Kierkegaard’s moral phenomenology: When ethical consistency becomes ethical evasion
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was more concerned with learning how to express our ideals in the medium of action than he was in developing ethical theories. (Luplau Janssen / Wikimedia Commons)
Even though ethics is included as one of the fundamental life perspectives in his famous three-stage theory of human development — aesthetic, ethical, religious — the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard never developed an ethical theory. In fact, in one of his journal entries, Kierkegaard implies that there are only two stages: the religious and the aesthetic. In other words, for Kierkegaard, what we take to be “the ethical” collapses into the aesthetic, a life perspective that has happiness and self-fulfilment as its god-terms, in contrast to faith and sin, the poles that mark out the religious standpoint.
Still, though not a moral theorist, Kierkegaard made significant contributions to what might be termed “moral phenomenology”. In more than a dozen ways, the Danish Socrates offered refulgent insights into the challenges we face in trying to be righteous human beings. For example, depth psychologists, Arthur Schopenhauer, and later Sigmund Freud all contended that we should lower our moral goals to psychological reality. Kierkegaard, the moral phenomenologist, gainsays that such levelling strategies will put ethics to bed.
Kierkegaard reveals how profoundly difficult it is to live in and act upon the convictions we bandy about at the dinner table. He was more concerned with us learning how to express our ideals in the medium of action, than he was in ethical theories and abstruse analysis of such puzzles as the trolley dilemma.
Still, if I had to pick one luminous passage with which to epitomise Kierkegaard’s moral phenomenology, it would be a paragraph from his pseudonymously authored The Sickness Unto Death. In the second part of this lapidary study of despair, Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author, identifies despair with sin and in the process spins off this trenchant analysis of self-deception:
In the life of the spirit there is no standing still … If a person does not do what is right at the very second he knows it — then, first of all, knowing simmers down. Next comes the question of how will appraises what is known. Willing is dialectical and has under it the entire lower nature of man. If willing does not agree with what is known, then it does not necessarily follow that willing goes ahead and does the opposite of what knowing understood (presumably such strong oppositions are rare) rather willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: “We shall look at it tomorrow.” During all this knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more; for alas the good must be done immediately, as soon as it is known … the lower nature’s power lies in stretching things out. Gradually, willing’s objections to this development lessens, it almost appears to be in collusion. And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and will can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what it wants is right.
The last line of this sharply pronged paragraph reads: And this is how perhaps the great majority of men live; they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension, which would lead them out into decisions and conclusions that their lower nature does not much care for, but they expand their aesthetic and metaphysical comprehension, which ethically is a diversion.
What was Kierkegaard’s ethics? He aimed to help us evade moral evasions. When it comes to moral dodges, we are usually tempted by desires for this or that, or by the need to be liked. For example, imagine you are police officer who witnesses his longtime partner brutalise a suspect involved in a traffic violation. Turn him in and your friendship is over and much worse beside — the blueline is likely to turn its back upon you, which could easily mean the end of your career as a police officer. And, after all, you have a family to raise. So you decide “to sleep on it” and — surprise! — the next day you resolve to bury the incident. And why not? Your partner is a good cop and it was the only time you ever saw him do something like knock out the teeth of a mouthy kid.
Last year, I discovered a subtler form of moral evasion. I was attending a philosophy conference and after a session was hightailing it to a local pub to meet with a friend. Suddenly, a skinny unkept woman missing most of her front teeth leapt out of a doorway pleading for ten dollars to get something to eat for her and her child, who was nowhere to be seen. Now, I have heard this plea many times before, and even though this woman looked like a meth addict I was irritated but inclined to give her the money. Then my “let me sleep on it” moment came in the form of the Kantian precept: “ethics need to be universalisable.” Read: if I am unwilling to reach into my pocket for suspiciously desperate folks in similar straits, then I ought not feel obliged to donate to this person. Because I encounter many homeless people in my treks to the city, I quickly searched myself and concluded that I wasn’t willing to give up my disposable income on a regular basis.
With that cold but cogent idea in mind, rather than trust a hurting fellow human being and make a small financial sacrifice, I trod on to the bar, ignoring the woman with her outstretched palm. Just as Kierkegaard might have predicted, with the aid of reflection, I obscured my moral insight — and naturally, the right thing to do became the easy thing to do.
Of course, my evasion was an abuse of Kant’s moral philosophy who would have allowed — though denied moral merit to — a spontaneous act of generosity. But in retrospect, it was a reminder that philosophy, this time in the guise of the universalisability principle, could also be used for the purposes of shirking unpleasant responsibilities. More than that, after a couple of beers, the sobering thought hit me that even if we don’t think we might be able to do a good deed on a regular basis, it is better to, say, intervene in a mugging, than it is to tell yourself, “Since I can’t count on having the courage to do this on another occasion, I will turn a blind eye.”
The preoccupation with moral consistency can become a moral evasion. Just think of yourself as that vulnerable person in need of help — perhaps a refugee looking for shelter from the storm. Better to do one good deed than none.
Gordon Marino is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, Minnesota. He is the author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age and Kierkegaard in the Present Age, and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.