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To what Extent can we Consider Kierkegaard’s Ethics to be a Synthesis of Aristotle’s and Kant’s?

Kierkegaard formed a system of ethics based upon the notion that we ought to hold a teleological suspension of the ethical in order to enter a higher realm of morality, referred to as the religious life. The purpose of this essay to determine whether we can consider this to be a synthesis of Kant’s and Aristotle’s moral philosophy, to which I shall argue we can but only as a partial synthesis since Kierkegaard omits elements of both Kant and Aristotle.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard draws out a system of ethics where we ought to move towards what he considers to be the highest virtue, faith, by means of a teleological suspension of the ethical. Before I go on further it would be best if I point out that by virtue Kierkegaard does not mean an excellence of character in the sense Aristotle does, instead the term virtue is implemented to mean something more along the lines of what we ought to have in order to be considered noble. So To avoid confusion between these two terms I shall use the term arête when referring to virtue in the Aristotelian sense.

One of the fundamentals to Kierkegaard’s ethics is that man has three modes of living; the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthetic life is one in which we pursue a hedonistic lifestyle constantly chasing pleasure, consequently never staying with any one thing for too long. The ethical life is sometimes referred to as living in accordance with the Universal (this is done within Fear and Trembling), by which it is meant living in accordance with some form of universal moral law, such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Finally the religious life is one in which we have removed any sense of duty to the ethical life and become a self-legislating body which obeys only the law it gives itself in such a way that allows us to become “a relation that relates itself to itself” [Kierkegaard, SD, XI:127], by which it is meant that we become capable of reflecting upon ourselves in order to receive autonomy making us free from universal maxims as we become able to decide our own path. It is by deciding what path to take and sticking to it ‘religiously’ that Kierkegaard argues that we acquire faith, thus faith does not necessarily mean belief in a deity (although it can), but instead sticking to a decision without doubt, as Rudd states “for Kierkegaard, morality is a product of commitment” [Rudd, pg:71].

The idea of faith being the highest virtue is demonstrated through what is known as the four sub-Abrahams within Fear and Trembling [Kierkegaard, FT, pp:8-13], and later on where he states “but he who strove with God is greater than all [Kierkegaard, FT, pg:16], but it is within the third sub-Abraham that Kierkegaard reveals to us a second theme vital to the overall system…the virtue of love…we briefly see this virtue within the following passage: “when the child is to be weaned the mother is not without sorrow, that she and the child grow more…apart” [Kierkegaard, FT, pg:12], it is possible to read this passage in a way which means that love is bittersweet for even though the mother loves her baby and draws the warmth from that bond, there will be times when the same love will cause pain. Yet we ought not to abandon love because of this possibility of pain, but embrace it as it is through sacrifice that we are able to move from the ethical to the religious, via a teleological suspension of the ethical, which Rudd explains as “refusing simply to take his standards of good and evil from his society” [Rudd, pg:121].

This notion of love now needs to be explained in more detail for Kierkegaard uses love in a very specific way, one in which could be synonymous with the Confucianist virtue ren or the Greek term agape, both of which mean a universal, unconditional form of love. The notion of love is described in Works of Love where the importance of love is made explicit in the passage: “to cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception, it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity…one who is self-deceived has locked himself out and continues to lock himself out of love” [Kierkegaard, WL, pp:23-24]. Later on a description of what love is comes to us as Kierkegaard says “by its fruits one recognises the tree …in the same way love also is known by its own fruit” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:25] meaning that we do not know love in any other way than through the acts of love made by others, but more specifically it is the acts of Christian love which Kierkegaard is referring to for he states “the love of which Christianity speaks is known by its own fruit- revealing that it has within itself the truth of the eternal” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:25].

