Kierkegaard’s Conception of Anxiety and Objective Morality

Anxiety is the unpleasant feeling of an unrealistic fear. It is a human response to the absurdity of life’s displeasure and its seemingly aimless journey. Such feelings are largely created before choices of consequence, when an individual feels powerless, and where such an action could lead to possible pain.

One of the few actual sketches of Søren Kierkegaard.

The classic example is one philosopher Søren Kierkegaard mentions in his writing, The Concept of Anxiety. Take it that a man is standing alongside a cliff. He looks down and sees the drop below him. He fears the he may fall, but at the same time, he is terrifying intrigued. He has an impulse to jump, but he also experiences fear because he knows it would mean his imminent death. Kierkegaard calls this the “dizziness of freedom” — we have the freedom of choice, to make even the deadliest of choices, and this induces existential anxiety and dread. For most people, the fear of the death strays us away from jumping. For those that psychotically lack it, they succumb to their impulses and jump. In the case of the Biblical story of Adam of Eve, anxiety is understood by Kierkegaard as a precursor to sin. God tells Eve not to eat the fruit or she would face death and pain. Through this restriction, Eve is given a choice whether or not to eat the forbidden fruit. The anxiety of the moral decision is captured by her interaction with the serpent which tempts her to eat it — like the cliff, she feels compelled to jump. Kierkegaard, through this story, comes to a conclusion on sin. Sin is always preceded by anxiety. And the first such instance in Genesis, according to old Christian theology, was precluded by anxiety.

Although I take literal interpretations of Biblical texts with a grain of salt, the religious language in Kierkegaard’s writing can be replaced with more secular lingo and still be considered valid. “God” is symbolic of objective morality and sin is the failure to live up to it. Whenever an immoral act is committed, and a grave choice is involved, there is existential anxiety that precedes it. Kierkegaard contends that this anxiety can be mediated through eternal values that transcend the choices we are placed into, since our decisions are subject to the twists and turns of everyday life. He argues we must establish meaning through objective concepts that we should abide by. To explain this, he illustrates an image of a sailor lost at sea.

How, then, shall we face the future? When the sailor is out on the ocean, when everything is changing all around him, when the waves are born and die, he does not stare down into the waves, because they are changing. He looks up at the stars. Why? Because they are faithful; they have the same location now that they had for our ancestors and will have for generations to come. By what means does he conquer the changeable? By the eternal. By the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the ground of the future, and therefore through it the future can be fathomed. What, then, is the eternal power in a human being? It is faith. What is the expectancy of faith? Victory-or, as Scripture so earnestly and so movingly teaches us, that all things must serve for good those who love God. [Eighteen Upbuilding Discourse, 19]

The Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer

The Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer

I disagree with Kierkegaard’s final conclusion on faith, because I take it that moral objectivity can be reached without divine inspiration, but his thought process is valid. Through an “eternal” morality, one can guide oneself through all of life’s moral decisions. The closest such axiom that exists in secular thought would be the “Golden Rule” which is derived from empathy: one should not treat others in ways that one would not want to be treated. Moral conclusions should not be based on the arbitrary ebbing and flowing of subjective life. If that was the case, to the common observer, heinous acts of immorality would be considered “moral” in the time period they were committed. Because slavery was at one time considered “moral” by popular standards, did that make it truly ethical? No, because it breaks eternal moral codes that are always true. Regardless of the time period, these principles stand tall and serve as a guide with which to judge decisions made in the past and those yet to be made.

Anxiety, therefore, is a symptom of a lack of existential direction. It is induced when an individual is lost in the random spontaneity of the natural world. Likewise, such anxiety can be mitigated when the individual develops a proper objective view on life. However, there is a minor caveat — the conclusions that the secular explanation gives us through the Golden Rule is one that still lacks proper foresight. Surely, acts of self defense are morally permissible, but how does that fit within the context of the Golden Rule? We know the assailant is committing an immoral act according to this axiom, but the question of self-defense is left unanswered. Therefore, an objective moral code that is derived from secular understanding requires a more nuanced explanation that is all-encompassing. It requires expanding to cover all aspects of an ethical life. It also requires constantly being tweaked using the Golden Rule as an objective starting point. Although not complete, the Golden Rule is the closest estimation of a moral maxim that many of our own decisions can be based around.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, turns this conclusion on its head and argues that faith brings one to an eternal understanding that would work to subdue the existential anxiety and dread we experience. A morality based on divine command, a list of necessary obligations, is the simplest solution to the problem of objective ethics — the question is, however, from which command on high does one follow and is it ever disputable? I would prefer an objective ethics that is able to be tinkered with until a seemingly perfect code is established. One that is always applicable but subject to minor changes based on enlightened understanding, rather than an absolutist position that is easily exploited by power. Regardless, Kierkegaard is correct in his assertion of the necessity of an all-encompassing life view. It is necessary so that, just like the sailor of the story, one does not get lost in the waves of everyday life itself, which is too oftentimes muddled with subjective preferences and fleeting emotions. And succumbing to such feelings would be a perversion of reason and a squandering of life’s many splendors.

