Some Thoughts on “Fear & Trembling”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but haven’t had the opportunity until now, so here it goes.  I want to explore some of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims or themes in his book Fear and Trembling.  Kierkegaard regarded himself as a Christian and so there are a lot of literary themes revolving around faith and the religious life, but he also centers a lot of his philosophy around the subjective individual, all of which I’d like to look at in more detail.

In Fear and Trembling, we hear about the story found in Genesis (Ch. 22) where Abraham attempts to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac, after hearing God command him to do so.  For those unfamiliar with this biblical story, after they journey out to mount Moriah he binds Isaac to an alter, and as Abraham draws his knife to slit the throat of his beloved son, an angel appears just in time and tells him to stop “for now I know that you fear God”.  Then Abraham sees a goat nearby and sacrifices it instead of his son.  Kierkegaard uses this story in various ways, and considers four alternative versions of it (and their consequences), to explicate the concept of faith as admirable though fundamentally incomprehensible and unintelligible.

He begins his book by telling us about a man who has deeply admired this story of Abraham ever since he first heard it as a child, with this admiration for it growing stronger over time while understanding the story less and less.  The man considers four alternative versions of the story to try and better understand Abraham and how he did what he did, but never manages to obtain this understanding.

I’d like to point out here that an increased confusion would be expected if the man has undergone moral and intellectual growth during his journey from childhood to adulthood.  We tend to be more impulsive, irrational and passionate as children, with less regard for any ethical framework to live by.  And sure enough, Kierkegaard even mentions the importance of passion in making a leap of faith.  Nevertheless, as we continue to mature and accumulate life experience, we tend to develop some control over our passions and emotions, we build up our intellect and rationality, and also further develop an ethic with many ethical behaviors becoming habituated if cultivated over time.  If a person cultivates moral virtues like compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, then it would be expected that they’d find Abraham’s intended act of murder (let alone filicide) repugnant.  But, regardless of the reasons for the man’s lack of understanding, he admires the story more and more, likely because it reveres Abraham as the father of faith, and portrays faith itself as a most honorable virtue.

Kierkegaard’s main point in Fear and Trembling is that one has to suspend their relation to the ethical (contrary to Kant and Hegel), in order to make any leap of faith, and that there’s no rational decision making process involved.  And so it seems clear that Kierkegaard knows that what Abraham did in this story was entirely unethical (attempting to kill an innocent child) in at least one sense of the word ethical, but he believes nevertheless that this doesn’t matter.

To see where he’s coming from, we need to understand Kierkegaard’s idea that there are basically three ways or stages of living, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends.  This of course, is known as a form of divine command theory, which is actually an ethical and meta-ethical theory.  Although Kierkegaard claims that the religious is somehow above the ethical, it is for the most part just another way of living that involves another ethical principle.  In this case, the ethical principle is for one to do whatever God commands them to (even if these commands are inconsistent or morally repugnant from a human perspective), and this should be done rather than abiding by our moral conscience or some other set of moral rules, social mores, or any standards based on human judgment, human nature, etc.

It appears that the primary distinction between the ethical and the religious is the leap of faith that is made in the latter stage of living which involves an act performed “in virtue of the absurd”.  For example, Abraham’s faith in God was really a faith that God wouldn’t actually make him kill his son Isaac.  Had Abraham been lacking in this particular faith, Kierkegaard seems to argue that Abraham’s conscience and moral perspective (which includes “the universal”) would never have allowed him to do what he did.  Thus, Abraham’s faith, according to Kierkegaard, allowed him to (at least temporarily) suspend the ethical in virtue of the absurd notion that somehow the ethical would be maintained in the end.  In other words, Abraham thought that he could obey God’s command, even if this command was prima facie immoral, because he had faith that God wouldn’t actually make Abraham perform an unethical act.

I find it interesting that this particular function or instantiation of faith, as outlined by Kierkegaard, makes for an unusual interpretation of divine command theory.  If divine command theory attempts to define good or moral behavior as that which God commands, and if a leap of faith (such as that which Abraham took) can involve a belief that the end result of an unconscionable commandment is actually its negation or retraction, then a leap of faith such as that taken by Abraham would serve to contradict divine command theory to at least some degree.  It would seem that Kierkegaard wants to believe in the basic premise of divine command theory and therefore have an absolute duty to obey whatever God commands, and yet he also wants to believe that if this command goes against a human moral system or the human conscience, it will not end up doing so when one goes to carry out what has actually been commanded of them.  This seems to me to be an unusual pair of beliefs for one to hold simultaneously, for divine command theory allows for Abraham to have actually carried out the murder of his son (with no angel stopping him at the last second), and this heinous act would have been considered a moral one under such an awful theory.  And yet, Abraham had faith that this divine command would somehow be nullified and therefore reconciled with his own conscience and relation to the universal.

Kierkegaard has something to say about beliefs, and how they differ from faith-driven dispositions, and it’s worth noting this since most of us use the term “belief” as including that which one has faith in.  For Kierkegaard, belief implies that one is assured of its truth in some way, whereas faith requires one to accept the possibility that what they have faith in could be proven wrong.  Thus, it wasn’t enough for Abraham to believe in an absolute duty to obey whatever God commanded of him, because that would have simply been a case of obedience, and not faith.  Instead, Abraham also had to have faith that God would let Abraham spare his son Isaac, while accepting the possibility that he may be proven wrong and end up having to kill his son after all.  As such, Kierkegaard wouldn’t accept the way the term “faith” is often used in modern religious parlance.  Religious practitioners often say that they have faith in something and yet “know it to be true”, “know it for certain”, “know it will happen”, etc.  But if Abraham truly believed (let alone knew for certain) that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, then God’s command wouldn’t have served as any true test of faith.  So while Abraham may have believed that he had to kill his son, he also had faith that his son wouldn’t die, hence making a leap of faith in virtue of the absurd.

