VIRTUE ETHICS IN KIERKEGAARD
A Paper Presented To
The American Catholic Philosophical Association
November 22–24, 2019
Timothy L. Jacobs
University of St.Thomas, Houston
ABSTRACT There has been some debate whether Kierkegaard’s ethics should be interpreted as exhibiting a virtue ethic. John J. Davenport interprets Kierkegaard as presenting a teleology in human nature, as does classical virtue ethics, but with the end, or telos, being authenticity instead of the moral virtues constituting eudaimonia. Others, such as Norman Lillegard, interpret Kierkegaard as being a virtue ethicist that distinguishes between moral virtues and aesthetic virtues. Still others, like Philip Quinn, reject the thesis that Kierkegaard is a classical virtue ethicist in any sense, and others, like C. Stephen Evans and Robert C. Roberts interpret him as agreeing with classical virtue ethics and supplementing it with additional contributions. I will argue in sympathy with Evans and Roberts that Kierkegaard is compatible with classical virtue ethics. Three aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought will be considered: (1) passion and interestedness, (2) authenticity as an existential virtue, and (3) Christian character and practice in classical virtues.
VIRTUE ETHICS IN KIERKEGAARD
There has been some debate on whether Kierkegaard’s ethics should be interpreted as exhibiting a virtue ethic. John J. Davenport interprets Kierkegaard as presenting a teleology in human nature, as does classical virtue ethics, but with the end, or telos, being authenticity instead of the moral virtues constituting eudaimonia. Norman Lillegard claims Kierkegaard’s virtue ethic distinguishes between moral virtues and aesthetic virtues. Philip Quinn rejects the thesis that Kierkegaard is a classical virtue ethicist in any sense. C. Stephen Evans and Robert C.
Roberts interpret Kierkegaard as agreeing with classical virtue ethics but supplementing it with additional contributions. I will argue in sympathy with Evans and Roberts that Kierkegaard is compatible with classical virtue ethics, while still maintaining some reservations to this interpretation. Three aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought will be considered: (1) passion and interestedness, (2) authenticity as an existential virtue, and (3) Christian character and practice in classical virtues. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a survey of interpretations of
Kierkegaard, a comprehensive investigation of his texts, or an exhaustive comparison between
Kierkegaard and classical virtue theorists, like Aristotle and Aquinas. The following argument serves as an apologetic for reading Kierkegaard as friendly to classical virtue ethics and does not aim to develop or advocate a Kierkegaardian normative theory.
Passion and Interestedness
An interpretive clarification of Kierkegaard’s motive should be made clear at the outset.
His support of getting beyond the “ethical stage” (also described as the “rational stage”) is for the purpose of reaching the religious stage through a leap of faith characterized by authenticity. This is sometimes articulated by Kierkegaard as a many-stage process and sometimes as a two-stage
Jacobs 3 process.1 Shunning modernist objectivism in the form of Hegelian or Kantian ethics, Kierkegaard sees the pursuit of a meaningful life through rationalistic means as harmful in its treatment of meaning as an object. He fears that his Danish culture will continue to treat ethics as passionless contemplation that sacrifices the value of the individual for a deontic view of right action devoid of passion or interest. This sterile, dead, and hypocritical ethic opposes his religious loyalties, and his ultimate goal is to rejuvinate authenticity in his religion. Understanding Kierkegaard’s motive provides necessary context for investigating whether his ethic is compatible with classical virtue ethics.
Investigating compatibility may begin with passion and interestedness in ethics. In his disdain for the subject-object divide, Kierkegaard says, “When the question [of ethics] is treated in an objective manner it becomes impossible for the subject to face the decision with passion, least of all with an infinitely interested passion if at all.”2 Kierkegaard claims that the pursuit of a meaningful life through rationalistic mechanisms divorced from reference to a subjective aspect also divorces the subject from a meaningful life. He says,
[When someone embraces objectivity] by forgetting that one is an existing subject, passion goes by the board, and the truth is no longer a paradox; the knowing subject becomes a fantastic entity rather than a human being, and the truth becomes a fantastic object for the knowledge of this fantastic entity.3
Kierkegaard treats passion is a prerequisite for a truly meaningful life. Kierkegaard is often interpreted as emphasizing passion over rationality to the point of advocating an irrational
“leap of faith” that is an exertion of will without wisdom. Alasdair MacIntyre says Kierkegaard’s
1 For example, Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 2003), 71–80. 2 Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated by D. F. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 26-35. 3 Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 26-35.
Jacobs 4 religious stage over the ethical stage is an “epitaph of the Enlightenment's systematic attempt to discover a rational justification for morality.”4 As such, his conception of the “ethical stage” is essentially rationalistic and deontic.5 MacIntyre presents Kierkegaard as irrecoverably influenced by Hegel and Kant in his ethical thinking. Life for Kierkegaard requires continual acts of will, or leaps of faith, which are expressions of passion that overcome deontic, rationalistic, disinterested ethics. MacIntyre is says that Kierkegaard presents a dichotomy between ethics as Kantian versus Kierkegaard’s own passionate interested ethic without recourse to or explicit consideration of Aristotle or Aquinas. It is to Aquinas that I now turn in order to rescue
Kierkegaard from interpretations that see him as unfriendly towards virtue theory.
Aquinas does not emphasize passion as having as much of a central role as Kierkegaard does, but Auinas does say that passion is necessary for the virtuous life, the life lived in accordance with reason. Passion is found in the sensitive appetite that must obey reason. Aquinas does not claim with Kant that passion is contrary to morality, as MacIntyre’s Kierkegaard claims.
“Utilitarianism requires [someone] to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”7 One should be willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the “greater good.” Acting out of sentiment is wrong for Aquinas as well, since acting from emotion is not acting by wisdom. However, since the virtues, particularly courage and temperance, are for
4 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 39. 5 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 70–80. 6 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H. J. Paton (London: Hutchinson, 1948). 7 J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, translated by John Cottingham, in Western Philosophy: An Anthology, edited by John Cottingham (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).
Aquinas located in the sensitive appetite, a virtuous action does act from passion if that passion has been habituated to follow reason. He says, “It belongs to the perfection of man's good that his passions be moderated by reason.”8 “If the passions be taken for inordinate emotions, they cannot be in a virtuous man, so that he consent to them deliberately; as the Stoics maintained.
But if the passions be taken for any movements of the sensitive appetite, they can be in a virtuous man, in so far as they are subordinate to reason.”9 “Moral virtue perfects the appetitive part of the soul by directing it to good as defined by reason.”10 Aquinas agrees with the Stoic and
Kantian claim that an action that comes from inordinate passion is wrong, but in virtuous actions, orderly passions cannot be absent. He says, “It belongs to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite.”11 Where the Stoics see virtue as devoid of passion, Aquinas says that “it is plain that moral virtues, which are about the passions as about their proper matter, cannot be without passions. . . . Otherwise it would follow that moral virtue makes the sensitive appetite altogether idle.”12 Although Kierkegaard is not as clear or systematic in relating passion and reason, clearly his rejection of Kantian disinterest is in one accord with Aquinas’s support of passion in rejecting Stoicism.
Authenticity as an Existential Virtue
Kierkegaard’s “authenticity” presents the next investigation for compatibility. Davenport says that Kierkegaard’s conception of freedom and dispositional character provide the basis for
8 ST I-II.24.3. All translations of the Summa Theologiæ (ST) are from St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Benziger Bros. ed. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1947. 9 ST I-II.59.2. 10 ST I-II.59.4. 11 ST I-II.24.3. 12 ST I-II.59.5.
Jacobs 6 an existential virtue ethic.13 This ethic replaces eudaimonia with authenticity as the proper human telos.14 Authenticity is defined as “practical coherence among earnestly willed projects that can give narrative shape and enduring meaning to a human life.”15 C. Stephen Evans adds that Kierkegaard sees authentic selfhood as fulfilling one’s duties in accordance with faith.16
Davenport recounts that existentialism and virtue ethics have typically been considered incompatible since they encountered each other in MacIntyre’s After Virtue.17 Virtue ethics, in Davenport’s summary, “views moral character as a matter of habit or disposition, without any concern for freedom.”18 Existentialism, on the other hand, “puts all the emphasis on a freedom so absolute that stable character becomes inconceivable — a freedom so arbitrary that it must select its guiding values themselves for no reason in an absurd and groundless choice.”19 Where virtue ethics sees a person’s life as influenced and created by one’s community, existentialism sees a person’s life as radical self-determination and self-generation. Davenport claims that these are caricatures. In Kierkegaard we find a conjunction of virtue ethics and existentialism. In part, this caricatured division is due to MacIntyre’s dichotomy between Nietzsche and Aristotle and a retroactive and anachronistic interpretation of Kierkegaard that eisegetes the later existentialism of Sartre and Camus into Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith.”
