Sabina Vaccarino Bremner | On the Apparent Moralism of Simone de Beauvoir

By Sabina Vaccarino Bremner

In the Second Sex, Beauvoir suggests that women, as the ‘second sex’, have nearly always been in a position of subordination to men. This marks a key difference between women and other oppressed groups: while enslaved or colonized communities throughout Western history have typically risked their lives in revolt or rebellion and can collectively remember a time prior to the event of their enforced subordination, the history of women’s oppression has featured very few instances of matriarchy, and virtually no instances of collective female rebellion. On her account, there is no singular event in human history during which men gained the upper hand over women: across cultures and across times, women’s subordination has been seemingly universal.

As Beauvoir acknowledges, it has generally been presupposed that women’s submission is attributable to natural or essential facts about women, specifically their apparent biological, rational, or psychological inferiority. In Chapters 1 and 2 of the Second Sex (Book 1), she carefully considers these arguments. If one looks at the taxonomy of species in the animal kingdom, those biologically closest to us also have the most rigid sex roles, and the females also appear to be the most biologically disadvantaged. Moreover, Beauvoir claims that, among all mammals, it is women who appear to bear the physiological burden of their reproductive capacity most heavily: “This is the most striking conclusion of this study [of biological sex in the animal kingdom]: she [woman] is the most deeply alienated of all female mammals” (1949: 44).

Yet while Beauvoir holds that female physiology is important to explain women’s current situation, she rejects the view that it determines women’s destiny or renders inevitable and unalterable women’s status as inferior to men: “I deny that [biological considerations] establish for her [woman] a fixed and inevitable destiny. They do not constitute the basis for a hierarchy of the sexes, they fail to explain why woman is the Other, and they do not condemn her to remain in this subordinate role forever” (1949: 44). This is because the woman subject is “like all humans an autonomous freedom”: women are existentially free in a sense that precludes any material fact about them as determining the nature of their existence (1949: 17).

If women are inherently free in the manner Beauvoir outlines, one might still wonder why she feels that women have virtually never collectively revolted against male dominance. Why does the fact of male superiority appear to be natural, ahistorical, and necessarily true? On Beauvoir’s view, the near-universal constancy of women’s secondary status is attributable to the fact that it is only in part externally imposed; it is also a situation that, she claims, women accept, self-perpetuate, and in which they are complicit. That is, women in part choose to take the “easy path”: that of resisting the “ethical claim” of one’s self-assertion as a subject, and thus of accepting a limited domain of possible life-shapes and of possible human activity (1949: 10). While both children and women inhabit an “infantile world”, “cast into a universe which [they have] not helped to establish”, the difference is that “the child’s situation is imposed upon him, whereas the woman (I mean the Western woman of today) chooses it or at least consents to it” and thereby manifests a “deep complicity with the world of men” (1947: 37-41). Thus, Beauvoir’s indictment extends not just to men, but also to women: “Once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility, a resignation which implies bad faith and which is a positive fault” (1947: 40).

On the basis of such censure of victims of oppression, Beauvoir has been accused of a “classical form of voluntarism” derived from her adherence to the existentialist dichotomy between authenticity and bad faith, on which “every feeling of inferiority derives from a free choice” (Le Dœuff 1980: 280). Consequently, Le Dœuff takes the limitations of Beauvoir’s analysis to demonstrate that the problem of oppression requires “another perspective than that of ethics or ethical inquiry” (1980: 288). Butler concurs that Beauvoir’s invocation of the “doctrine of existential choice” is “assuredly insidious” (1986: 40), while Sara Heinämaa attempts to defend Beauvoir on the grounds, not of her self-professed ethical aim, but of her “phenomenological aim”, namely that of describing the “sexual difference” (1999: 30, 22). Other studies of Beauvoir have tended to follow suit, focusing on her contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, phenomenology, or political philosophy rather than her ethics—cementing Le Dœuff’s claim that Beauvoir’s ethical intervention was largely a failure.[1]

