B TRANSCENDING THE ETHICAL: Whether a ‘Leap of Faith’ is Necessary TRANSCENDING THE ETHICAL: Whether

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  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

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    Transcending the Ethical:
    Whether a ‘Leap of Faith’ is Necessary
    by Taylor V. Smith

    Transcending the Ethical: Whether a ‘Leap of Faith’ is Necessary

    In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard endeavors to address one of philosophy’s most contested inquiries – namely, the relationship between faith and reason. Responding to Hegel’s cold, mechanistic rationalism, Kierkegaard aims to fill an apparent void in Hegel’s theory of ethics: Kierkegaard believes that Hegel’s theory misunderstands the proper role of faith. Kierkegaard seems to accept the Hegelian view of reason, that it is something unfeeling and detached. In contrast to Hegelian reason, Kierkegaard describes faith in terms of passion – indeed, man’s highest passion (146). Faith existing thus as mere passion is thence unreasonable. Thus, in addressing this lack in Hegel’s ethical theory, Kierkegaard develops a theory in which faith and reason are at odds with one another. According to Kierkegaard, “. . . faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (82). This is a clear departure from the view of medieval thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, who emphasized the codependency of faith and reason.

    In Kierkegaard’s mind, the realm of the ethical, the reasonable, may be transcended by faith, which is absurd. When a man makes a leap of faith by virtue of the absurd, thereby coming into an absolute relation to the Absolute, he thenceforth acts in opposition to the ethical. The predicament created by Kierkegaard’s view is this: if a man acts outside of the realm of the ethical, no objective moral statements can be made of him. Morality, for a person in absolute relation to the Absolute, becomes subjective. Worse, because communication from the demonic comes in silence – the same form as communication from the divine – there is no test to distinguish between demonic and divine communication (114-115). It is because of this paradox, united with the ability to choose freely, that a man of faith must exercise his will in fear and trembling.

    According to Kierkegaard, if Abraham is justified in choosing to sacrifice Isaac, then there must be a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham, choosing to obey God in spite of his ethical duty, is justified in acting as he did, for he relates absolutely to the Absolute. Thus, Kierkegaard concludes, there is a teleological suspension of the ethical. While Kierkegaard, in critiquing the Hegelian system’s deficient view of faith, does address a legitimate problem, objections may be raised against his own ethical theory. First, it may be challenged that, by arguing for the preferentiality of the religious over the ethical, Kierkegaard simply creates a “higher” or “super-ethical” realm. Second, once God communicates this “higher ethics” to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, a natural bridge between the ethical and the religious is established, ultimately making a leap of faith unnecessary. In this essay, this author will, first, attempt to explain Kierkegaard’s argument more fully. Second, this author will seek to establish that Kierkegaard’s argument is unsound, as it is contingent upon an unnecessary assertion. By making it clear that it is better for a person to act in accordance with the religious realm, Kierkegaard defeats the need for a leap of faith.

    To begin, Kierkegaard argues that, unless Abraham is to be viewed as a murderer, there must be a teleological suspension of the ethical (95). Kierkegaard defines the ethical as the universal, which establishes morality for all of mankind. In addition to being equally binding on all, it is the telos for all things existing outside of it (83). However, Kierkegaard, using the Biblical account of Abraham to illustrate an apparent incongruity between the ethical and God’s private requisites, argues that there is something higher than the ethical.

    The ethical demands that Abraham love his son (88). Yet, in contrast to this universal demand, God makes a private requirement of Abraham. God commands that Abraham prove his faith by sacrificing Isaac, his only son (ibid.). Abraham is, thus, faced with an ordeal: should he resign himself to obedience to the ethical, or should he, by the strength of the absurd, transcend the ethical and obey God’s demand? Kierkegaard maintains that Abraham, out of his love for God, chooses to forsake reason’s ethical dictates to hope for something higher: he hopes for the impossible, the absurd (64-66). Because of this decision, Abraham surpasses all tragic heroes in greatness, ultimately becoming the knight of faith (85-86). Thus, Kierkegaard establishes that there is something that exists beyond the ethical which, by virtue of its being higher, suspends the ethical. If this is not the case, then Abraham is a murderer.