13Davenport, John J, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 265; See also Grene, Marjorie, "Authenticity: An Existential Virtue," Ethics 62, no. 4 (July 1952), 265. 14 Davenport, John J, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics: Kierkegaard and MacIntyre,” In Kierkegaard After MacIntyre, edited by John J. Davenport and Anthony Rudd (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 265 ; See also Grene, Marjorie, "Authenticity: An Existential Virtue," Ethics 62, no. 4 (July 1952): 266-274. 15 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 265. 16 C. Stephen Evans, “Introduction,” In Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), xxviii. 17 MacIntyre, After Virtue. 18 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 266. 19 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 266.
In response to this caricature, Davenport presents Kierkegaard as a kind of virtue ethicist, not identical with MacIntyre or Aristotle, but sharing many similarities. (1) First, Kierkegaard’s focus is on motivation and the overall trajectory of one’s entire life instead of on individual actions.20 In the ethical life-stage, one should obtain the entire spectrum of classical virtues in order to achieve ethical maturity. Davenport calls these classical virtues “proto-virtues” in
Kierkegaard’s thinking, since a further life stage is imminent. (2) Second, the ethical person is depicted by Kierkegaard as one who can evaluate one’s own actions and motives in reference to virtues. The ability to contrast good and evil depends on character. (3) Third, evaluation based on character is opposed to consequentialism. It is important to note that Davenport acknowledges that although Kierkegaard’s ethic is “aretaic,” he often presents Kierkegaard’s ethic in terms of deontic duty and obligation. This consents too much to MacIntyre’s interpretation of
Kierkegaard as being influenced by Kant.
Fourth (4), Kierkegaard advocates certain types of character-traits that are formed by habits and attitudes that begin in childhood. Davenport agrees with Robert C. Robert’s observation that Kierkegaard holds Christian piety to be more likely served by influencing a child in Christian habit than it would be by theological study. One may recall the different pedagogies of Plato’s mere contemplation and Aristotle’s habit-forming imitation and repetition.
Aristotle certainly held a prime place for a good upbringing in pedagogy. (5) Fifth, Davenport claims that Kierkegaard agrees with Augustine and Aquinas that virtue is connected with attaining beatitude.21
20 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 271-273. 21 Ibid.
Davenport also points out that Kierkegaard differs from classical virtue ethics in maintaining only a minimal teleology of self-definition and remaining authentic to that definition.22 The chief virtue of Kierkegaard’s new teleology is that an agent should remain authentic to their chosen pursuit, maintaining integrity in their self-determination. In this structure, the classical virtues are considered proto-virtues. A virtue like courage is required in the ethical life and is even required for leaping beyond the ethical life, but once a person has leapt to the next life-stage, one’s aesthetic pursuit of their self-determined telos is to express the character quality of authenticity. Where MacIntyre says that virtue allows for the self to have unity as described by the overall narrative of one’s life, Davenport says of Kierkegaard, “The serious aesthetic agent’s entire attention is directed outward, and he lacks reflexive earnest concern about maintaining and ordering his commitments to form a stable identity over time.”23 However, this state of aesthetic existence cannot be maintained indefinitely without compromising authenticity. According to Kierkegaard, recourse to moral norms is required for the agent because, although the agent overcomes them, they provide the fundamental motivational set of character traits, or requisite proto-virtues, that point beyond themselves to the aesthetic life. Although Davenport’s interpretation is helpful in drawing out authenticity as a particularly important virtue in Kierkegaard, his interpretation falters when he claims that authenticity becomes the telos rather than characterizing the pursuit of the telos. When Kierkegaard advocates the teleological suspension of the ethical, the “ethical stage” in question is the rationalistic, disinterested deontology of Kant or Hegel, not the suspension of all ethics.
This becomes clear when one sees that we must suspend this manmade ethic for the sake of the telos of the life lived according to a divine command ethic. God’s wisdom is not man’s wisdom, and we suspend the latter for the former. A certain kind of relationship to God is the telos, not
22 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 290. 23 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 293.
Jacobs 9 authenticity for authenticity’s sake.24 This telos comes by means of the leap of faith that displays authentic “true and undefiled religion.”25 Likewise, the paradoxical nature of the life of faith does not point to its irrationality but rather to the fact that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”26 In Aquinas, virtue is not the goal — God is — and virtue is part of the life lived in union with God. Likewise, Kierkegaard says that relationship with God is the goal, and this continues to affirm the ethical so long as it is pursued with authenticity and not with the rationalistic hypocrisy of a Pharisee.
Kierkegaard’s virtue of authenticity affirms teleology not by becoming a new telos but by uniting the person to the telos, which is union with God. Much like Aquinas’s virtue of prudence, it unites the virtues and orders them beyond themselves to the true telos, relationship with God. 27 Though Kierkegaard’s virtue of authenticity speaks nothing of ordering the person by reason, it does speak of ordering the person to their ultimate telos. The leap of faith is a risk and a paradox only insofar as it is actually not a contradiction to suspend human reason for the sake of the telos, but is only an apparent contradiction from a worldly point of view as it suspends rationalistic ethics for the sake of divine command.
Character and Practice in Classical Virtues
Norman Lillegard, interpreting Kierkegaard as sympathetic to virtue theory, claims that
Kierkegaard should be considered in line with the classical tradition rather than Enlightenment or
24 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 70–80. 25 See James 1:27. 26 See 1 Corinthians 1:25. 27 Aquinas says that prudence directs all the virtues. All moral virtues participate in prudence as prudence unites them and orders them to the ultimate end. “Prudence is essentially an intellectual virtue. But considered on the part of its matter, it has something in common with the moral virtues: for it is right reason about things to be done.” ST I-II.58.3.ad.1.
Post-Enlightenment ethicists.28 Kierkegaard is concerned with leading people to certain kinds of character traits, not certain kinds of isolated actions or rules. Lillegard sees Kierkegaard’s ethic as not contrary to reason, as MacIntyre claims, but instead as expressing classical virtues.
Lillegard admits that “not everything [Kierkegaard] says on the ethical fits neatly together.”29
Likewise, C. Stephen Evans and Robert C. Roberts say that “perhaps no concept is used in more different ways than the concept of ‘the ethical.’ This makes any attempt to summarize . . . what
Kierkegaard said about ethics a hopeless undertaking.”30 Evans and Roberts do, however, point out that Kierkegaard views himself as calling people to an ethical way of life, not one that merely plays at ethics academically, contemplates it in a way that is passionless and disconnected from life, or rejects it entirely.31
It is evident, says Roberts and Evans, that Kierkegaard’s goal is to cultivate virtue in his peers, not to reject ethics in a proto-Nietzschean nihilism.32 Kierkegaard seeks instead to revive authentic Christianity in his society through the revitalization of classical conceptions of virtue.