This apparent scholarly consensus has, however, missed a nuance in Beauvoir’s critique: the foreclosing of women’s ‘ethical claim’ to freedom is also attributable to epistemic restrictions in the domain of women’s possible self-constitution. If “the definition of the human [homme] is a being who is not given, who makes itself what it is”, woman’s “possibilities have to be defined” rather than dictated by natural fact (1949: 45). If woman is “reduced to what she was, to what she is today” as opposed to what it is possible for her to become in the future, this impedes women’s individual capacities to imagine how they might make themselves differently as agents pursuing their projects in the world (45).[2]

Beauvoir herself carries out this interrogation of taken-for-granted concepts, instantiating the interdependence of the ethical and the epistemic. She insists repeatedly on the lack of naturalness of structural social inequality: “A situation of oppression… is never natural”; “one of the ruses of oppression is to camouflage itself behind a natural situation since, after all, one cannot revolt against nature” (1947: 87, 89). That is, Beauvoir’s intervention is one of interrogating oppression as an apparently natural state of affairs, revealing it to be dependent on collective activity, and thus contingent. Achieving gender parity will require a change in women’s collective action, thus constituting a shift practical in nature. In other words, ontology is permeated by ethics: what seems to be natural, the systemic subordination of women by men, is revealed to depend on one’s actions, and thus to be open to practical evaluation.

Beauvoir explicitly links the ‘ruse’ of the apparent naturalness or essentiality of oppression with the limitation of individual possibility. But this limitation is neither strictly material (the result of external imposition), nor voluntaristic and self-imposed. It is also conceptual or epistemic:

The slave is submissive when one has succeeded in mystifying him in such a way that his situation does not seem to him to be imposed by men, but to be immediately given by nature, by the gods, by the powers against whom revolt has no meaning; thus, he does not accept his condition through a resignation of his freedom since he cannot even dream of any other (1947: 91; my emphasis).

That is, one of the effects of taking one’s situation to be natural or immutable is a limitation of one’s ability to imagine, or ‘dream’, that things might be different: a limitation in one’s ‘possibilities’ for oneself. If women are not brought to expect the full plethora of options as men in charting out their life’s course, if there are no examples of individuals like them who have been able to succeed at the highest levels of society, they will not entertain the same range of possible options. Consequently, they may opt for a given course of action that they may not have given a broader range of live options. The redescription of apparently natural concepts is thus intrinsically linked to the broadening of new possible descriptions.

Beauvoir suggests a domain of collective responsibility distinct from the criterion of individual autonomy or moral permissibility. Apparently private or individual choices, taken collectively, can nevertheless either perpetuate or undo social hierarchies by expanding or restricting the epistemic bounds of the domain of possible action for women or other groups (that is, on what each woman takes to be intelligible, thinkable, or live options for her individual situation). If being a political leader, an artist, or a philosopher is not a possibility that women think to take up, the lack of such possibility can be construed as a collective moral failing (rather than, say, a natural or essential result of female physiology). Likewise, the individual self-directed effort to expand the limits on one’s own practical deliberation (by, say, imagining how things might be otherwise) can also be conceived as a kind of virtue.[3] In short, the possibility of things being otherwise can be made newly morally or practically salient,[4] and the role one plays in broadening such possibilities for oneself or for others can be construed as a kind of virtue.

These considerations go some way to showing why Beauvoir frames the central intervention of the Second Sex as an explicitly moral one (1949: 16). Freedom, according to Beauvoir’s existentialism, is to be described in terms of the “expansion” of present existence “toward an indefinitely open future”, of “perpetual surpassing toward other freedoms” (16). That is, what autonomy requires, on Beauvoir’s analysis, is an attitude of conceptual openness towards new possibilities, as well as the agent’s active involvement in opening up new possibilities for both oneself and others.

