beauvoir, 67). It is compelling to moral life, because the object the passionate man follows could disclose and provide meanings to lives, and the world. However, this contains a negative aspect, that if the passionate man keeps perusing the object in this way, it means that he will be withdrew by himself from the rest of the world; claiming that his freedom is being alone, and is separated from others. In this case, it is relatively not an ethical exercise of freedom, since “no man is an island”, meaning that every person in the world is related; therefore, they should not be separated. Depending and working with one another creates ethical freedom.
Beauvoir mentioned and distinguish between the ethical exercise of freedom, whether each type of beings is acting morally in life towards freedom; and the “misuse” of freedom, which is when beings misunderstand the way to maintain their existence and operate choices, causing the result of turned away or fail to achieve freedom and to live a meaningful life. It is compelling to moral life, since meaning and freedom can only be disclosed through other, meaning that to will oneself free is will others free. Freedom acts as the basis for Beauvoir ethical theory, and she claimed that to will oneself moral and free, and to will that there be being are one and the same choice, which man makes of himself as a presence in the world (Beauvoir, 70).
- Beauvoir, de Simon. The Ethics of Ambiguity, Part II, pp. 35-70