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5 comments
  1. Yes, it is important to develop a worldview. I’m interested to know, how do you think we can explain an objective moral law without a moral law giver?

    • Anton said:

      The basis of any moral philosophy is dependent on assumptions as its foundation. Even if there is a moral law giver, these assumptions still exist. Without a moral law giver, the Golden Rule, which in itself is an assumption, is validated through human empathy. Your philosophy of ethics is tailored around this axiom and you work from there — all ethical conclusions stem from the idea that one’s behavior should produce the greatest amount of net good and not at anybody else’s expense.

      Personally, I take it that a valid ethical philosophy should work towards maintaining the benefit of the greatest number of individuals while not working to bring pain to others at the same time. Because humans have the capacity to empathize, which is necessary in other to form bonds, it is in each individual’s self-interest to act morally since the individual would feel remorse of s/he inflicts pain onto others.

      The problem with a moral law giver is that it is difficult to determine just what “laws” are to be taken as true. Moreover, if we take this from a theistic perspective, which God(s) has the correct moral perspective? Surely, a morality based on divine command would be easier, but wouldn’t that also make it awfully simple for anybody to claim that their moral code is divinely inspired and use it to their own benefit? This creates too many absolutes that are not subject to scrutiny and minor changes.

      The point of an objective morality is that society moves towards it with each passing generation. We begin from the Golden Rule and we can pass moral judgement based on it. As we create more exemptions and additions to our moral philosophy, based on minimizing suffering, we will reach a more comprehensive and all-encompassing moral code. This, I find, to be much more fulfilling and less subject to error than just simply taking a moral law for granted since it was “given” to us by a creator.

      There is a lot of difficulty in explaining ethics of a secular world view, but I find the theist argument to have far too many holes to be taken seriously.

      • If we have truly discovered an objective moral value, true for all people in all places, at all times, then we can begin asking what kind of a God would have the power and authority to create such a law. People can make competing claims about what higher power is responsible, but the only thing that matters is the truth. This is where we turn to history, philosophy, and theology to examine which worldview holds up to the scrutiny of the three tests for truth. Author and apologist Ravi Zacharias describes the three tests as 1.) logical consistency, 2.) empirical adequacy, and 3.) experiential relevance.

        Man’s quest to one day refine an ethical system into a perfect moral code will, at the end of the day, remain a subjective moral code, based on man’s subjective opinion that he has achieved perfection.

        There is not a culture in the world which values cowardice. A moral implication is embedded into the definition of the word. Semantics aside, everyone can recognize the action of cowardice itself, and it is never celebrated.

        This may be a candidate for a universal moral value: it is wrong to act cowardly.

        Without an ultimate standard from which to measure good, there can be no good or evil, only relativity. The test of experiential relevance tells me that evil and good exist. For me, there are far too many holes in trying to explain the reality of good and evil without God, who is the ultimate standard of good from which all things are measured.

  2. OE said:

    > Through an “eternal” morality, one can guide oneself through all of life’s moral decisions. The closest such axiom that exists in secular thought would be the “Golden Rule” which is derived from empathy: one should not treat others in ways that one would not want to be treated. Moral conclusions should not be based on the arbitrary ebbing and flowing of subjective life.

    There is a contradiction right here – how one would not want to be treated is utterly subjective. “[E]ternal moral codes that are always true” could only be based on freedom because freedom is the necessary condition of ethics.

    > Anxiety, therefore, is a symptom of a lack of existential direction.

    I think anxiety, “dizziness of freedom”, is a lack of a clear boundary between freedom and determinism. To make a choice one has to overcome obstacles. The most common, as in the case of cliff, is fear. When one succumbs to his fear, his choice is no longer free. But how to choose good over evil if it requires not only a lot of strengths but also a clear understanding of their limits? At what point our choice is no longer free and we can honestly give up?

    > I would prefer an objective ethics that is able to be tinkered with until a seemingly perfect code is established.

    Freedom requires general consensus but the problem is the perfect code is never could be established. Norms require constant improvement. If you are interested, see the objective ethical system at http://ethical-liberty.com Thanks

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