Construing Beauvoirs perspective in terms of the epistemic dimension of practical reasoning allows us to better comprehend her own self-understanding of her project. Indeed, one of the most central aspects of Beauvoir’s view was her insistence on the necessity of an ethics for existentialism, a project which preoccupied her from her early works Pyrrhus et Cinéas and the Ethics of Ambiguity to the Second Sex, and which had been one of the central oversights of Sartre’s conception of existentialism. Beauvoir criticizes established moral frameworks, such as Kantian morality, as being “abstract and formal” (1949: 636). This criticism originates in part, I think, from her discovery that the failure to acknowledge epistemic restrictions on practical deliberation—on the range of options we think of as viable to act on, or in terms of which we find it intelligible to constitute ourselves—entails that many frequent forms of injustice (such as women’s oppression, particularly in the complex and not always clearcut forms it sometimes takes) may not ultimately show up as moral concerns. Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s oppression as being both epistemic and moral, modal and practical (about what we recognize as moral concerns, and about our practical range of possibility—the range of options for action that show up as viable to us) begins to give us grounds to acknowledge the moral standing of this capacity.

Beauvoir’s purposeful juxtaposing of the ethical and epistemic dimensions of virtue allows us to recast the apparent voluntarism of her appeals to complicity and consent. Her seemingly moralistic critiques of individual comportment and actions, both women’s and men’s, should not be conceived as forms of individual moral reprobation, but as an intervention in collectively held assumptions of how women should behave. For example, Beauvoir analyzes the ‘justifications’ women give of their situation in Part II, volume II, of the Second Sex, as exemplified by three principal types of female comportment: the narcissist, the woman in love, and the mystic. All three ‘types’ shape their lives in accordance with deterministic tropes about what women are capable of and what is available to them, rather than opening such notions up to question. The effect of Beauvoir’s description of these types is collective rather than individual, epistemic and modal rather than narrowly practical: it broadens the bounds of possible ways for her readership to constitute themselves as women. The conclusion Beauvoir aims her readers to take away from the discussion is that they need not—and indeed ought not—accept the limits imposed on them without creatively experimenting with them, broadening them, and opening them up to question.


[1] Commentators such as Bauer (2001), Bergoffen (2008), Moi (2008), and Kruks (2012) note in passing Beauvoir’s characterization of ‘existentialist morality’, but refrain from structuring their analysis in terms of the Second Sex’s specifically ethicalcontribution; the main exception here is Arp (2001).

[2] Consequently, Beauvoir argues that all apparently natural, physiological facts about relations between men and women are subject to the meanings and values we imbue on them: “Physiology cannot ground values: rather, biological data take on those values the existent confers on them” (1949: 47).

[3] See Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?”

[4] Barbara Herman, “The Practice of Moral Judgment”

Works cited

Arp, Kristana. 2001. The Bonds of Freedom: Simone de Beauvoir’s Existential Ethics. Chicago: Open Court.

Bauer, Nancy. 2001. Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism. New York: Columbia UP.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1947 [2018]. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Open Road.

———. 1949. Le deuxième sexe, tomes 1 et 2: Les faits et les mythes, L’Expérience vécue. Paris: Gallimard.

Bergoffen, Debra. 2008. “Getting the Beauvoir We Deserve.” In Beauvoir and Sartre: The Riddle of Influence, edited by Christine Daigle and Jacob Golomb, 13–29. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Butler, Judith. 1986. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.” Yale French Studies 72: 35-49.

Foucault, Michel. 1978 [2015]. “What Is Critique?” [“Qu’est-ce que la critique?”]. Quest-ce que la critique?: suivie de La culture de soi. Edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini. Paris: Vrin.

Heinämaa, Sara. 1999. “Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference.” Hypatia 14.4, 114-132.

Herman, Barbara. 1996. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Kruks, Sonia. 2012. Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Ambiguity. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Le Dœuff, Michele. 1980. “Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism.” Feminist Studies 6.2: 277-289.

Moi, Toril. 2008. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Oxford: Oxford UP.