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Beauvoir: Moral Fault And Oppression

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Jean-Paul Sartre describes inauthenticity as living in “Bad Faith” by rejecting radical freedom. His contemporary Simone De Beauvoir, challenges this by dissecting the ontology of “women”, concluding that women’s facticity constrains the ability to engage as radically free beings. By unpacking the ontology of women, Beauvoir revises Sartre’s idea of “Bad Faith” to broaden notions of inauthenticity as both “Moral Fault” and “Oppression” and identifies an embodied experience that leads to the internalisation of being-for-others, which remains relevant in considering gendered ways of being today. This essay will examine Sartre’s “Bad Faith” and Beauvoir’s revisal of it and discuss the distinction between “Moral Fault” and “Oppression” as it can be understood and applied today. First, I will examine Sartre’s ontology with an explanation of terminology. Following this will be a discussion of Beauvoir’s ontology of women and the critique of Sartre’s early work contained within it. This leads to examining how Beauvoir refines “Bad Faith” to “Oppression” and “Moral Fault”. Finally, I will discuss the way that this distinction can inform ideas surrounding gendered sociality in the age of social media. In order to get at the question of being, Sartre first seeks to answer the question “What is man?”.

Jean-Paul Sartre defines man by rejecting the idea of a universal human nature, stating instead that “Existence precedes essence” (Sartre, 2007: 30), rooting the question of being within subjective experience. In “Being and Nothingness” (1943), Sartre explores this by examining the relationship with the other. The other acts as a reference point, defining the boundary of his space and that of the other imposing upon him (Sartre, 1957: 394). In this way, he describes the other as having qualities of “object-being” but distinct from actual objects, in that the other has an effect on his subject-being. This effect produces anxiety, which is the cause of the conflictual nature of the relationship between self and other (Boulous Walker, 2019: 6). This conflict is a struggle for dominance where each person is striving for subject-being by reducing the other to object-being (Detmer, 2008: 78-79). Thus Sartre describes three states of being: Being-for-itself, being-in-itself, and being-for-others. Being-for-itself refers to the subject-being of conscious entities, striving for that transcendence which represents radical freedom and authenticity. This is an important point, as radical freedom for Sartre means accepting the full responsibility of personal freedom, along with the consequences that stem from it (Boulous Walker, 2019: 4). Immanence, described as being-in-itself or object-being, is the concrete situation or facticity of our body and context which prevents authenticity. Sartre’s ontology appears to hold a universal lens through which to view human sociality, but overlooks constraints that inhibit one’s ability to engage authenically. Beauvoir develops Sartre’s work in a way that explores these constraints through a gendered perspective.

The ontology of man explored in “Being and Nothingness” (Sartre, 1943) and the relational dynamic is percieved through the gaze of the white, male, middle class philosopher. Thus Sartre’s work is heavily gendered, referring to characteristics of object-being and immanence as feminine; subject-being and transcendence as masculine (Collins & Pierce 1976: 117). Simone De Beauvoir addresses this in “The Second Sex”(1949) by asking “what is woman?”(De Beauvoir, 1972: 13). Beauvoir gets to the heart of the problem by identifying that the idea of woman is based on the idea of femininity (De Beauvoir 1972: 13). To uncover what femininity entails, Beauvoir explores the relationship between the sexes. She highlights how women are defined in relation to men rather than as an absolute in themselves. “The Second Sex”, speaks of the masculine as representative of the human prototype (De Beauvoir, 1972: 13-16) that sets man as subject, and woman as object. This dynamic would, in Sartre’s ontology, keep women at a level of immanence, unless they choose to take upon themselves the responsibility of radical freedom. What is missed by Sartre is that women’s facticity constrains their ability to choose. Beauvoir identifies these constraints and revises Sartres’ notion of Bad Faith to account for them, breaking Bad Faith down into Moral Fault and Oppression.

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Beauvoir’s ontology of women emphasises the difference between the sexes, but also that the meaning of these differences is largely based on a historic situation (Gothlin 1999: 84-85). Woman is defined in relation to man, as a lack of the qualities of masculinity, and Beauvoir shows how this enforces women’s constrained facticity (De Beauvoir, 1972: 15-16). This situation channels women toward being-for-others, so that by virtue of the historical social roles of women, they are confined to immanence by their being-for-men (De Beauvoir, 1972: 169). The social norms that generate this concrete situation for women have two effects on women’s being: oppression and moral fault. Beauvoir defines oppression as being compelled to fall into immanence and moral fault as consenting to that immanence (Beauvoir, 1949: 28-29 in Boulous Walker, 2019: 4). The oppression that constrains women presents two paths, that is, to pursue transcendence by breaking free of these constraints (if that is even possible) or to fall into moral fault by being complicit in their own immanence. Tanella Boni captures this paradox: “woman hardly finds the pursuit of independence comfortable. Not only are her body and her mind at the mercy of all forms of alienation, but the traps set by love give her further reason to mistrust herself.” (Boni, 2017: 175). Thus there are often psychological, social, economic and physical benefits for the woman who wishes to remain in a state of being-for-men. This complicity represents a moral fault, or inauthenticity when consented to, but the apprenticeship of women does not show itself clearly for what it is, with women and girls largely unaware of the possibility of radical freedom. In the world of social media, these messages are reinforced differently, by different online groups.

The current climate of online interaction has changed the landscape of social interactions dramatically. When looking at gender discourse online, there is the potential for self-representation in a way that carries less real-world consequences, in a space that explores the diversity of gender ‘authenticity’ (Son, 2018: 19-21). However, a study of Twitter revealed that the majority of discussion contributed to the patriarchal discourse of social roles and value of women (Cacir-Demirhan & Demirhan, 2015: 310). Whilst other platforms such as Instagram have acted as a means of ‘reclaiming’ authenticity via “self-branding” as a means of generating profit within consumer culture (Faleatua, 2018: 721-723). Through the lens of Beauvoir’s oppression and moral fault, this appears to be a further representation of the general public, with a digital flavour. Whilst oppression seems to align with this idea, I believe that moral fault may need to be adapted to fit the digital age. I would seek to refine moral fault to include a notion of “willful ignorance” along with Beauvoirs idea of complicity. I would define willful ignorance in this circumstance as refusing to acknowledge and thus perpetuating constrictions on authenticity in the digital space. This differs from Beauvoir’s moral fault in that roles, representations and authenticity is often policed by those of the same group (Burr, 2002: 73 in Rose, et al., 2012: 594). Online gendered representations have just as much of a possibility of generating further being-for-others in a detrimental way, and “authenticity” has become a buzzword for both empowerment and disempowerment.

In conclusion, “Bad Faith” and “Authenticity” are insufficient for explaining the ontology of women, not only in Beauvoir’s time, but also today. Beauvoir revises Sartre’s work to explain the ontology of women, as told by men, and how this has constraining effects on their concrete situation. Woman is set up as the other, kept in a state of immanence by her being-for-men as oppression when coerced and as moral fault when consented to. This breakdown has relevance in online public spaces today and can be seen played out on different social media platforms in language, dialogue and presentation.

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Beauvoir: Moral Fault And Oppression. (2021, September 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/beauvoir-moral-fault-and-oppression/
“Beauvoir: Moral Fault And Oppression.” Edubirdie, 09 Sept. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/beauvoir-moral-fault-and-oppression/
Beauvoir: Moral Fault And Oppression. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/beauvoir-moral-fault-and-oppression/> [Accessed 4 Dec. 2022].
Beauvoir: Moral Fault And Oppression [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 09 [cited 2022 Dec 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/beauvoir-moral-fault-and-oppression/
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