Printer Friendly

An ethics consult with Kierkegaard.

Four decades ago, Philip Rieff heralded the triumph of the therapeutic. According to Rieff, in the fifties and sixties the image of therapy eclipsed political and religious narratives and emerged as the central organizing motif for the self. (1) With everyone shopping for techniques to hit the bull's eye of self-fulfillment, the life-style engineer walked through the door of western culture. Counselors claiming expertise at adjusting the strings of intra- and interpersonal life stepped forth as a new class of professional. Experts on sex, grief, mediation, and finally ethics began to hang out their shingles.

It is well known that in the last quarter of the twentieth century professional ethics became established as a guild. There are today thousands of lawyers, philosophers, and religion scholars offering moral counsel in the corporate, judicial, and medical worlds. Indeed, take almost any area of study and there is someone who makes his living by contemplating the ethics of that area of study (for example, computers: computer ethics). In all candor, I have had doubts about the legitimacy of the idea of professional super-egos for hire and the notion that the ethics of a practice could, as it were, be split off from the practice itself. Still, I am not of the view that there is an essence of ethics and an essence of experts such that it could be demonstrated that there is an inherent contradiction in the very idea of a professional ethicist. Although I am no expert in the philosophy of language, I am of the Wittgensteinian persuasion that the meaning of terms is fixed by their usage, lf, for whatever reason, the community is eager to believe that there in a priest class of ethicists, then so be it.

An Aristotelian might cavil that ethical judgment is a function of moral character and that people with the most acute moral sensibilities might not necessarily be the ones who are best at defending their views. Still, it could be contended that those who are best able to support their positions on ethics are by definition ethics experts. In either case, professional ethics has been institutionalized and is here to stay. And so the following brief remarks on the mood of professional ethics is offered in the humble spirit of someone eager to contribute to the health of the ethics establishment.

The light that I would like to reflect on professional ethics is cast from one of Soren Kierkegaard's pseudonymously written classics, The Concept of Anxiety. In the preface to this lapidary text, Kierkegaard inveighs against Hegel's attempt to subsume all disciplines under the rubric of philosophy. Kierkegaard drops many of his most profound ideas into footnotes. In one of those notes he observes

[t]hat science, just as much as poetry and art, presupposes a mood in the creator as well as in the observer, and that an error in the modulation is just as disturbing as an error in the development of thought, has been entirely forgotten in our time, when inwardness has been completely forgotten, and also the category of appropriation. (2)

For Kierkegaard there is a mood appropriate to every discipline and when the mood is wrong, "The concept is altered." (3) In The Concept of Anxiety Kierkegaard is ruminating about sin. Penned around the time of the birth of empirical psychology, Kierkegaard writes, "If sin is dealt with in metaphysics, the mood becomes one of dialectical uniformity and disinterestedness.... If sin is dealt with in psychology, the mood becomes one of persistent observation" perhaps tinged with curiosity. (4) And yet, the concept of sin can be comprehended only by someone who grasps that be himself must immediately get about the business of avoiding sin. For the multitude put off by mention of sin, an example making the same point might be this: a person who contemplates the Holocaust in the wrong spirit, say one of curiosity, or in the mood of an academic trying to chalk up another publication, is destined to falsify the very idea he is trying to grasp.

For Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms, emotions or moods have a cognitive content. We understand ourselves and the world via feeling. Indeed, for the Danish philosopher, it is in large measure through the experience of anxiety that we apprehend the fact that we are free. Freud and his epigones have long been sensitive to the truth of the idea that the way we feel about something speaks volumes about our understanding of that thing. Kierkegaard insists that the proper mood for ethical contemplation is earnestness (alvorlighed) which for him means the ardent desire to eschew transgression. And so, Kierkegaard might press, what is the mood behind professional ethics?

If you click onto the web, you will find hundreds of advertisements such as this one from a company hawking its ethical leadership lessons:


Or again,


Click a little further and you will find ethics board games and ethics bowl competitions, to say nothing of ethics fitness exercises. And for more subtle expressions of the same mood, a few years ago I picked up one of the many journals de-voted to professional ethics. On the opening page, the editor announced "have ethics will travel" and then, as though ethics were a kind of tool bag or a magic carpet, went on to explain how she had just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where she had illuminated the uninitiated about reproductive ethics.

When I taught at a military college an ethicist contacted me about "doing something" on military ethics. I protested that many of the faculty were Vietnam veterans and that neither he nor I had ever been in uniform, much less heard a bullet whiz above our heads. No matter, as though ethics were a kind of gymnastics act or dance, he was sure that we could still "do" something to teach the cadets and their officers how to comport themselves ethically under fire.

Not to be a curmudgeon, but these people may as well have jingles for their products. The mood behind these tag lines for ethics programs and consultations rings too frivolous and self-satisfied for anyone claiming to be a modern director of conscience. For Kierkegaard, an ethicist would have to live in fear and trembling squared, first, for the fact of his own infinite culpability, second, because he has at some level to share in the moral responsibility of the person or corporation he is advising. How, for instance, does an ethicist know that his counsel has not been written by his own self-interests?

The maestros who speak of morals as something that can be packaged and perhaps eventually programmed must think of ethics as a kind of technique. Hence, the "have ethics will travel" whimsy. I suppose that anyone who imagines that ethics can be reduced to a step-by-step method must at some level also feel that they have that method down and are, more than less, morally sanctified. There are religious traditions that wisely tell us that this sense of moral cocksureness stands on the edge of the moral abyss.

Kierkegaard no less than Kant believed that the knowledge of right and wrong was universally distributed. For Kierkegaard, wrongdoing is never the result of ignorance, or, if it is, it is an ignorance that you yourself produced. Indeed, Kierkegaard argued that when it comes to ethics it is not more knowledge that we need. As he put it: "And this is how perhaps the great majority of men live: they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension, which would lead them out into decisions that their lower nature does not much care for." (5) Ethically speaking, the real challenge is to avoid self-deception, to avoid talking ourselves out of what we know. You might in fact say that for Kierkegaard the proper mood for ethics involves a degree of self-concern that looks a lot like worry.

Yet I do not detect much worry or self-concern when I see advertisements that literally read: "Ethics training made easy and affordable." There have been a number of occasions in which I have heard ethicists pronounce opinions that made me shudder: "And he is an ethics expert--heaven help us!" Heaven knows how we are to distinguish true ethics experts from poseurs, but it seems to me that would-be ethicists ought to be rejected as much for the mood that they project as for the improper development of their thought. Equally important, Kierkegaard might warn our ethical counselors to be chary of the possibility that their understanding of ethics could easily be altered and falsified by the marketing mood in which they present their understanding as a product.


(1) See, for example, Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

(2) S. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980, 14n.

(3) Kierkegaard, Concept of Anxiety, 14.

(4) Kierkegaard, Concept of Anxiety, 15.

(5) Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Howard & Edna Hong, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980, 94.

Gordon Marino, author of Kierkegaard in the Present Age, is Director or-the Hong Kierkeaard Library and Boldt Chair in Humanities in the Department of Philosophy at St Olaf College.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Marino, Gordon
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Previous Article:The Practice of Justice: A Theory of Lawyers' Ethics. (Review Essay / Can a Lawyer Be Happy?).
Next Article:Is it better that ten guilty persons go free than that one innocent person be convicted?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |