Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

Suspending the Ethical: A reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling January 9, 2012



The “teleological suspension of the ethical” in Fear and Trembling is troubling and mysterious in the context of Christian ethics. Kierkegaard seems to suggest that faith cancels any rational or communicable common standard of behaviour in favour of the possibility of God commanding actions directly in conflict with any possible ethical norm. In Fear and Trembling no higher ethical imperative is invoked that could be generalised or rationalised, indeed any such intra-ethical development is specifically ruled out in the contrast between Abraham and the tragic hero, where the position of the latter is precisely a conflict between ethical norms or levels.[1] Instead the suspension of the ethical places the self in a position completely outside all human community and rationality, asserting their naked particularity in conflict with the universal and unable even to communicate their situation to any other human being.


This essay argues that Fear and Trembling should be read not as an attempt to overthrow ethics in favour of an arbitrary and irrational approach to human behaviour but rather as a response to a perception that within the context of Christianity no coherent and stable justification of ethics is possible. Kierkegaard is here taken to argue that if faith in a loving and transcendent God with direct personal interest in each human being is taken seriously the ethical view of life cannot be maintained. His “teleological suspension of the ethical” is not the statement but the overcoming of this problem, it aims to find a place for ethics beyond the destruction of the ethical view of life by Christianity, as understood by Kierkegaard.


In making this argument this essay bases itself on a restricted and closely related set of Kierkegaardian texts, those most closely concerned with questions of the relation of the ethical and the religious. These are Either/Or II and Fear and Trembling. The reading strategy that is adopted is to regard the texts ascribed to Judge William in Either/Or, and especially ‘Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and Ethical in the Development of Personality’ as definitive of Kierkegaard’s early thinking on the ethical. Fear and Trembling, published later in the same year (1843) is then taken as a further reflection on that definition of the ethical, developing ideas on the relation of the ethical and the religious introduced in the sermon by a friend Judge William includes in ‘Ultimatum’, the last piece in Either/Or.


The first section of the essay thus concerns itself with ‘Equilibrium’ setting out the essential features of the ethical view of life as it is developed in that text. This involves briefly outlining the philosophical anthropology that forms the basis of that text and which is here assumed to be consistent with Kierkegaard’s own. On the basis of this anthropology the relation between the ethical and the aesthetic views of life is sketched and distinctions drawn between the ethical and the ethical view of life and between the aesthetic and the aesthetic view of life. Attention is also drawn to the ways in which the Judge constructs aspects of the ethical view of life specifically in order to make it self-contained and self-supporting so that no religious basis is required for it.


The second section turns to the ‘Ultimatum’ to examine the ways in which the introduction there of the relationship to God undermines the self-confidence of the ethical view of life and opens the way for Fear and Trembling. This involves a brief consideration of the problems posed by theodicy, by the determination of the limits of duty, and of love for God for the ethical self as constructed by Judge William,


Finally themes from Fear and Trembling are developed in light of the understanding of the ethical and its relation to the religious from Either/Or. Significant differences in the way in which the ethical is understood across the two texts are analysed in terms of the different positions of the pseudonymous authors of the two texts to show that the later book represents a different and higher perspective as compared to the first. It is further argued that the suspension of the ethical is presented as necessary if faith is to be possible and considers the nature of faith that is is presupposed by the discovery of such a necessity and the place of the “suspended” ethical in the way of life of one who has such faith.


Judge William’s Ethical View of Life – The Self-Sufficient Ethical Self


Philosophical Anthropology – the aesthetic/immediate and the free self


Judge William’s view of the relation between the ethical view of life he espouses and the aesthetic view to which it is opposed rests on an anthropology in which all the physical and psychical particularity of any given individual can be gathered together under the category of the immediate, the aesthetic considered as an aspect of the self. The difficulty with the aesthetic view of life is that it makes this immediacy in all its variety determinant of the self[2]. This ignores the second aspect of the self which is crucial to the anthropology of Judge William (and of Kierkegaard) the self as opposed to this immediacy in its freedom. That William makes choice central to his account of the ethical is determined by his belief that freedom is the essential aspect of the self as ethical: “if [the self] is viewed ethically, he is regarded in terms of his freedom”[3]. This freedom “in general”[4] has the characteristics of universality and abstraction[5]. To be free in regard to the immediate/aesthetic is acquires the characteristics of the Kantian will in its freedom from these determinations.


However the self remains integral. While the free ethical self can abstract from its concrete determination this abstraction does not cancel them. The free self cannot reinvent itself with a new immediacy, it must take the aesthetic into itself as the basis of its existence:”If one views the ethical as outside the personality and in an external relation to it, then one has abandoned everything, then one has fallen into despair.”[6] This articulation of immediacy and freedom is the heart of the ethical world view as articulated by Judge William.


The ethical self – universal, particular and the nature of duty


The central problem of the aesthetic view of life, in William’s view, is its subordination of the free self to contingent: it is built on “what may be and may not be”[7]. This dependency in respect of the given dooms the aesthete to despair, known or unknown. By contrast the ethical view subordinates the given to the freedom of the self and gains security in itself[8]. This subordination takes place through the act of choice, the either/or that gives the book its title. This choice “will not annihilate the aesthetical but transfigures it”.[9] The free self chooses to be the self it is, but through the choice takes responsibility for and control over it and its significance.


The moment of free choice is universal and abstract, but the self is particular and concrete in that it is the given self that is chosen and this that will be crucial to the development of William’s distinctive conception of duty. William accepts the idea that duty is the content of ethical life but defines duty as the full development of the person’s concrete individuality in the light of the universal: “[H]e has himself as a task, in such sort that the task is principally to order, cultivate, temper, enkindle, repress, in short to bring about a proportionality in the soul, a harmony which is the fruit of the personal virtues”.[10]


The ethical and the ethical view of life


As there is a distinction between the aesthetic, as the simply given contingent concrete reality of the self, and an aesthetic view of life that subordinates the self to this given in the attempt to “enjoy life”[11], so too there is a distinction between the ethical as such and the ethical view of life. ‘Equilibrium’ articulates the ethical view of life which regards the ethical as the highest determination of the self. This means that it needs to determine the ethical in such a way that it should exclude recourse to the religious. Repentance must be contained within the realm of the ethical and possibility of radical ethical failure must be excluded. Thus “ethical repentance has only two movements: either to abolish its object or to bear it”.[12] To ensure this the limits of duty have to be drawn in such a way that it is possible for duty to be fulfilled perfectly and therefore the universal and abstract ethical demand has to be concretised in such a way that it is within the capability of the existent self. The ethical self in the “assurance that his life is ethically planned … reposes with secure confidence and does not torment himself and others”.[13]


Corresponding to this secure confidence is an attitude to God and creation. The temporal “does not exist for God’s sake … but … for man’s sake”[14]. “The enviable thing in human life is that one can come to the aid of the Deity, can understand Him”.[15] The self-positing and self-legislating ethical subject can have full confidence in its abilities to meet the demands of the ethical and can look God in the face as a partner, almost as an equal, in the ethical task.


The Ethical Self in Relation to God – Love and Dependency


The problem of evil in relation to the ethical view of life


The sermon that concludes Either/Or is carefully constructed to undermine the self-confidence of the ethical view of life while leaving the ethical sphere of life undisturbed. It does not attack or controvert William’s view of the grounding of ethics in a duty determined in the abstract universal freedom of the self. Rather it exposes the ethical self to the possibility that it, like the aesthetic, has grounded itself on a foundation (in this case free choice of the self by the self) that cannot sustain a way of life.


The first movement in this direction is a reminder that the lot of the righteous is no better than that of the unrighteous. That events like the destruction of Jerusalem are not part of the everyday reality is of as little relevance as the apparent happiness of the aesthete who is fortunate to acquire the conditions for the enjoyment of life. “The destruction of Jerusalem was a punishment,  and it fell with equal severity upon the innocent and the guilty”.[16] This divine punishment, visited on those who fulfilled their duty as they saw it means that “every uplifting thought which once made you so rich in courage and confidence [seems] merely an illusion”.[17]


Can the limits of duty be determined?


In reinforcing this message that the self-confidence of the ethical view is misplaced the sermon goes on to consider whether the definition of duty as that which I am able to do is sustainable. The preacher reminds his readers that there must always be doubt as to the maximum achievable and furthermore that the judgement whether all possible has been done must be repeated for every action and every moment. This definition of duty in terms of capability (essential to William’s secure possession of himself in the ethical) creates an anxious task that can never be completed.[18]


Love of God and edification in being in the wrong


Having established that ethical self-confidence is misplaced both in respect of God’s treatment of human beings and of the internal logic of the determination of duty the sermon turns to its main point, which is that it is better, more edifying, to believe oneself wrong before God than to believe oneself secure in the possession of oneself as an ethical being.


Here two main lines of thought are pursued: that love will always prefer to find itself in the wrong than to find itself wronged and that in respect of God love is always right in this preference[19]; and that being in the wrong is edifying, that it builds the self up and is therefore to be seen as desirable[20]. It will be apparent that these two ideas correspond to the two preparatory movements. We believe ourselves in the wrong before God because the alternative is to see God’s actions as unjust and because our duty cannot be contained within the limits of what we do.



The Subordinated Ethical – Abraham and the Tragic Hero


Johannes’ version of the ethical – the abrogation of the particular


In the three Problema of Fear and Trembling Johannes offers three complementary definitions of the ethical: as the universal that applies to everybody at every moment and which is the telos for itself and everything else, abrogating all particularity into itself[21]; as the divine which brings all interiority into the open[22]; and hence as the disclosed[23].


This definition of the ethical in terms of universality clearly has much in common with that offered by Judge William but we see a crucial difference in terms of the attitude to the particular and contingent. Where William saw the immediate and particular taken up into the universal and giving freedom its concrete content Johannes stresses the conflict between universal and particular: “As soon as the single individual wants to assert himself in his particularity, in direct opposition to the universal, he sins, and only by recognising this can he again reconcile himself with the universal.”[24]


Here Johannes introduces the idea of sin and it is this that is that brings the ethical view of life to grief: “once sin makes its appearance ethics comes to grief precisely on the question of repentance. Repentance is the highest ethical expression but for that very reason the most profound ethical self-contradiction”.[25] This insight is not available to the ethical view of life, since with it that view collapses, which is why William had to configure the relation of the self to the ethical in such a way as to evade the reality of sin, which began to appear in the Ultimatum.

Suspension of the ethical as the condition of possibility of faith


There is, though, no resource available to the self in itself that will transform the situation as the choice of itself did when faced with aesthetic despair. The movement of free self-reflective choice which created the ethical self and on which the ethical world view based itself exhausts the possibilities of the self in Kierkegaardian anthropology. When faced with the reality that the self despite its best efforts is always in the wrong and that any further attempt to assert itself will constitute sin the only recourse is to God.


In Fear and Trembling there is no attempt to convince the ethical self that it can immanently find its way to the resolution of its difficulty, as William did with the aesthete A. Rather the strategy is to stage a confrontation between faith and ethics where faith comes to the self from outside, as revelation, in the person of Abraham, the father of faith.


Thus each of the Problema is a question: “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?”[26]; “Is there an absolute duty to God?”[27]; “Was it ethically defensible of Abraham to conceal his purpose from Sarah, from Eleazar, from Isaac?”[28] In each case what is demonstrated is that if Abraham is to be other than someone ethically guilty and to be condemned then the answer must be in the affirmative otherwise he is a murderer[29], he is done for.[30] Johannes never states that there is a teleological suspension of the ethical, only that if Abraham is to be the father of faith, if faith is to be possible, there must be.