    Secondly, Kierkegaard argues that Abraham is justified because, by placing himself in absolute relation to God, he transcended the ethical. The duty of ethics, which demands that Abraham love his son, only applies to Abraham insofar as he exists in the universal. Yet, once he puts himself, as an individual, in absolute relation to the Absolute, he is no longer bound by the ethical (90). This movement beyond the ethical – beyond the rational – to the religious realm requires a leap of faith. In the realm of mere ethical, Abraham is an unpardonable murderer. However, through a leap of faith, Abraham leaves behind the rational realm of the ethical and supersedes his ethical duty. Thus, because Abraham chooses to relate to the Absolute absolutely, he is justified in acting as he did.

    If Kierkegaard’s logic is good and if both of his premises are true, it necessarily follows that his conclusion is sound. Kierkegaard’s logic is certainly good, his argument being valid in form. However, objections may be raised in opposition to his premises. First, it seems that Kierkegaard’s theory of the religious realm is merely an appeal to a “higher ethics.” Second, once God makes known to a man His private will, the choice to obey God is no longer unreasonable, which ultimately renders a leap of faith unnecessary.

    First, in Kierkegaard’s dichotomy between the ethical and the religious, it is better to move to the higher realm of the religious. Despite his assertion that he cannot understand Abraham’s actions, Kierkegaard consistently praises Abraham as the father of faith, honoring him above all tragic heroes, for the knight of faith, to Kierkegaard, is higher than the tragic hero. However, by establishing the religious as something better than the ethical, Kierkegaard has merely created a higher or super-ethical realm. In this higher ethical realm, Abraham becomes an expression of the will of God, despite his ethical duty (88). Yet, in asserting this, Kierkegaard is merely establishing that it is more right – in a sense, more ethical – to obey God’s will, regardless of the universal demands the ethical makes of a man. Thus, it is apparent that, by arguing for the preferentiality of the religious realm over the realm of the ethical, Kierkegaard is ultimately saying that obeying God is a higher “ethical” calling.

    Second, by arguing that a man can suspend the ethical in order to choose something higher, Kierkegaard removes the knight of faith’s need to take a leap of faith. The knight of faith, being in absolute relation to the Absolute, acts as an expression of God’s privately revealed will. Despite the temptation to return to the ethical, the knight of faith freely chooses to act according God will. He makes this decision because, by placing himself in absolute relation to the Absolute, he exists closer to God. Yet, as soon as God’s private will is known to him, his decision to obey God is no longer absurd. If a man can see beyond the ethical to the religious and, subsequently, can freely choose to act in the religious realm because it is better to do so, his choice becomes reasonable. Once his choice has become reasonable, there is no longer a gulf of absurdity between the ethical and the religious. In the absence of an absurd, a “leap of faith,” as Kierkegaard describes, is unnecessary. Thus, it is evident that, once God communicates to a man His private will – that is, God communicates a “higher ethical” realm – a leap of faith is no longer necessary, for the man reasonably chooses to act in adherence to what is highest.

    In summary, although Kierkegaard appropriately criticizes Hegel’s cold, dispassionate notion of faith, his own theory of ethics is faulty. By arguing for a realm that is more appropriate, or more preferential to abide in than the ethical realm, Kierkegaard merely creates another ethical realm. Additionally, even if this higher ethical realm is understood only by the knight of faith, because it is known to the knight of faith, it is not unreasonable or absurd for him to act as an expression of this higher ethics. In the absence of this element of absurdity, a leap of faith becomes unnecessary. Therefore, it is clear that Kierkegaard’s argument for a teleological suspension of the ethical is unsound, as it depends on a flawed premise. In establishing a higher, more ethical realm than the ethical itself, Kierkegaard ultimately defeats the need for a leap of faith.
     

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