This is why it could be argued that Kierkegaard’s view of love is synonymous with ren and agape for Christian love, according to Kierkegaard, is universal “the Christian teaching is to love one’s neighbour , to love all mankind, all men, even enemies, and not to make exceptions, neither in favouritism nor in aversion” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:36] and unconditional “God you are to love in unconditional obedience, even if what he demands of you may seem to you to be your own harm” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:36]. Hence the leap from ethical to religious is made by abandoning any universal moral laws, and/or conformities to social norms, in order to serve our own moral maxims (God, the eternal) with unconditional obedience whilst also treating all others equally for if we “love a human being more than God…this is a mockery to God – the same holds true of friendship and erotic love” [Kierkegaard, WL, Pg.36]. Therefore once we have entered the religious life we ought to show respect to every element of mankind equal to the unwavering respect we show to our self-made moral maxims otherwise we risk slipping back into the ethical or aesthetic life.

To summarise Kierkegaard’s ethics is not one of universal maxims, or a system devised to tell us how to act (unlike Kant’s), but one which tells us to choose our own path and stick by it just like we would stick to our religious faith in a deity. This does sound similar to Nietzsche’s concept of divorcing ourselves from the herd morality in order to determine our own path through life, a concept which I argue is fundamentally Aristotelian (I shall return to this later). But in order to make this movement from ethical to religious we ought to learn to love ourselves and others in equal measure for if we did not we would see no reason to unconditionally obey our moral maxims, or care for the society around us which brings us the things necessary for a life of contentment (food, water, shelter, companionship and so on). Now I shall move on to demonstrate how this model of ethics is similar to, and different from Aristotle’s in order to show how close the two systems are.

Aristotle argues that the moral hero is one who pursues happiness as happiness is the end goal in itself, “happiness on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor…for anything other than itself” [Aristotle, 1097b], which bears some semblance with Kierkegaard who in part two of Either-Or writes “the beautiful was that which has its teleology within itself” [Kierkegaard, E-II, II:245], so the ‘beautiful’ or noble agent is one who has the end goal within themselves. Kierkegaard later adds that happiness can be found within his work, his calling, for “our hero works for a living; this work is also his delight; he carries out his calling” [Kierkegaard, E-II, II:266], hence Kierkegaard, like Aristotle, believes that each agent has a function and it is by working within your function that we become heroic for “all things have a function…the good and the well is thought to reside in the function” [Aristotle, 1097b]. This claim is strengthened further when we consider Rudd’s claim that “one can only avoid the necessity of judging one’s life in moral terms by evading long-term commitments. But to live such a life is to be in despair, for a life without commitments is one without purpose” [Rudd, pg.69] . Therefore the moral agent is one who follows his commitment to his function.

However where Kierkegaard and Aristotle deviate is at the point where Aristotle holds that man has no choice over his function within society, whereas (as demonstrated above) Kierkegaard argues that we are able to decide for ourselves what function it is we are to commit to. I speak of functions, in regard to Kierkegaard, here not just as jobs but also roles and relationships following on from Rudd who states “for Kierkegaard, morality is a product of commitment to roles and relationships”. So when I talk about functions in relation to Kierkegaard I use the term is a broader sense than when in relation to Aristotle who specifically means a role within society. As a result of this we can consider the agent’s function, for Kierkegaard, is to commit to his role within the workplace (following E-II, II:266) and to commit to his relationships with his neighbours (following WL, pg.36),

Although Rudd argues that there is a more important end goal and it is this which separates the religious from the ethical, “an absolute telos…is the primary overriding task for each individual to bring him-or herself into the right relationship with God” [Rudd, pg.134]. But if we take Kierkegaard from a non-Christian perspective and equate God with the absolute good then we Rudd’s statement becomes one which means the primary end goal to bring himself into the right relationship with their own moral maxims and not a set of universal laws or socially constructed ethical code.

To summarise Kierkegaard’s system follows Aristotle in the sense that both accept that the good can be found in pursue your social roles, as this is part of the love for one’s neighbour as by fulfilling your social role you help society as a whole progress. Also by living in accordance with a self-devised system of morality we can find similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who as I stated earlier is arguably Aristotelian in essence within his moral system. Although Kierkegaard is not completely Aristotelian as there is no mention of habituating virtues, and Kierkegaard believes that social roles are not pre-ordained but freely chosen and this is where the two thinkers differ within their systems. I shall now go on to discuss Kierkegaard in relation to Kant.

