The Limits of Ethical Reasoning: Absurdity & The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical
Undergraduate Senior Thesis | Pepperdine University | Updated 2021
By Alec Eagon
In this paper I will argue that adherence to an ethically paradoxical divine command, such as is presented in the biblical account of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, does entail a temporary teleological suspension of the ethical. I will argue for this on the basis of Søren Kierkegaard’s argument for free choice.
I will begin this paper by defining key terms and laying out essential background info. Following that, I will lay out Kierkegaard’s understanding of the self along with his argument for human free choice founded in the experience of anxiety. Next, I will compare and contrast this argument with libertarian arguments that attempt to ground freewill in arbitrariness or “noumenal” selves that exist outside of the world of experience. Following this, I will lay out what I take to be the main pillars of a Kierkegaardian system of ethics, and then use them, along with the given arguments, to dive into an examination of absurdity and paradox as they are presented in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Finally, I will conclude with a precise discussion of how, based on all previous arguments, Abraham’s decision to follow God’s command to sacrifice Isaac constitutes a teleological suspension of the ethical. Before we get into the meat of the paper however, we must clarify what exactly is meant by a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”
“Teleological” is defined by the Encarta World English Dictionary as “relating to the study of ultimate causes in nature or of actions in relation to their ends or utility.”1 So in relation to ethics, a “teleological suspension” may then be understood as a temporary suspension of one’s value or priority to adhere to a particular set of ethics. For the purposes of this paper, from here on out we will drop the “teleological” and simply make reference to “a suspension of the ethical” or “a suspension of ethics.” Also, since it is most applicable to the subject matter of the story of Abraham and Isaac, whenever reference is made to “ethics” or to “the ethical” in this paper, it is essential to note that what is being referred to is the Decalogue or Ten Commandments.
The Self, Free Choice & Anxiety
Having established the direction in which this paper is go, it is now time to get into the meat and potatoes and explore Kierkegaard’s understanding of the self along with his argument for human free choice, and also his discussion of anxiety. Boiled down to a numbered argument, Kierkegaard’s understanding of human free choice begins with establishing (1.1) the self as being in time, present in the world, with flesh, passions and desires, with language, memory and imagination, while simultaneously retaining an aspect of eternity. To put this in plainer terms, the self is at once present in both body (physical existence) and soul (spiritual existence). The second premise (1.2) of this argument follows by establishing that the human self experiences anxiety, which Kierkegaard defines as the inner wrestling with simultaneous feelings of attraction and repulsion to a future possibility that is not yet. To further support this premise it will help to take a look at a couple examples. First,(1.2a) if the way humans relate to future possibilities were to boil down merely to attraction, the way a donkey is led to pull a cart by a carrot on a string, then it would be safe to say that human behavior is caused or determined by attractive objects. Likewise, (1.2b) if the way humans relate to future possibilities were to boil down merely to repulsion, the way “a gorilla flees when a water buffalo comes near,” then human behavior would be rightfully be viewed as being caused or determined by repulsive objects.2 (1.2c) Obviously, neither (1.2a) nor (1.2b) are the case since rational people often find themselves at deliberative crossroads as well as in situations where they choose to veer away from the desirable or ideal, even while they are approaching it. It is important to note that this presentation of the self as conflicted is not by any means a novel idea for Kierkegaard, but rather dates back to ancient Greek philosophers and beyond. Plato’s argument for the self in Republicis not dissimilar to Kierkegaard’s in how it attributes “all mental or psychological functions” to the human soul and also in how Plato describes the soul as being divided between the conflicting desires of reason and spirit.3Getting back to Kierkegaard though, with this operating understanding of anxiety in hand, the next premise (1.3) in his argument follows by identifying anxiety as the marker of “the possibility of possibility” or in other words, the marker of human ability. Anxiety understood as such, (1.4) therefore becomes the thing that actualizes human freedom of choice—that is to say, for Kierkegaard, anxiety and the experiences of attraction and repulsion, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for human freewill.4
Alternative Libertarian Views on Freewill
Kierkegaard’s grounding of human free choice in the experience of anxiety differs greatly from the views of many other libertarian thinkers who argue for free choice. Some libertarian thinkers argue that free choice is only free if it is founded in some sort of ultimate unpredictability or arbitrariness. Though modern science is moving in the direction of affirming the existence of potential “sorts of” arbitrariness on the quantum level, in the form of entirely unpredictable “jumps” or “swerving” by subatomic particles, these, what we might call “micro indeterminacies,” ultimately fall short of providing an adequate foundation for human freedom. If libertarians are going to appeal to quantum indeterminacies this way, or to any other sort of arbitrariness for that matter, they must illustrate how free choices occur in a way that is not completely“arbitrary, capricious, random, uncontrolled, [and/or] irrational…”5 Another notable