Self-Love as the Foundation of Kierkegaard’s Ethics

I’ve just got through grading last semester’s courses and submitting grades at the two universities in Istanbul I was giving courses last semester, one full time and one part time. The process of grading overlapped with getting next courses ready, and it’s been an intense time. It’s left with me with a few ideas which I hope to keep developing. Some of this comes from what I feel I did not convince students of last semester. I usually get that when I’m teaching Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and I spent 8 weeks on them in an Ethics course last semester, after working through Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Hegel. The other figure I might have that problem with is Machiavelli. I’m teaching him in a Politics course next semester, but I’m teaching the overtly Republican Discourses (pdf download) instead of the merely covertly Republican Prince (pdf download), in the hope that cuts out all the Machiavelli was a life style coach for power junkies kind of stuff. Machiavelli may well feature in future blogs.

My immediate concern is the tendency to see Kierkegaard as a Christian Moralist. This is a misleading way of looking at Kierkegaard, with respect to both words. That is an absurd thing to say in some sense, as Kierkegaard devoted himself to Christianity and to Christ as the supreme moralist. There are strong reasons for rejecting this label for Kierkegaard though. In his philosophical arguments (as opposed to his declarations of faith, and even those are still conditioned by the philosophy), the problem is what it is to be a self.

I chose to illustrate this in my Ethics class with a thorough look at Part I of Works of Love. That seems like a high risk place to start a non-theological and non- Fideist reading of Kierkegaard. The non-Theological reading emphasises Kierkegaard’s Enlightenment attitude to the metaphysical reality of Christianity, which is that there is no objective reality established for Christianity. The non-Fideist reading emphasises that Kierkegaard does not put pure unmotivated faith at the beginning of his thought. The Fideist interpretation of Kierkegaard partly relies on the widespread myth that Kierkegaard advocated a ‘a leap of faith’, a phrase he never used. In general it ignores the structure of argument in which a relation within the self in Kierkegaard is a relation between the empirical self and the absolute self. In genral it ignores Kierkegaard’s use of dialectic. It is ‘dialectic of the absurd’ but it is still a dialectic. Kierkegaard advocated a passion for paradox, which is sill a rational philosophical exercise in finding paradoxes of reason. Philip Quinn’s argument for a Divine Command Ethics does not rest on an irrationalist form of Fideism in its reading of Kierkegaard, but its emphasis on the acceptance of divine command as absolute is still failing to engage with the question of subjectivity in Kierkegaard.

The Christian readings of Kierkegaard cannot deal with Kierkegaard because they cannot deal with his approach to subjectivity, which is at work in all his texts, including both the ‘aesthetic’ texts of literary philosophy and the ‘Christian’ texts of Biblically based faith. We will see how this works in the highly Christian looking Works of Love. This is centrally concerned with a philosophical problem of moral motivation taken from Kant, as interpreted by Hegel. Kierkegaard deals with the question of why we should obey law if it exists in the univeral rational form suggested by Kant. What motivates the individual to follow law? It is Hegel who suggested that an absolute gap opens between subjective inclination in Kant and the abstract universality of law. Kierkegaard has a solution in love.

Christ commands us to love. Kierkegaard looks at that injunction itself, before looking at hiw it applies to ‘God’, ‘the neighbour’ and so on. In the Bible (pdf download), Christ says you shall love, or you ought to love as Kierkegaard says in an echo of Kant’s formulation of moral law as a universal ought. The command to love, however, is not a command to follow abstract duty, it is a command to be what you already are, to become what you are, since love is part of human inclinations and needs.

The command to love your neighbour comes out of the command to love (again echoing Kant on respect for humanity) through self-love. I can only love my neighbour if I can already love myself. The command to love the neighbour is the command to love yourself and then love what you see of yourself in the neighbour. The command to love God continues on this basis since it is the command to love the absolute in myself.

Kierkegaard is not a ‘moralist’ since he puts our capacity for ethical judgement on the grounds of out subjectivity, not of the duty to obey external commands. The subjectivity itself is not Christian in the sense of giving ethical commands from God which are external to us.

Therefore, we do not read Kierkegaard in all his philosophical riches if we assume that his philosophy leads us to an extra-rational faith, or willingness to follow external commands. Truth is already in us and becomes apparent in the subjectivity of life, without reference to the historical truth of the Bible or the external existence of God.

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One thought on “Self-Love as the Foundation of Kierkegaard’s Ethics

  1. your wrong. Ha don’t take that personally. One who loves his neighbor equally seeks not his own. Searching for that which he doesn’t have, he is first in love with a beautiful body, then two, then a beautiful mind, then a beautiful law, then the notion behind the law, then absolute beauty itself. He has no self to love; he just loves, plain and simple. But I am sure you have heard those statements before.

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