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Re: A serious mistake? Kierkegaard and the ethical personality

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  • Jim Stuart
    Dear Een, In your posting of 2nd November (message 340), you argued against my criticism of Kierkegaard s account of the ethical. Your response was divided
    Message 1 of 6 , Nov 28, 2004
      Dear Een,

      In your posting of 2nd November (message 340), you argued against my criticism of Kierkegaard's account of the ethical. Your response was divided into four sections: (1) Idiosyncratic usage; (2) Telos: The relative and the absolute; (3) Ethics, Love and Theology; (4) The grammar of love and the religious.

      In my reply of 6th November (message 341), I responded only to your first section (Idiosyncratic usage). This response led to an extended discussion which covered such issues as ontological commitment, conceptual schemes, natural laws and free will. This was a fruitful discussion, but perhaps with the differences between us fairly clearly laid out, it is time to move on.

      I'd like now to respond to your second section (Telos: The relative and the absolute). This is what you wrote:

      "You write that:

      'the 'absolute telos' of the ethical individual is to continually act for the benefit of others'

      This would require that 'the benefit of others' could be an absolute
      ethical telos. For an existentialist, this would be a highly problematical

      Firstly, it would contradict the founding principle of existentialism; namely that each individual exists individually, and should never be considered en masse.

      Secondly, it would require a certainty (equally as absolute as the telos) regarding the 'benefit'. I challenge you to give an account of 'ethical benefit'.

      Thirdly, and by definition, in relation to the absolute all else is relative. If the 'benefit of others' is the absolute telos, all else is relative. The way is open to benefit others through unethical behaviour. The absolute does not allow for adjustment, compromise or shades of meaning.

      Enten/Eller - Either/Or
      i) If I lie now, she may be better off, and that is the point...
      otherwise I would be letting her down.
      ii) If I do not lie now, I may harm him, but I must not lie...
      otherwise I am a deceiver.

      Let me respond to your three points:

      (1) I think my view is consistent with the 'founding principle of existentialism' that 'each individual exists individually, and should never be considered en masse'. Perhaps I didn't outline my view clearly enough. I'm no utilitarian - I agree utilitarianism is not consistent with the founding principle of existentialism. Rather I'm closer to Kantianism, and I hold to the ethical principle that we should always treat others as ends, and never as means. Further, rather than think of the recipients of my ethical actions as human beings 'en masse', I think of the person whom my actions are directed towards as 'the other' or as 'others' if my actions are to affect a group of people.

      I don't think that acting out of a concern for the well-being of others is inconsistent with existentialism. Existentialists don't have to be solipsists.

      (2) I think I can be passionately committed to acting for the good of others, without being certain in every case that my action will in fact benefit the other. In this imperfect world, we do not have certain knowledge of the consequences of our actions, but we do have a good idea what will result from our choices and actions. The Good Samaritan could not be certain that by attending to the injured man, and paying for his recuperation, that his actions would benefit him. However, surely we can judge that the Good Samaritan's actions were more likely to benefit the injured man than the actions (or rather 'non-actions') of the Priest and the Levite would do.

      (3) I'm not sure that if I hold to the Kantian principle mentioned above (treat others as ends and never as means), that I would ever act 'unethically', if I acted out of love for the benefit of others.

      I agree that we can be faced with 'moral dilemmas', in which each choice of action has a negative aspect to it. To adapt your example, suppose a good German family in late 1930's Germany is hiding a Jewish family in their cellar. The Gestapo come knocking at the door, asking if the German family knows of any Jews hiding in the area. Our German hero says "No", and the Gestapo do away.

      Yes, the German has lied, and this is certainly a bad aspect to his action, but surely in this case we want to say that lying was the right thing for him to do, and for this reason it doesn't seem right that we describe his action as 'unethical'.

      In summary, I still think my original criticism of Kierkegaard's account of the ethical (see my message 316) is valid, despite all that you and Willy have written over the last couple of months. I have certainly learnt a lot from your and Willy's postings, and my understanding and appreciation of the writings and ideas of Kierkegaard have deepened as a result.



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