Exploring Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.

Note: While I intend this piece to be readable for those who haven’t also read Fear and Trembling, I suspect that this piece will be a lot more valuable to those who are interested in the text itself, which can be found in loads of places on the internet, but also at least here.

A few months ago I was writing up a storm about Heidegger. The ultimate purpose of this storm was because I find him fantastic. But I like Kierkegaard a whole lot more. I’ve recently been re-reading his Fear and Trembling, and the concept in it I find the most interesting and worth discussing is the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical that he describes in the first main section of discussion.

Whew. The phrase itself is somewhat of a mouthful. Therefore, in order to make sense for you readers, I should explain what a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical is. That would make sense before I start telling you why it’s important.

And once you know what it is and why it’s important, then we can maybe start talking about it. Or perhaps I’ll save it for a later post. We’ll have to see!

I. What is the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?

The easiest way to make it understandable will be to break it down into its component parts. First, let’s see what ‘teleological’ means in this context.

To say that an ethical system is teleologically oriented is to say that the system cares about ultimate outcomes. Utilitarianism is a key example of a teleological system because it weights the moral standing of a course of action in terms of what consequences follow from the action.

So, if I think the ultimate outcome of an action affects its moral standing qua being the action it is, then I’m teleologically oriented. If I think otherwise immoral actions can be moral if the teleological properties of it are morally positive, then I’m teleologically oriented.

This definition of teleological ethics makes it somewhat confusing what a teleological suspension of the ethical might be. After all, if teleology determines moral standing, why would we bother suspending the ethical for the benefit of the teleological? They would already be one and the same and therefore would never conflict.

But, this only holds under a strict identity between goodness and morality. That is to say, there might be some circumstances under which a teleological suspension of the ethical was necessary because the ethical was less important than something else which was good, but which was also incompatible with the ethical.

For Kierkegaard, or rather for Johannes de Silentio, his pseudonymous character, this question becomes important in the context of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

II. Abraham and Isaac: the Paradox.

For Kierkegaard’s de Silentio, that there is some virtue in Abraham’s wholehearted decision to follow God’s command to kill his son Isaac is suggestive that there may be a teleological suspension of the ethical.

The entire text of Fear and Trembling concerns itself with debating the question posed by the story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein Abraham is exalted to a higher status than mere mortality by virtue of his complete willingness to perform a morally unacceptable act, which is to kill his son.

For de Silentio, this poses a paradox that cannot be directly overcome, though it can be spoken around. I won’t take upon my self the task of either talking around the issue or of even the higher task of trying to resolve it. Instead, I’ll just try and make it more understandable and share my own two cents.

The paradox is that we cannot say Abraham did good, or else we would hollow out the relationship that he establishes with God through his faith. If it had been good to be wholeheartedly ready to kill Isaac, then it isn’t good, because it isn’t paradoxical.

But at the same time, we can’t say that Abraham was just a madman, unless we want to take the sort of short-sighted view of spiritual and religious matters that Kierkegaard is constitutionally unwilling to take. For our purposes, I’m not going to bother with this horn of the dilemma. Though from the atheistic-humanistic side of the discussion, we could compare Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac with Raskolnikov’s willingness to murder the pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment.

In either case, we can see that the issue at stake is that from a certain perspective it seems possible that an apparently monstruous action could transcend morality, and in doing so transform it.

We might want to reference Kierkegaard’s familiarity and intellectual relationship with Hegel here. Kierkegaard’s de Silentio talks about Abraham in heroic and world-historical terms; here, Abraham is taken to be a unique character whose choices somehow enable an entirely new kind of action to be taken.

We might also say that in either case, both Raskolnikov and Abraham can be taken from one perspective to be madmen, and on the other to be uniquely heroic characters.

Kierkegaard’s de Silentio concludes at the end of Problemata 1 that Abraham is not venerable solely for the fact that his commitment to kill Isaac was teleological. Indeed, he seems to suggest that to reduce the act of faith inherent in his willingness to a form of bargaining with God through a teleological analysis undermines the point of the example.

III. Faith and Resignation.

If this is true, and if Abraham’s virtue is in something other than the outcome of his decision, we need to understand what de Silentio means when he describes himself as a ‘Knight of Resignation’, and what he means when he compares Abraham to the ‘Knight of Faith.’

In brief, we can understand this difference to be the difference between commitment and bargaining. Abraham can be said to be a Knight of Faith because he is commited to something he can lose. He is commited to Isaac, and he is commited to God, and so both relationships are brought into question by God’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain in Moriah.

For de Silentio, it is Abraham’s ability to somehow maintain his faith in the face of this contradiction that raises him above the rationalists and bargainers that he aligns with the category of the Knights of Resignation, who are illustrated by the examples given in the four variations on the story of Abraham in the first part of the book.

In each of those variations, a hypothetical variant on the biblical Abraham fails to maintain complete faith in his heart both in God and in his commitment to Isaac. In each variation he resigns himself to some failure, and in doing so willingly sacrifices one element of his commitment so as to preserve another– but in each example, by relinquishing one element of his commitment he simultaneously murders each other element.

The distinction between a Knight of Faith and a Knight of Resignation is that a Knight of Faith can in bodily action resolve the paradox of their values, whereas a Knight of Faith cannot and therefore loses that which they value. What the Knight of Resignation gains in exchange is the ability to live without fear, but also without passion or commitment.

