Teleological Suspension Of The Ethical Essay, Research Paper
A clear understanding of what Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) meant by the
`suspension of the ethical’ can be achieved upon careful study of his wider
philosophies on stages or aspects of an individual’s life. In this short text I
will examine these philosophies, exploring what Kierkegaard meant by each one.
I’ll then put into context these stages of life by looking at them in relation
to that which Kierkegaard’s text `Fear and Trembling’ (in which he introduces
the concept of a teleological suspension of the ethical) is based on: that being
the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Finally, I’ll examine the problems of
his theory and explore some of the presumptions and pre-requisites it
Firstly I find it necessary to understand the context in which Kierkegaard wrote
and believed the philosophies we now explore. Kierkegaard’s writings were not
without a purpose or agenda. His own life was the source by which he details his
wider more abstract theories on life in general. He is intrinsically linked to
the Christian faith, and he writes with that in the forefront of his mind.
Indeed, `Fear and Trembling’ itself is based upon a passage of scripture which
Kierkegaard examines and bases his points upon. The point Kierkegaard is making
ultimately is that he believes that the `religious’ stage of life (one of three
he feels he has discovered) is the one that means the most and should be
desired. Kierkegaard identifies an existential progression between these stages
which is, on initial study, contradicted by the passage of scripture he tackles.
It is by examining these stages that the answer to the question set can be
The first of these stages is the aesthetic. For Kierkegaard, this is the lowest
form of being. For a particular human being to lead an aesthetic existence would
require him to indulge purely in sensuous pleasures. The implication in the
aesthetic is that only the external provides value. However, Kierkegaard’s
suggestion is that this level of being lacks anything outside of itself. Its
value, he submits, is void of meaning and direction and those who inhabit this
existence simply pass from one meaningless gratification of the senses to the
next with no real purpose.
There is, according to Kierkegaard, a progression of sorts to a higher stage of
life. A transition to a level being in which the particular is subsumed, that is
transported and incorporated by, the next in the level of existence, the
ethical. At this stage, an individual is living in accordance with what he
describes as the `universal good’ and in this the ethical is senseless. What I
mean by that is that the ethical requires the abdication of the individual in
accordance with the universal good. Yet the ethical cannot exist without the
individual to give it form. The individual turns inward and considers the aim of
life in respect to himself. In one sense it empowers the aesthetic with value
and meaning, thus the gratification of the senses can become the appreciation of
beauty. However, Kierkegaard regards the religious stage of life not only to be
the highest, but also imperative in giving the ethical meaning and direction.
By `religious life’ Kierkegaard is referring to the encountering and acceptance
of his, the Christian, God. It isn’t clear if the `religious’ is confined only
to his God, or whether differing personal beliefs have a place within
Kierkegaard’s definition of this level of being. The `religious’ makes sense of
the ethical, according to Kierkegaard. Apparently inferring that doing good for
the sake of good is meaningless and closer to an egoistic sense of aesthetic
gratification then meaningful existence, Kierkegaard looks to the religious to
give life direction and telos, that is purpose.
For the benefit of `Fear and Trembling’, Abraham is this `religious’ man. In the
biblical story, Abraham is required by God to premeditate the sacrifice of his
son as a sign of his faith to God. This presents Kierkegaard with a problem, as
although the `religious’ life is a distinct and separate level of being from the
`ethical’, the transition is a subsumption. That is, the religious provides the
ethical with an additional depth rather then a complete reversal of values. It
appears that there is a contradiction here, as in what is universally good (that
being, in this case, not killing your own child) is abandoned by the very
religion or God that provides it with meaning and purpose.
To provide for this contradiction, Kierkegaard identifies the telos of God. In
this situation, God requires a sign from Abraham that he is faithful to him.
That is God’s purpose in asking this of Abraham. The ethical, far from being
removed from Kierkegaard’s equation, is merely suspended so that the purpose;
the end result; the telos of God, can be achieved. This is what Kierkegaard
means when he refers to the `teleological suspension of the ethical’.
There are a number of problems with this though. The first is the apparently
complete distinction between the `religious’ and `morality’. The nature of the
goodness of God can surely be called into question if a teleological suspension
of what is morally good is required, even for just a fraction of time, in order
to follow the will of God. Further more, if God’s purpose involves a suspension
of the universal good, then Kierkegaard’s theories seriously falter. For how can
the ethical be defined, as Kierkegaard defines it, as an alignment with the
universal good, if that good can be suspended on account of a `higher good’,
that is the telos of God? Is Kierkegaard suggesting that there are two levels of
good, perhaps, and that when one reaches the `religious’ it is on occasion
necessary to act in accordance with the higher good and deny the good by which
those living by the `ethical’ live their lives? Kierkegaard seems short on
answers when one considers the inevitable confrontation between these to
conflicting sources of `goodness’, which lead to an apparent potential
contradiction of the `highest good’ which Kierkegaard has identified.
Of course, in the example of Abraham and Isaac, the suspension of the ethical
for the purposes of the religious did not result in this conflict between
goodness (discounting the premeditation involved in the mind of Abraham) for God
stopped Abraham before he ended his child’s life. Therefore in this case the
implication is that the telos of God was to observe a demonstration of obedience
in Abraham and not to kill Isaac. However in the very suspension of the ethical,
God contradicts himself and the philosophy of Kierkegaard in this respect
requires further explanation. For God must be the constant in order for the
stages of life to work. It is impossible for God to override himself yet that is
apparently what has happened here – God has contradicted himself in order for
his purposes to be fulfilled.
The only way God could not have contradicted himself is if there was no
suspension of the ethical, which is a real possibility. For if it was not a
command of God to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and it was merely a test of
Abraham’s faithfulness, then God did not override his own commands and nature,
as there was no commandment that Isaac should die. In this sense, in as much as
there was no command, there was also no suspension of the ethical.
In conclusion, to suggest that there is any kind of suspension of the ethical,
in as far as Kierkegaard describes the ethical, is to deny the very notion of
the religious and its place within leading a good life. For the ethical is the
attunement of life to the universal good. And for God to suspend this good in
order to fulfil a purpose which by logic would not include the good it usually
would is to deny the very notion that this good was truly `good’ in the first
place. The idea that God would use the unethical – put into action a sequence of
events that is contrary to the universal good – to appropriate his purpose not
only calls into question the value of God, or of the universal good, but also
leads to misinterpretations of God whose manifestations are violence and wars.
The only reasonable explanation, if God is to be upheld and Kierkegaard’s
philosophies are to be believed, is that there was no suspension of the ethical
at all; that God remained consistent and his suggestion to Abraham that he kill
his own son was a test of Abraham’s obedience and nothing more. Further
questions regarding the morality of a God that would use such apparently hideous
ways to `test’ his worshipers also lead us to call into question the `good’ that
one empowers this figure with, all leading to the conclusion I make the these
stages Kierkegaard present us with, in connection with this passage of
Scripture, require further attention.
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