It is important to see that Kierkegaard’s polemic against reason is against Enlightenment rationalism while at the same time being in support of proper thinking, namely thinking that
28 Lillegard, Norman, “Thinking with Kierkegaard and MacIntyre about Virtue, the Aesthetic, and Narrative,” in Kierkegaard After MacIntyre, edited by John J. Davenport and Anthony Rudd, (Chicago: Open Court, 2001): 211-232; see also Lillegard, Norman, "Passion and Reason: Aristotelian Strategies in Kierkegaard's Ethics," The Journal of Religious Ethics 30, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 251-273. 29 Lillegard, “Thinking with Kierkegaard and MacIntyre about Virtue,” 212. 30 Robert C. Roberts and C. Stephen Evans, “Ethics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard, edited by John Lippitt and George Pattison, 211-229 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 211. 31 Roberts and Evans, “Ethics,” 223-224. Kierkegaard says, “all the Christian virtues in non-actual dangers . . . are like heroism in peacetime. It is as if a soldier on the drill ground in a peaceful military exercise to capture a peewit-house assumed a partial air . . . . What is comical about it is the martial air—and the danger is pure nonsense, make believe, a stage setting. Children play soldier, in peacetime men play war, and most men play at religion.” (Kierkegaard’s diaries quoted in Roberts and Evans, “Ethics,” 224). 32 In surveying Kierkegaard’s corpus, Roberts and Evans find a great emphasis on faith and love, as well as a lesser explicit focus on the classical virtues of hope, gratitude, contrition, humility, patience, courage, and honesty (Roberts and Evans, “Ethics,” 225). Other virtues mentioned by Kierkegaard include joy, fear, wonder, soberness, earnestness, and primitivity (fulfilling God’s purpose for one’s life). These represent attitudes, emotions, and practices that are to characterize the Christian life Kierkegaard is seeking to revive in his society.
Jacobs 11 shapes passions. Roberts and Evans say that in Kierkegaard, “The passions are to be shaped by the thought and the thought is to be enlivened and driven by the passions.”33 Kierkegaard himself said, “Ethical virtue has the passions for its material, reason for its form.”34 In this light,
Kierkegaard seems not to be doing something categorically different than Aquinas in saying that the role of the moral virtues is to moderate passion in accordance with reason. Aquinas says that passion, “can be in a virtuous man, in so far as they are subordinate to reason.”35 Further, “Moral virtue perfects the appetitive part of the soul [passions] by directing it to good as defined by reason.”36 The role of virtue in Aquinas is to regulate passion.37 As stated above, Aquinas sees the passions as a proper part of human activity, so long as they are rightly ordered to the proper telos. Just as Kierkegaard says “virtue has the passions for its material,” Aquinas says, “virtues . . . are about the passions as about their proper matter.”38 Contrary to common interpretations of
Kierkegaard as being against ethics in general or virtue in particular, Kierkegaard here seems to be of one mind with Aquinas in saying that the matter of the virtues is the passions and their form is reason.
At this point, it seems that Kierkegaard is using “reason” in different ways. Indeed, it is common for him to do so. In critiquing rationality, he is critiquing the rationalism of the
Enlightenment that surrounds him. He is calling people to authentic Christian living by calling them to a life of virtue ordered by reason, but this is a reason in accordance with divine
33 Roberts and Evans, “Ethics,” 226. 34 Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, quoted in Roberts and Evans, “Ethics,” 226. 35 ST I-II.59.2. 36 Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, quoted in Roberts and Evans, “Ethics,” 226; ST I-II.59.4. 37 “It is plain that moral virtues, which are about the passions as about their proper matter, cannot be without passions. The reason for this is that otherwise it would follow that moral virtue makes the sensitive appetite altogether idle: whereas it is not the function of virtue to deprive the powers subordinate to reason of their proper activities, but to make them execute the commands of reason, by exercising their proper acts.” ST I-II.59.5. 38 ST I.59.5.
Jacobs 12 command, not the reasoning of the Enlightenment. Considering how his readers would identify
“ethics” with the theories of Hegel and Kant, one can imagine Kierkegaard, opting not to redeem the word ethical but to simply replace it with faith. This is not unlike Anscombe’s claim that we have ruined the word morality in modern moral philosophy or MacIntyre’s claim that it has become nearly meaningless during and after the failure of the “Enlightenment project.” So,
Kierkegaard attempts to sidestep possible equivocation by describing the life of virtue in a new way, namely in reference to the religious stage that surpasses the “ethical stage” of modernist ethics. He does not reject rationality, but only modernism, and proposes an approach more akin to Aquinas. As such, he discusses the virtue of prudence in some depth as being needed in his day.39 Prudence is, of course, central in Aquinas. Kierkegaard calls his readers to careful reflection and deliberation that will lead them to the life of virtue.