This distinction between belief and faith also seems to highlight Kierkegaard’s belief in some kind of prophetic consequentialist ethical framework.  Whereas most Christians tend to side with a Kantian deontological ethical system, Kierkegaard points out that ethical systems have rules which are meant to promote the well-being of large groups of people.  And since humans lack the ability to see far into the future, it’s possible that some rules made under this kind of ignorance may actually lead to an end that harms twenty people and only helps one.  Kierkegaard believes that faith in God can answer this uncertainty and circumvent the need to predict the outcome of our moral rules by guaranteeing a better end given the vastly superior knowledge that God has access to.  And any ethical system that appeals to the ends as justifying the means is a form of consequentialism (utilitarianism is perhaps the most common type of ethical consequentialism).

Although I disagree with Kiergegaard on a lot of points, such as his endorsement of divine command theory, and his appeal to an epistemologically bankrupt behavior like taking a leap of faith, I actually agree with Kierkegaard on his teleological ethical reasoning.  He’s right in his appealing to the ends in order to justify the means, and he’s right to want maximal knowledge involved in determining how best to achieve those ends.  It seems clear to me that all moral systems ultimately break down to a form of consequentialism anyway (a set of hypothetical imperatives), and any disagreement between moral systems is really nothing more than a disagreement about what is factual or a disagreement about which consequences should be taken into account (e.g. happiness of the majority, happiness of the least well off, self-contentment for the individual, how we see ourselves as a person, etc.).

It also seems clear that if you are appealing to some set of consequences in determining what is and is not moral behavior, then having maximal knowledge is your best chance of achieving those ends.  But we can only determine the reliability of the knowledge by seeing how well it predicts the future (through inferred causal relations), and that means we can only establish the veracity of any claimed knowledge through empirical means.  Since nobody has yet been able to establish that a God (or gods) exists through any empirical means, it goes without saying that nobody has been able to establish the veracity of any God-knowledge.

Lacking the ability to test this, one would also need to have faith in God’s knowledge, which means they’ve merely replaced one form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual ends of human moral systems) with another form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual knowledge of God).  Since the predicted versus actual ends of our moral systems can actually be tested, while the knowledge of God cannot, then we have a greater uncertainty in God’s knowledge than in the efficacy and accuracy of our own moral systems.  This is a problem for Kierkegaard, because his position seems to be that the leap of faith taken by Abraham was essentially grounded on the assumption that God had superior knowledge to achieve the best telos, and thus his position is entirely unsupportable.

Aside from the problems inherent in Kierkegaard’s beliefs about faith and God, I do like his intense focus on the priority of the individual.  As mentioned already, both the aesthetic and religious ways of life that have been described operate on this individual level.  However, one criticism I have to make about Kierkegaard’s life-stage trichotomy is that morality/ethics actually does operate on the individual level even if it also indirectly involves the community or society at large.  And although it is not egotistic like the aesthetic life is said to be, it is egoistic because rational self-interest is in fact at the heart of all moral systems that are consistent and sufficiently motivating to follow.

If you maximize your personal satisfaction and life fulfillment by committing what you believe to be a moral act over some alternative that you believe will make you less fulfilled and thus less overall satisfied (such as not obeying God), then you are acting for your own self-interest (by obeying God), even if you are not acting in an explicitly selfish way.  A person can certainly be wrong about what will actually make them most satisfied and fulfilled, but this doesn’t negate one’s intention to do so.  Acting for the betterment of others over oneself (i.e. living by or for “the universal”) involves behaviors that lead you to a more fulfilling life, in part based on how those actions affect your view of yourself and your character.  If one believes in gods or a God, then their perspective on their belief of how God sees them will also affect their view of themselves.  In short, a properly formulated ethics is centered around the individual even if it seems otherwise.

Given the fact that Kierkegaard seems to have believed that the ethical life revolved around the universal rather than the individual, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would choose to elevate some kind of individualistic stage of life, namely the religious life, over that of the ethical.  It would be interesting to see how his stages of life may have looked had he believed in a more individualistic theory of ethics.  I find that an egoistic ethical framework actually fits quite nicely with the rest of Kierkegaard’s overtly individualistic philosophy.

He ends this book by pointing out that passion is required in order to have faith, and passion isn’t something that somebody can teach us, unlike the epistemic fruits of rational reflection.  Instead, passion has to be experienced firsthand in order for us to understand it at all.  He contrasts this passion with the disinterested intellectualization involved in reflection, which was the means used in Hegel’s approach to try and understand faith.

Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Hegel’s method will suffice since it isn’t built upon a fundamentally subjective experiential foundation and instead tries to understand faith and systematize it through an objective analysis based on logic and rational reflection.  Although I see logic and rational reflection as most important for best achieving our overall happiness and life fulfillment, I can still appreciate the significant role of passion and felt experience within the human condition, our attraction to it, and it’s role in religious belief.  I can also appreciate how our overall satisfaction and life fulfillment are themselves instantiated and evaluated as a subjective felt experience, and one that is entirely individualistic.  And so I can’t help but agree with Kierkegaard, in recognizing that there is no substitute for a subjective experience, and no way to adequately account for the essence of those experiences through entirely non-subjective (objective) means.

The individual subject and their conscious experience is of primary importance (it’s the only thing we can be certain exists), and the human need to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world is perhaps the most important facet of that ongoing conscious experience.  Even though I disagree with a lot of what Kierkegaard believed, it wasn’t all bull$#!+.  I think he captured and expressed some very important points about the individual and some of the psychological forces that color the view of our personal identity and our own existence.

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