problem with these sorts of libertarian views lies in the assertion that free choice must be “entirely unpredictable.” Though it is easy to see why one might feel the need to push for utter unpredictability in defense of freewill, this is a defense that does not seem to take into account the difference between self-reflection and empirical psychology.6 The mere fact that an action made by an individual may be observed or predicted does not entail that the particular act was ultimately determined such that the person was powerless to do otherwise. On the contrary, predictable behavior seems to be characteristic of self-controlled, self-disciplined and “self-reflective” persons, while unpredictable behavior tends to be more characteristic of people who are irrational or insane. As one scholar puts it, “though the attraction may be great and the repulsion slight, or the reverse,self-reflectioncan show that a choice was made, and that the individual is in some way responsible for that choice.”7 To address more precisely how self-reflection can do this let’s take Kierkegaard’s argument for the self and reformulate it beginning with self-reflection. Such an argument would be as follows: (2.1) self-reflection indicates that a choice was made; (2.2) choice making indicates the presence of anxiety; (2.3) the presence of anxiety reveals that an individual has been confronted with conflicting desires, different options or what are commonly labeled “alternative possibilities”; (2.4) and the presence of these alternative possibilities in turn reveals that the choice was made freely. To wrap up this section (as well as the previous), we may conclude by stating that Kierkegaard views anxiety, insofar as it indicates the presence of alternative possibilities, as the thing that ultimately makesa choice free.
The Environment & Conditioning Factors
At this point it is important to clarify that Kierkegaard’s argument for free choice does notdeny the role of conditioning factors such as environment. Looking back at the discussion of attraction and repulsion in premise (1.2), and also taking into account the human experience of temptation and conflicting desires, it may easily be surmised that environmental factors have a powerful role in shaping human perception as to which future possibilities appear most or least attractive. What the given argument does deny, however, is that environmental factors have the final say, or in other words, that environmental factors are ultimately deterministic in a way that takes away a person’s free choice. It is important to note that this view of “influential” environmental factors essentially makes the broader argument of this paper more of a “compatibilist” argument than a libertarian one insofar as it affirms the existence of external variables that can in part, but not ultimately, be determining factors in a person’s choice. Anxiety, since it is present at the core of a person’s soul (in the form of one’s conscience), precludes all external factors and influences, no matter how weighty they may be. Of course it is very easy for an individual to make habit of ignoring anxiety, even to the point at which it may appear to them not to exist, however, this does not by any means deny anxiety’s precursory existence within that individual, rather it only describes the degree to which they have put a limit on their own self-awareness.
In order to relate Kierkegaard’s understanding of the self, anxiety and free choice back to the overall argument of this paper, that adherence to an ethically paradoxical divine command does entail a temporary suspension of ethics, we must now take a deeper look at what, more specifically, would comprise a Kierkegaardian system of ethics. For Kierkegaard, the ethical life has a two-fold definition. (3.1) First, the ethical life involves being in the right relation to, or being true to, oneself (i.e. engaging in self-reflection and treating oneself as a free choosing, morally responsible agent). (3.2) Second, the ethical life involves being in the right relation to other people. (3.3) These two parts of Kierkegaard’s definition of the ethical life are inseparable; that is to say, one cannot be in the right relation to oneself without at once being in the right relation to others.8
Before moving onto discuss Kierkegaard’s understanding of “the absurd” and how it relates to ethics, it is important to lay out how Kierkegaard’s view of the self and the ethical life differs from the views of other modern freewill-defending philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Though Kant argued for the existence of freewill, he believed that the soul or ideal self was “divorced” from the world of experience and “lived action” (the realm in which Kierkegaard would posit the ethical life).9 The problem with this “divorced” view of the world is that it completely disregards the significance of anxiety in a practical sense—making all felt attraction and repulsion, and every push and pull of conscience, equivalent to the most trivial and fleeting emotions. In other words, if emotions are not connected to anxiety in the soul, at least on some level, even the trivial ones, then it is hard to see how any emotional response, even righteous indignation, could possibly have any sort of significant function in the human experience. It is easy to understand why Kant might have viewed emotions and the experiential world in this way especially when one takes into account that reason and emotion are commonly at odds in our day-to-day lives. Kant’s view however, is overly pessimistic insofar as it seems to undercut the possibility of instances where emotional experience might be the very thing that causes one, either directly or indirectly, to reason well. It is very difficult to attribute any sort of ultimate significance to “being in the right relation to other people” (3.2), or furthermore, to being in the right relation to oneself by being in the right relation to others (3.3), if there is not an essential connection between one’s soul and the experiential/emotional world as Kierkegaard argues.
