Analytic Theology

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Kierkegaard and the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

August 15th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: Should we be interested in why both Abraham and Kierkegaard were willing to teleologically suspend the ethical? Not in a psychological sense, but rather, the reasons they would give if asked to do so (for example, if they were called upon to account for their behavior in a court of law). Abraham would say: “God told me to do it.” Kierkegaard, on the other hand, can’t cite a divine command. He can’t even say that Regina told him to. All he can say is that he came to a conclusion, based upon some reasoning process inside of his own head.

If we add Martin Luther King to the mix, he also might report that he was following instructions from God; or, that he was acting to end racism and improve the condition of his people, both of which are salutary objectives.

The point being that both Abraham and King are in a position to justify any potential transgression against the ethical, with reference to some kind of an “extrinsic factor.” Furthermore, this factor may be reducible to a proposition that, at least potentially, has a broader application, beyond the dynamics or exigencies of each of their particular situations. For example, a monotheist might credibly aver that one should obey divine authority, and that it trumps earthly laws; just like we believe that racism is bad, and that all persons should be treated equally. It might even be possible to characterize this as something that, at least in some respect, has a “moral” dimension – there is a great deal of inertia associated with ethical commands, and it should require a correspondingly high degree of justification, in order to overcome them.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, can’t rely on any of these positions. All he can say is that, something “made him do it.” This is a weaker explanation than that offerable either by Abraham, or King. One can be dubious about Abraham’s “voice from God” – today, if somebody offered this as an explanation, we’d think they were crazy, like John Brown, or Charles Manson. But at least it’s something other than one’s own internal thought processes.

Maybe what’s required here is a taxonomy of types or classes of excuses to teleologically suspend the ethical (i.e., defining relations), ranked hierarchally according to their justificatory power. At the very least, we should be able to say that both Abraham and King had “better” reasons for doing what they did, than did Kierkegaard – in fact, they make Kierkegaard look like he’s simply trying to rationalize bad behavior on his part, which is not the sort of conduct we need from knights (either of faith, or resignation).