In the course of a human life, we are all faced with equalizing the contradiction between the deep care that we hold for those things we hold dear; the inevitable fact that all of it will be destroyed; and the contingent fact that our dreams and ideals will never come to fruition. In this light, it could be said to be madness to preserve faith in those ideals and commitments. Rational resignation would be the solution that came to us through pure reflection.

But the central lesson to be learned from Kierkegaard’s de Silentio, whether we are religious or not, is that madness is sometimes madness, but that apparent madness is other times the enemy of the much greater and more insidious madness of nihlism. After all, if we could not find something we were willing to sacrifice everything for, could we be said to be properly living?

3 thoughts on “Exploring Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.”

  1. Hi Nosiarch, a fascinating and thought-provoking article as usual. I haven’t read Fear and Trembling yet (I must do so) but have you read Martin Hagglund’s analysis of it in This Life? Hagglund argues that Kierkegaard ‘identifies faith as an issue that is always at stake in our lives’. And he adds: “While his ultimate aim is to defend a version of religious faith, his own work provides profound insights into the dynamic of secular faith that he seeks to overcome.” Hagglund stakes the claim that the ‘risk of loss is the motivational force of secular faith’ which can live in more than a biological sense but can also ‘die’ before our biological death. “If you fail in a life-defining commitment – or have to give it up because it has become unsustainable – you suffer an existential ‘death’ of your self, even though your life continues,” he writes. I seem to constantly hover on the edge of the abyss of this existential death!

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    1. I’m sort of in two minds as to whether or not an existential death is final in Kierkegaard’s mode of thinking. Really, as much as I like the guy, I don’t feel grounded enough in his thought to argue from his perspective, so I’ll have to argue my own.

      I’d be tempted to respond that the existential death at stake there when you offer up your life-defining commitment is not a final death. I’m also not sure what the distinction between a religious and a secular faith would be in this case. I’d be tempted to say that faith of any kind is a response to the risk of loss. So in that sense I’m not sure what the distinction would be. Perhaps you could say it was the distinction between the sort of faith we can only have in establishments like the church and faith we might have without an establishment respectively. But Kierkegaard himself was a noted critic of the church establishment in Denmark over his life.

      I wouldn’t be so worried about existential deaths, personally. I feel like I’ve died a few, and I’d say I’ve always managed to find a new life-affirming commitment after given a period of grief. I don’t think Kierkegaard has too much to say about what to do if your commitment fails. I think from Jonhannes De Silentio’s perspective that’s not something he’s particularly interested in as a literary character; he’s more interested in how people can both know and not fear the risk of failure. I also think from the Knight of Faith’s perspective, even spending too much time thinking about the risk is tending you toward Knight of Resignation territory. But I suddenly worry I’m saying silly things, so I’ll wrap up this thread of thought.

      I had never heard of Martin Hagglund before. I’ve just looked him up and he seems reasonably hot-shit interesting cool and new. But based on the little precis of This Life I’ve read, I suspect he is off the mark with Kierkegaard. I don’t know how he grounds his idea that there’s a meaningful distinction between secular and religious faith in Kierkegaard, and I worry I’m about to speak out my ass, but it always seemed to me to be the case that faith is faith regardless of what it’s in. I don’t know if Kierkegaard ever really worried himself with questions about an actual afterlife.

      The example of Abraham on this way of thinking is stirring and affective because it’s the story of an unsure person accepting the reality of mortality and holding two contradictory ideas at the same time, which is that he can father his cake and eat it, so to speak. I think if we start introducing ideas of eternal life into the equation, then actually the whole force of the discussion gets a little deflated, so I’d be suspected to say that Kierkegaard wasn’t really bothered with eternal life.

      I think the substantially more interesting point about Abraham is just that he managed to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. For people trying to deal with existential death and the problem of picking a commitment and overcoming nihilism, that’s more where the value of this example is pointing. With that in mind, I think we can find a really valuable reading of Abraham as a cognitive-spiritual example, and for Kierkegaard speaking through de Silentio I’d be tempted to say that was the intention.

      Thanks for reading the article and responding, berggolts! I did write it with you in mind, so I’m glad you liked it.

      Nos.

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      1. The main problem here is that you haven’t read This Life and I haven’t read Fear and Trembling, although I do have it on order. Which means, of course, that I can only relate what Hagglund has to say on the matter. According to him, then, Kierkegaard really was interested in eternal life because it is this that enables him to commit to killing Isaac. What he is saying is that ‘as long as you keep religious faith, you cannot be defeated by loss’ because even if ‘Abraham has to kill Isaac, he believes that God will bring Isaac back to life, and as long as he keeps this expectation he cannot be defeated’. In contrast, and this is the distinction he makes between religious and secular faith, ‘secular faith necessarily remains vulnerable. As long as you keep secular faith, you can be defeated by loss’. According to Hagglund, Kierkegaard was, in part at least, trying to draw a distinction between dead religious faith – simply abiding by the trappings of the established church – and live faith as epitomized by Abraham. At the same time, according to Hagglund, ‘Kierkegaard recognizes that the question of faith precedes any religious commitment and is a general feature of human existence’ – hence it’s relevance to secular faith. I suppose that within, say, the field of politics it’s the difference between putting a cross on a ballot box every five years and committed activism. It is the latter that is so vulnerable to loss and existential death and why it is, sometimes, so tempting to give up the faith. Still, I will obviously find out if Hagglund was right in his analysis when I read Kierkegaard’s book. Best wishes – and keep challenging us!

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