Faith and the re-inscription of the ethical


If, as Fear and Trembling suggests, the ethical as the universal which subordinates the particular to itself must be suspended for faith to be possible, what are the implications for our understanding of faith, and of the ethical?


The answer to this question can be approached through a consideration of the figure of the knight of faith, introduced in the preamble to the problema. Here faith is not related directly to ethics, rather the knight of faith is compared to the knight of infinite resignation, a figure very different from the ethicist in search of self-security, but this contrast remains instructive in the present context.


The knight of faith recognises that his hold on existence is precarious and tentative in a movement closely analogous to the despair of the aesthetician[31] but by faith retains commitment to it[32]. Rather than moving towards a resigned indifference to the objects of the world, renouncing desire, the knight of faith commits to the worth and value of the given and the goodness of God in this world[33]. It is this faith that enables the ethical to be re-inscribed despite the difficulties discovered in the Ultimatum.




The ethical as such is neither denied nor replaced in Fear and Trembling. The ethical, which is the highest determination of the self by itself, remains the universal demand. What is denied is the view of the subject that it can be self-sufficient and secure in its ethical self-determination. What is experienced by the self that follows the journey to Moriah with Johannes is the dependency of the ethical self on God, a dependency that moves it beyond the ethical view of the world that concentrates on the fulfillment of a self-given duty to the dependency on God that will re-inscribe duty as a loving response to being in the wrong before God.



Connell, G.B., ‘Judge William’s Theonomous Ethics’ in Foundations of Kierkegaard’s Vision of Community ed. Connell and Evans (London: Humanities Press, 1992)

Green, R.M. ‘Kierkegaard’s Great Critique: Either/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction’ in International Kierkegaard Commentary: Either/Or II ed. Perkins, R.L. (Macon: Mercer UP, 1995

Kierkegaard, S., Either/Or Volume 2 . Trans. W Lowrie (London: OUP, 1944)

Kierkegaard, S., Fear and Trembling trans. A. Hannay (London: Penguin, 1985)

Law, D.R. ‘The Place, Role and Function of the “Ultimatum” in Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymous Writings” in  International Kierkegaard Commentary: Either/Or II ed. Perkins, R.L. (Macon: Mercer UP, 1995

Mooney, E.F., ‘Kierkegaard on Self-Choice and Self-Reception: Judge William’s Admonition’ in International Kierkegaard Commentary: Either/Or II ed. Perkins, R.L. (Macon: Mercer UP, 1995)

Perkins, R.L. ‘Either/Or/Or: Giving the Parson his Due’ in  International Kierkegaard Commentary: Either/Or II ed. Perkins, R.L. (Macon: Mercer UP, 1995

Taylor, M.L., ‘Ordeal and Repetition in Kierkegaard’s Treatment of Abraham and Job’ in Foundations of Kierkegaard’s Vision of Community ed. Connell and Evans (London: Humanities Press, 1992)

[1]    S. Kierkegaard (trans. Hannay), Fear and Trembling (London: Penguin, 1985)

[2]    Fear and Trembling  189

[3]    S Kierkegaard (trans. W. Lowrie) Either/Or Volume 2 (London: OUP, 1944) 229

[4]    Ibid. 187

[5]    Ibid. 214

[6]    Ibid. 213

[7]    Ibid.189

[8]    Ibid. 213

[9]    Ibid.212

[10]  Ibid. 219

[11]  Ibid. 155

[12]  Ibid. 208

[13]  Ibid. 215

[14]  Ibid. 209

[15]  Ibid. 210

[16]  Ibid. 285

[17]  Ibid. 285

[18]  Ibid. 286

[19]  Ibid.229

[20]  Ibid.291

[21]  Fear and Trembling 83

[22]  Ibid.96-7

[23]  Ibid. 109

[24]  Ibid. 83

[25]  Ibid. 124

[26]  Ibid.83

[27]  Ibid.96

[28]  Ibid.109

[29]  Ibid. 95

[30]  Ibid. 108 and 144

[31]  Ibid.75

[32]  Ibid. 76

[33]  Ibid.77


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