Pattison argues that Kierkegaard’s system contains some links with Kant’s since “figures who remove themselves from the moral accountability of their contemporaries and act as if they are beyond good and evil…would seem to be anti-Kantian, they also, in another way give expression to another Kantian theme, the pursuit of maximum autonomy” [Pattison, pg.106], and for Kant autonomy is “the property of the will by which it is a law to itself” [Kant, 4:440]. Pattison also adds “If one sees the argument of The Critique of Practical Reason as a genuine attempt to establish the requirement of belief in God via the concept of the supreme good…the Kantian analogy is strengthened still further” [Pattison, pg. 101]. Thus Kierkegaard’s concept of moving from the ethical to the religious if seen as a notion which brings us closer to God, and since the religious life is the ultimate good for Kierkegaard, then it does show Kierkegaard to be Kantian.

However Pattison does recognise that there are also differences between the two systems as he acknowledges the faults within Kant’s categorical imperative. The example he gives us is based upon the idea that to do only what is universalisable can result in situations which undermine the maxim which has been universalised, such as “in feeding the cat I am neglecting all the cats who may be dying even now of malnutrition” [Pattison. Pg.113], therefore ‘I ought to feed the cat’ as an universalisable maxim would be ‘I ought to feed every cat’ or ‘Everyone ought to feed the cat’. The former results in an impossible maxim since no single person could feed every cat on the planet (especially if we count every species of cat such as lions and tigers). The latter on the other hand results in everyone feeding the single cat you own which would result in the cat becoming ill through overfeeding. Thus this is why Kant’s system fails and why Kierkegaard argues that the ultimate good lies beyond the ethical and in the religious, based upon just the one imperative “helping the neighbour to love God, rather than ameliorate any concrete worldly problems” [Pattison, pg.118].

Another difference between the two systems is that Kierkegaard does not tell how to act or which rules to follow, but instead tells us that we ought to break away from the ethical systems of the herd, move beyond good and evil, and become a law onto ourselves in a movement that brings us closer to maximum autonomy. Whereas Kant explicitly tells us how to act for he says “act that use humanity always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” [Kant, 4:429] and “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” [Kant, 4:402].

To conclude Kierkegaard’s system of ethics can be seen as a partial synthesis of kant’s and Aristotle’s as it contains Kant’s notion of pursuing maximum autonomy, and Aristotle’s concept of fulfilling your social roles as a way of loving your neighbour whilst being a law only unto ourselves. However Kierkegaard has not made a complete synthesis of the two as he omits the categorical imperative from Kant and the notion of habituating arête in order to pursue happiness. Arguably this would a deliberate omission since the two concepts are incompatible as Kant classes any pursuit of happiness as a hypothetical imperative as he says “the imperative that refers to the choice of means to one’s own happiness…is still always hypothetical” [Kant, 4:416].

• E-II – Either-Or Part II
• FT – Fear and Trembling
• SD – Sickness Unto Death

• WL – Works of Love


• Aristotle, (1995), ‘The Nicomachean Ethics’, in Barnes. J, The Complete Works of Aristotle (Sixth Reprint), Chichester: Princeton University Press
• Kant. I, (1998), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (translate by Gregor.M), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
• Kierkegaard. S, (1983), Sickness unto Death (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), Princeton: Princeton University Press
• Kierkegaard. S, (1987), Either-Or Part II (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), New Jersey: Princeton University Press
• Kierkegaard. S, (2005), Fear and Trembling (translated by Hannay. A), London: Penguin Books
• Kierkegaard. S, (2009), Works of Love (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), New York: Harper-Collins
• Pattison. G, (2005), The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, Chesham: Acumen
• Rudd. A, (1993), Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical, New York: Oxford University Press
• The Holy Bible (King James Version), (2000), Michigan: Zondervan

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