Absurdity & Paradox
Kierkegaard gets this two-fold view of the ethical life from a section in the Gospels commonly titled “The Great Commandment” where Jesus, responding to being asked which is the Greatest Commandment, states: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus concludes his response by weaving together the two commandments when he states, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”10 This final interweaving is why the two commandments are referred to in tandem by theologians, as constituting two parts to the whole of “The Great Commandment.” Taking a deeper look at this passage, possibly the most interesting question that arises is why Jesus, if trying to illustrate the interconnectedness of the two commandments, simultaneously draws an obvious distinction between the two in the form of an apparent list of priorities: to love God first, then love others. An obvious question that arises here is, what about situations where God commands man to act in a way that exhibits love for God but simultaneously appears, by all rational inquiry, to break the second half of the Greatest Commandment. Such is the example of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In this situation, under the God-given system of ethical behavior (the Ten Commandments), Abraham’s sacrificing Isaac would by all intents and purposes appear to be murder, violating the sixth commandment.11 This situation presents an absurd paradox. Enter Kierkegaard’s discussion of the absurd in his work Fear & Trembling. As one scholar describes this absurd paradox, in order “to be faithful, one must love God and the other person. Thus, it is precisely because the relation to the other person is never separable from the relation to God, but actually inscribed within it, that Abraham must constantly struggle with how to understand responsibility.”12 It is this struggle that is absurd.It is absurd because, in the midst of Abraham’s anxiety, for a moment there did not exist a logical, rational reason to be found, only a contradiction to the ethical reasoning he had previously been given. Essentially, Abraham had to believe “by virtue of the absurd” or in other words, by virtue of the limits of reason, that God would stay true to His nature even though Abraham had no idea, much less any means to calculate, how God would achieve this.13 Abraham had two choices, to sacrifice or not to sacrifice, neither of which could constitute an expression of coherent rational choice. The only thing that Abraham was capable of deciding upon in this situation was whether or not he was going to submit to “his insufficiency before the God.”14 It is this “rational” submission to the limits of human rational capacity, this giving up of ethics for sake of God himself, which leads Kierkegaard to state:
“…I can learn nothing from [Abraham] except to be amazed. If one imagines that one may be moved to believe by pondering the outcome of that story, then one cheats oneself and wants to cheat God out of the first movement of faith; one wants to suck worldly wisdom out of the paradox.”15
The Suspension of The Ethical
Now that we’ve discussed the nature of the absurd and argued that Abraham’s adherence to God’s command constitutes a genuine suspension of the ethical, it is time to address a few common objections.
One popular objection to Kierkegaard on this issue comes in the form of the claim that (1) a suspension of the ethical for sake of a divine command is impossible because it would imply a contradiction in God’s nature. This is to say that God, by His nature, cannot act outside of His ethics, and therefore, there can never be a suspension of the ethical.
There are a number of problems with this objection. For starters, the first part seems to be based on a mistaken view of what Kierkegaard takes to be the nature of a divine command. Kierkegaard is not by any means claiming that a divine command such as the one given Abraham requires God to suspend or change His nature; on the contrary he is affirming God’s sovereignty and steadfastness to ultimately stay true His nature, even when, in the moment, to a temporal being, it may seem like God is going against it. After all, God didstop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and ultimately revealed that His command was merely a test.
