Freddie deBoer’s is one of my favorite writers. I stumbled upon his recent AMA.
I learned that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics Of Ambiguity was the most influential book he’s read. I read a quick Wikipedia of it. I found the abstract language tiring but could sense the ideas were important. So I did the 21st century kinghack…I went to Youtube to find an explainer video.
Jackpot. This was one of the most nod-along descriptions of a philosophy I can remember because it shared my own belief — there is no singular meaning to life. We make our own meanings. The video did not start with that idea but built towards it and along the way I felt like it had traced the footsteps of my own intellectual unfolding.
These notes which are a combination of my words and the narrator’s mixed together build to the beliefs I currently walk around with:
The question of who we are and what we can become in the future gives way to a ton of existential angst. This ambiguity is at the forefront of de Beauvoir’s work. This dilemma extends to other aspects of life. Am I an individual or a member of a group? Am I a Christian? An American? These questions create tension as well as the idea that we are free to define ourselves and free to choose which is equally scary.
Theologians, academics and intellectuals deal with this ambiguity by narrowly focusing on one side of our dualities. They are trying to escape the complexity. The large questions about meaning and existence that have always existed remain unanswered.
How This Cope Manifests In Practice
We are “condemned to be free”.
As youths (“sub-man”) we can see the wide range of choices we are required to make in the future and we are overwhelmed.
There are 2 conventional responses to the ambiguity. Remember, no matter how we deal with this we have made a choice (as the late Rush drummer once wrote: “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”).
This choice accepts other’s answers.
- Religion or “complete rationales” rush in to fill the void. They provide us with answers to relieve us from questioning.
- This letting go invites malleability. Or to be more cynical, turns you into a sheep or puppet.
- The “serious man” is easy to identify. They act as if they have everything figured out. Or feel they have been “saved”.
This choice cowers from your own freedom. You abdicate your freedom.
- This is more dangerous than the “serious man” because the nihilist sees reality clearly. They are correct in their diagnosis of ambiguity. They know there is a disconnect in their understanding of the world. Like the “subman”, the nihilist rejects seriousness and in fact, finds it laughable to come to complete conclusions on how the world works.
- The “nihilist”, in the face of unresolvable angst, gives up. “Why try anything at all?”
- The nihilist has arrived at a stagnant position mirroring the serious man. They give up agency as well. They laugh at the serious man but make the same mistake.
A Better Prescription
- By confirming the ambiguity in your life you take control. (Me: this is calibration — by being ok with the paradox you take the power back). You do not need to give in to a false binary. There are no single answers. (Me: this is probably why I’m lenient on some hypocrisy 1
— it’s inevitable)
- Much of the politics, religion, and ethics of the past are convenient and don’t contend with the reality of multitudes. Normal people use bad faith tactics to escape the ambiguity in their life.
- Your existence and breath is meaning. You make meaning through your actions.
- In order to be truly free, to break away from the burden of ambiguity, you need to focus on the freedom of others.
The prescription she comes to:
- Focus on people and honesty. Your own well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. To be the best parent or teacher you could be you cannot escape a basic truth: you need others’ input.
- Our social/policitical/economic systems must be built in recognition of the need for others to thrive because you cannot thrive alone. We must take responsibility for this truth. To maximize your freedom and agency you must maximize the freedom of others.
Start with the people next to you and appreciate that we are multitudes.
- From https://moontowermeta.com/the-neil-young-gambit/ :
The older I get the more forgiving I am of hypocrisy. It’s more like I recognize that it’s a matter of degree. Kind of like Eddie Izzard’s joke about perjury:
“If you commit perjury I don’t care. Don’t give a shit. I don’t think you should because you grade murder. You have murder One. Murder Two. You realize that there can be a difference in the level of murder. So there must be a difference in the level of perjury. Perjury One is when you’re saying there’s no Holocaust when, you know, 10 million people have died in it, and Perjury Nine, is when you said you shagged someone and you didn’t.”
So let’s suppose Neil Young’s protest is part-earnest and part virtue-signaling. Pretend there’s something oblique to gain..he’s trying to impress a girl, I don’t know. The conservative media will love to overplay the “virtue-signaling is evil” hand, in the process, inching us ever closer to only-sociopaths-talk-about-the-good-things-they-do equilibrium. We’ll all be worse off because “stories of virtue are actually evil” prophesy is literally self-fulfilled in that world.
Sometimes announcing charity or moral good is bad, but it’s probably mostly good. When people cry about virtue-signaling everywhere I get suspicious. It’s like they make “imperfect be the enemy of the good” when it suits them and they tolerate the misuse of a tool when it’s convenient to their overall stance. If a hunting rifle is used to kill an innocent person or a vehicle is used to run someone over, we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The standard of being ethically pure and consistent is beyond any of us. But applying the standard selectively is a dishonest arguing maneuver very similar to what’s known as an “isolated demand for rigor”.
Just as Izzard feels about perjury, I feel about hypocrisy. If you hunt for inconsistencies you’ll always find them. A full picture is opaque to outsiders. Norms change. People change. Don’t equate a first-degree hypocrite with a veterinarian that eats chicken.