In concluding quick analysis of Kierkegaard, it is evident that his prophetic effort to revitalize Christian virtue and reject modernist ethics shows him to be compatible with a classical virtue ethic. Kierkegaard sees rationalistic ethics as the source of moral hypocrisy in his culture, so he advocates authentic piety with a teleological suspension of the ethics of rationalism for the sake of relationship with God that appears risky and paradoxical from a modernist perspective. His primary goal was not to advance academia but to change lives. As such, one may imagine him more as a prophet than a philosopher, and more likely to forgo common verbate for the sake of rhetoric designed affect change and to get past what C.S. Lewis calls “the watchful dragons of the mind.”
39 Roberts and Evans, 226-227.
APPENDIX: Incompatibility and Additional Responses
Quinn Responds to Davenport on Authenticity
Turning to an investigation of elements in Kierkegaard that are potentially incompatible with virtue ethics, Philip L. Quinn responds to Davenport by first saying that the similarities
Davenport draws between Kierkegaard and virtue ethics draws freely from Kierkegaard and
MacIntyre without respecting boundaries and clear definitions.40 Davenport takes the definition of a self as an identity unified by a single narrative quest from MacIntyre and imposes it on
Kierkegaard. Just as many have anachronistically interpreted Kierkegaard through the lense of later existentialists, so Davenport anachronistically interprets Kierkegaard through the lense of
MacIntyre’s virtue ethics. A flaw in Davenport’s own thinking comes through in his interpretation of Kierkegaard. As Davenport advocates the incommensurability of goods, he downplays teleology in an effort to place inordinate emphasis on authenticity. Instead of
MacIntyre telos providing unity to selfhood and one’s lifelong pursuits, authenticity does. Davenport has little regard for MacIntyre’s strong teleology, so he easily draws a parallel to
Kierkegaard’s weak teleology of authenticity where the individual defines himself. Teleology alone, however, is no evidence of similarity as consequentialism is also often called teleology.
Reinterpreting the human telos as authenticity rather than eudaimonia has consequences for Kierkegaard’s model of ethics. The unity of the self breaks down as goods are seen as incommensurate. The radical self-determination of authenticity depends more on freedom than rationality and dispels the definition of free-will as an expression of the rational life. A minimal
40 Quinn, Philip L., “Unity and Disunity, Harmony and Discord: A Response to Lillegard and Davenport,” in Kierkegaard After MacIntyre, edited by John J. Davenport and Anthony Rudd (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 331.
Jacobs 14 preservation of character qualities cultivated through habit and united by a non-teleological virtue of authenticity is not enough to categorize Kierkegaard as a classical virtue ethicists, though he may still be classified as a modern virtue ethicists if one sees his ethic as one that leads to modern pluralist virtue ethics.41
Davenport admits that with a virtue ethic of authenticity, “it is possible to pursue evil ground projects authentically, in the full recognition of their evil.”42 Davenport holds in his interpretation of Kierkegaard that authenticity is a formal feature of human selfhood, which entails internal harmony. Therefore, he admits that one can be an authentic torturer, a villain with aesthetic self-determination, consistency, and integrity. This is where Davenport’s interpretation falls apart. If authenticity were to replace the moral virtues constituting eudaimonia, then authenticity would be the telos of the aesthetic life. However, authenticity is not technically the telos but that which characterizes the pursuit of the telos. The telos, or object of one’s pursuit, is the self-determined lifestyle that person has chosen for themselves. Because these individual human projects are not ordered beyond themselves to one ultimate telos, they cannot be described as the common “virtue ethic” that is applied to all aesthetic existence. Rather, authenticity becomes a tool or criteria rather than a goal or telos. According to Quinn, Davenport does not adequately make the case that authenticity is a virtue. It is at least a character quality, but having a place for virtue or teleology in one’s ethical system does not by itself make one’s system a virtue ethic. Both consequentialism and deontology have various manifestations which make great use of teleology and virtue insofar as they serve to obtain desirable consequences or obedience to rules. What distinguishes virtue ethics is that the end being pursued is a virtuous
41 Consider Christine Swanton’s Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). 42 Davenport, “Towards an Existential Virtue Ethics,” 296.
Jacobs 15 one, not consequences, adherence to duty, or the incommensurate goals of self-determined individuals.
