Simone de Beauvoir’s political philosophy resonates today

A less well-known facet of de Beauvoir's philosophy, particularly relevant today, is her political activism.

Simone de Beauvoir is rightly best known for declaring: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ A less well-known facet of her philosophy, particularly relevant today, is her political activism, a viewpoint that follows directly from her metaphysical stance on the self, namely that we have no fixed essences.


The existential maxim ‘existence precedes essence’ underpins de Beauvoir’s philosophy. For her, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, we are first thrown into the world and then create our being through our actions. While there are facts of our existence that we can’t choose, such as being born, who our parents were, and our genetic inheritance, we shouldn’t use our biology or history as excuses not to act. The existential goal is to be an agent, to take control over our life, actively transcending the facts of our existence by pursuing self-chosen goals.

It’s easy to find excuses not to act. So easy that many of us spend much of our lives doing so. Many of us believe that we don’t have free will – even as some neuroscientists are discovering that our conscious will can override our impulses. We tell ourselves that our vote won’t make any difference, instead of actively shaping the world in which we want to live. We point fingers at Facebook for facilitating fake news, instead of critically assessing what we’re reading and reposting. It’s not just lazy to push away responsibility in such ways, but it’s what de Beauvoir called a ‘moral fault’.

Since we’re all affected by politics, if we choose not to be involved in creating the conditions of our own lives this reduces us to what de Beauvoir called ‘absurd vegetation’. It’s tantamount to rejecting existence. We must take a side. The problem is, it’s not always clear which side we ought to choose. Even de Beauvoir failed to navigate through this question safely. She adopted questionable political stances: she once, for example, dismissed Chairman Mao – responsible for the murder of over 45 million people – as being ‘no more dictatorial’ than Franklin D Roosevelt. De Beauvoir’s philosophy of political commitment has a dark side, and she personally made some grave errors of judgement, yet within her philosophy, there’s an opening to address this issue.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) she argues that to be free is to be able to stretch ourselves into an open future full of possibilities. Having this kind of freedom may be dizzying, but it doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we like. We share the earth, and have concern for one another; if we respect freedom for ourselves, then we should respect it for others, too. Using our freedom to exploit and oppress others, or to support the side that promotes such policies, is inconsistent with this radical existential freedom.

With oppressive regimes, de Beauvoir acknowledged that individuals usually pay a high price for standing up to dictators and the tyranny of the majority, but demonstrated concretely – through her writing and political engagement – the power of collective action to bring about structural change. An intellectual vigilante, de Beauvoir used her pen as a weapon, breaking down gendered stereotypes and challenging laws that prohibited women from having control over their own bodies. She authored and signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, which paved the way for birth control and abortion in France. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), sparked a new wave of feminism across the world.

Today more than ever it’s vital to recognise that freedom can’t be assumed. Some of the freedoms that de Beauvoir fought so hard for in the mid-20th century have since come under threat. De Beauvoir warns that we should expect appeals to ‘nature’ and ‘utility’ to be used as justifications for restrictions on our freedom. And she has been proved correct. For example, the argument that Donald Trump and others have used that pregnancy is inconvenient for businesses is an implicit way of communicating the view that it is natural and economical for women to be baby-making machines while men work. However, de Beauvoir points out ‘anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation’, and making birth control, abortion, and parental leave unavailable closes down men’s and women’s ability to reach beyond their given situations, reinforcing stereotypical roles that keep women chained to unpaid home labour and men on a treadmill of paid labour.

In times of political turmoil, one may feel overwhelmed with anxiety and can even be tempted with Sartre to think that ‘hell is other people’. De Beauvoir encourages us to consider that others also give us the world because they infuse it with meaning: we can only make sense of ourselves in relation to others, and can only make sense of the world around us by understanding others’ goals. We strive to understand our differences and to embrace the tension between us. World peace is a stretch, since we don’t all choose the same goals, but we can still look for ways to create solidarities – such as by working to agitate authoritarians, to revolt against tyrants, to amplify marginalised voices – to abolish oppression. Persistence is essential since, as de Beauvoir says, ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.’ De Beauvoir is surely right that this is the risk, the anguish, and the beauty of human existence.

Skye C Cleary

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Related Articles

Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

E. Fleischer
Surprising Science
  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.


The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.