(2) Another common objection to Kierkegaard, in regard to the absurd, is the claim that Kierkegaard, in defending his position, essentially does what Kant does and separates the world of lived experience from the soul by separating ethics from religion.16
This second objection is based simply on a flawed reading of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is by no means attempting to separate ethics from religion, or even appeal to one over the other. Rather, what he is doing is using the order of moral responsibility, as laid out by the Greatest Commandment (to God first, then people), as a lens through which to interpret and apply the Ten Commandments, particularly those that have to do with being in right relation to others under God. To put it another way, Kierkegaard’s “appeal to religion is not an appeal to religion over ethics, but rather ‘an appeal to a religious understanding of ethics itself.’” 17 It is an appeal that attributes The Great Commandment, and more specifically the first part about loving God, to be, for humans, the ultimate ethic. The story of Abraham and Isaac is the paradigm example of what this “ultimate ethic” requires of temporal beings who constantly find themselves in anxious situations where they cannot see the end result of a particular decision.
To recap in brief, in this paper I’ve argued that adherence to an ethically paradoxical divine command does entail a teleological suspension of the ethical. Following from the provided definition of the self, we may rightfully identify the human experience of anxiety to be the marker of human free will. With free choice grounded in anxiety, we may assess the situation of Abraham’s anxiety, as constituting a situation wherein a system of God-given ethics (the Ten Commandments), was suspended for sake of honoring the order of moral responsibilities laid out by the Greatest Commandment (to love God first, man second). It is worth stating, that ultimately what this paper is attempting to do is provide an apprehension of the inner workings of a very particular scenario, wherein trusting an assured command from God (adhering to “the ultimate ethic”), though, it may appear at a given moment to be entirely irrational (by human ethical standards), is the only rational thing to do. Though Abraham, in the moment, hoped that God would be true to His nature, and though he might have even guessed that God would send an angel to stop him, he still had absolutely no way of making his decision ethically reconcilable except by trusting God Himself, who he knew God to be, and by giving God’s given ethics (the Ten Commandments) back to God. As one scholar reiterates this point,“ethics itself is a divine gift! Abraham’s belief that he will get Isaac back ‘by virtue of the absurd,’ is something that operates according to the aporetic logic of the paradox—or we might say…according to the logic of the gift.”18 Deliberation on this subject, particularly the sorts of points addressed in this paper, seems essential if we are to better understand the limits of human reasoning under God. For some, the appeal to absurdity in this paper may not represent a satisfactory premise in the overall argument, however, like the absurdity Abraham faced, it’s important to remember that, as long as temporal beings remain temporal, some things will ultimately remain unexplained, that is, some things will always appear to us to be absurd. This is the crossroads of faith. One must make a decision, either to deny the absurd and put one’s ultimate trust and value in humanity’s capacity for reason, or affirm human weakness, accept the limits of reason, and proceed to live life with a sense of humility thereby.
“Would it not be best, however, to stop at faith? And is it not shocking that everyone wants to go further? If people in our age will not abide with love, as indeed is proclaimed in various ways, what is it all coming to? To worldly shrewdness, petty calculation, to paltriness and wretchedness, to everything that can make humanity’s divine origin doubtful. Would it not be best to remain standing at faith, and for the one who stands to see to it that he does not fall? For the movement of faith must constantly be made by virtue of the absurd, yet in such a way, mind you, that one does not lose the finite but gains it entire. For my part, I can very well describe the movements of faith, but I cannot make them. If one wants to learn how to swim, one can let oneself be suspended in a sling from the ceiling and very well go through the motions, but one is not swimming. Likewise, I can describe the movements of faith, but if I am thrown into the water, I may well swim (for I do not belong among waders), but I make different movements. I make the movements of infinity, whereas faith does the opposite; after having made the movements of infinity, it makes those of finitude. Anyone who can make these movements is fortunate; he performs the miraculous, and I shall never become tired of admiring him.”
1“Teleological.”Encarta World English Dictionary. Web. <http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/features/dictionary/DictionaryResults.aspx?lextype=3&search=teleological>
3Lorenz, Hendrik, “Ancient Theories of Soul”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/ancient-soul/>.
9Grier, Michelle, Kant’s Critique of Metaphysics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/kant-metaphysics/>.
10The Great Commandment: 35And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law [the ten commandments] and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:34-40, ESV)
16McMahon, Dr. C. M. “Teleological Suspension: The Kierkegaardian idea concerning ethics and God.”A Puritan’s Mind. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. <http://www.apuritansmind.com/apologetics/TeleologicalSuspension.htm>.