In responding to Quinn’s rebuttal of Davenport, it is evident that the problem lies not so much in Kierkegaard as it does in Davenport. Quinn is right to identify Davenport’s eisegesis of incommensurate goods and anachronistic virtue ethics in his interpretation of Kierkegaard. This does take some of the luster out of Davenport’s interpretation of Kierkegaard as advocating virtue ethics through an emphasis on teleology. However, Kierkegaard survive’s Quinn’s criticism of Davenport. Kierkegaard does hold a prominent place for authenticity, but, as stated above, Kierkegaard does not hold it as the telos, for the telos is the religious stage, life in relationship with God. Aquinas orients his ethic to the same telos and says that virtues are not the telos but they do characterize life that pursues or has obtained that telos. The same is true of Kierkegaard’s authenticity, let alone his other scattered comments about virtue.
Though Davenport’s wrong conception of the incommensurability of goods affects his interpretation of Kierkegaard, it is evident that Kierkegaard did hold to commensurate goods. As he famously says, purity of the heart is to will one thing.43 Further, he orients his existential movements towards a certain end, namely the religious stage. This stage is one characterized by the Christian virtues organized and unified by authenticity and orienting the person toward the pursuit of the life of faith.
43 Quinn, “Unity and Disunity, Harmony and Discord,” 328.
Tietjen Advocates Compatibility Against Common Criticisms
Mark Tietjen proposes that Kierkegaard can be read sympathetically in light of the broad virtue ethics tradition.44 In doing so, he responds to several common criticisms. In one objection, he entertains the thesis that Kierkegaard opposes the classical tradition. Tietjen agrees with
Robert C. Roberts in saying that MacIntyre’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is through the lense of later existentialists, like Sartre. He also points to MacIntyre’s underplaying of the commonalities between his own and Kierkegaard’s critique of modernity. Tietjen points out that according to Bruce Kirmmse, Kierkegaard could not look sympathetically on the Greeks because he saw in them an emphasis on contemplation without practice, resting emphasis on Socrates instead of Aristotle.45 Kirmmse thinks Kierkegaard would see the Greeks as having a bleak outlook on life as illness and not as a truly meaningful existence. This incompatibility with
Christian doctrine is said to prevent Kierkegaard from adopting Greek ethics.
Against Kirmmse, Tietjen says that Kierkegaard actually speaks rarely against the
Greeks. Kirmmse’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is a thought experiment claiming to know what
Kierkegaard would have said. In fact, Tietjen points out, Kierkegaard’s meager comments on the Greeks is more to consider them “"innocent pagans (innocent in that they lacked the Christian revelation and especially the concept of sin).”46 Kierkegaard actually holds Socrates in high esteem as a master ethicist. If one were to interpret Kierkegaard’s view of the history of philosophy as a dichotomy, according to Tietjen, that dichotomy would not be between the
44 Tietjen, Mark A., "Kierkegaard and the Classical Virtue Tradition," Faith and Philosophy 27, no. 2 (April 2010):153-173. 45 Bruce Kirmmse, "Kierkegaard and MacIntyre: Possibilities for Dialogue," in Kierkegaard after MacIntyre, 193. Tietjen, “Kierkegaard and the Classical Virtue Tradition,” 154. 46 Tietjen, “Kierkegaard and the Classical Virtue Tradition,” 155.
Greeks and Christians but between the Christians and modernity, for he sees the Danish culture around him as “Christianity contaminated by modernity.”47 Nevertheless,
Kirmmse is right to point out that many concepts of Christianity stand in opposition to classical ones." Yet, "Roberts points out several general features Kierkegaard's thought shares with that of both the ancient Greeks and the church fathers. These features include the notions that humans are "capable of having a stable character," that they possess "a given human nature independently of our trait development," that "traits are dispositions to passive or quasi-passive episodic states of the subject such as emotions, perceptions, and thoughts," and that these traits are interconnected and "make or fail to make for the well-being, happiness, eudaimonia, or flourishing of those who possess them and those who associate with those who possess them."48
This list Tietjen draws partially from Roberts interprets Kierkegaard as seeing Christian ethics as compatible with classical ethics, including Greek virtue ethics and the ethics of early church fathers.
47 Tietjen, “Kierkegaard and the Classical Virtue Tradition,” 156. 48 Tietjen, “Kierkegaard and the Classical Virtue Tradition,” 157.
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