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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Discussion: Ethics and Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith

This item concerns the first 10 lectures of Phil 7 - Existentialism in Literature and Film, where the early Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard is addressed.

The teaching seems to be this: a Knight of Faith gets a defining commitment. This commitment is private - it cannot be publicly explained in the context of his or her dominant social environment. His peers wouldn't get it. In particular, he may (must?) violate in some way the accepted ethical dimension for his time and place. This situation leads to the "Teleological Suspension of the Ethical" when the Knight of Faith acts upon his defining commitment.

The examples given in Fear and Trembling include the following: Abraham committed to Isaac who he will sacrifice but be restored with somehow. The knight committed to his lady love who he will never marry but with whom he will spend eternity. The examples given in class by Hubert Dreyfus include: A homosexual in 1850's Copenhagen who feels he must be a certain way no matter what the public taboos. The young Hitler Youth boy who falls in love with a Jewish girl and must save her despite his indoctrination. Another example from recent history was given as Martin Luther King.

The discussion I would like to start here has to do with further examples of this phenomenon, and an exploration of how the ethical standards of a culture can be set aside in light of a "higher" truth that is personal and non-rational.

I would start by introducing Huck Finn in Mark Twain's book of that name, as a fictional character who meets this definition by defying the ethos of the pre-Civl War era by helping the slave, Jim, escape. The problem here is that the ethos of the entire situation was in flux between the intended time of the book (in the 1840-1850 period of Twain's youth) and both the publishing time (post Civil War) and today. Huck can only be a Knight of Faith hero under the old ethos of returning "stolen" property to its rightful owner, which was the law of the land before Emancipation. How should we treat this ethical transition? Huck's actions appear supremely ethical to us today, and it is paradoxically his own hesitation to act that seems unethical.

Next, I would like to talk about Martin Luther King. Dreyfus introduced MLK as an example of someone with a defining commitment - fighting for Civil Rights informed what he was. Dreyfus later reversed himself on that example when a student pointed out that he was not going "against" the ethos but "along with" the ethos of equality in America. But I disagree. The ethical standards for race relations was in flux during MLK's life, just as they were in Mark Twain's. It was presumably not an accepted ethical action in the South for blacks to mix in everyday settings with whites in the 1940's and 1950's. These "Jim Crow ethics" called for sensible persons of both races to honor an invisible dividing line. MLK therefore did challenge that in a valid Suspension of the Ethical for a greater good. I would respectfully ask that Dreyfus retract the retraction, or at least address it, next class.

Finally, I would like to comment on Abraham and Isaac, and challenge Kierkegaard's framing of their story. The cultural norm in some parts of the ancient Middle East did in fact include the sacrifice of the first child under certain circumstances (viz. Carthaginians). Dreyfus claimed that Abraham would have had no shared vocabulary with his neighbors to discuss the proposed killing of his own child, but that may not have been the case - it is just as reasonable to suppose that his neighbors fully expected him to do so. In this light, his finding a Ram and sparing Isaac a fate that the surrounding society expected would have been the act reflecting Kierkegaard's Suspension of the Ethical.

Everyone is invited to comment on any of these three scenarios, and add their own. Mine all question what happens when ethical norms change in a culture. Is the Knight of Faith merely acting as a harbinger or change agent? Which ethical norms are used to test the Faith required? The earlier ones, or the later ones?

7 comments:

blhulman said...

Karl,

If Kiereegaard's Knight of Faith cannot communicate his actions in a way that could be understood by others and not even rationally understood by oneselve then I think it is probably valid to exempt Martin Luther King.

King was acting in a context in which many had the same understanding and sympathy. He did not initiate the Montgomery Bus Boycott but was called upon to lead it. Many others were already deeply involved in the cause which he would so effectively lead. This cause had been long simmering in the Jim Crow south. Many had written for and more had acted upon the cause long before King came upon the scene. They laid the groundwork and provided the language that provided the fuse that King would help ignite.

The Federal Government had already struck the first major blow to Jim Crow two years before in Brown versus the Board the Education. So while Jim Crow was legally the ethical, it was showing severe cracks by 1956. The fact that so many people quickly and eagerly joined the movement demonstrated a shared sense of ethics.

King himself seems to have had no "fear and trembling" and the feeling of dread from suspending the ethical. I think this is because he was certain of what he was doing (unlike the way Kieregaard portrayed Abraham) was ethical.

While a great and courageous man, it is because King was able to so brilliantly articulate a stance that was not his alone that I think he would have to excluded as a Knight of Faith. I think Gandhi would be in the same category.

Huck, on the other hand, has a certain ambivalence. He has much of the prejudice of his time and seems to feel a sense of guilt in helping a runaway slave. Though he might never think of it that way, he felt the tug of the ethical. But he lets his personal feelings for Jim override the ethical. He helps him because Jim is his friend. I don't think he can explain it in any other way than that. But it is based on that personal relation. If he heard of someone else helping an escaped slave who he did not know I suspect Huck would have disapproved. But when he is personally involved, he is willing to suspend the ethical even if he cannot really explain it to others or himself. I think this comes pretty close to the Knight of Faith.

BH

Karl Tyson said...

Good comment, Brad.

You clearly have a grasp of both paradigm examples dealing with discrimination and oppression we are working with, and I admit the strength of two points: that MLK was expressing publicly the strongly held views of many, and that MLK did not have, and Huck did have, a personal relationship propelling his unique actions.

The second point is stronger, I think - and I'd like to know if it is requisite - must all such knights have a personal reason to defy the common ethos? If so, if they become public figures, do they somehow lose it?

Obviously you could have the same argument you make about the "simmering cause" assigned not to the civil rights but to the abolitionist cause of the first half of the 1800's. Would your reasoning exclude abolitionist John Brown from being a knight of faith in the same way a public assumption of a "simmering" cause excludes MLK? What about the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriett Stowe? What about Underground Railway figure Tubman? Where's the line?

Fuzzy lines bother me unless we understand them well. There is a fuzzy line between when segregation (or nazism, or love-marriages, or homosexuality, or ritual child sacrifice, or abortion) is ethical in a culture, and when it is not. If we are to really focus on this condition for being a knight of faith, we must understand how a culture changes its own ethical boundary markers. I don't understand that process, but would like to have a better notion of it.

Thanks for your helpful critique.

blhulman said...

Karl,

It is the fuzzy lines that I am having a problem with as well. One cannot be a Knight of Faith without an absolute commitment and yet does an absolute commitment necessarily make one a Knight of Faith?

Using these criteria, Huck would have to be excluded because he obviously had no absolute commitment. While he had a strong commitment to Jim, it was not world defining. On the other hand, the abolitionists and the civil rights activists certainly did have this life defining commitment. But does this, as I understand it, make them Knights of Faith?

The men and women committed to the abolitionist and civil rights movements were trying to replace the ethical with another ethical. They could rationally explain and justify to themselves and others why they were doing what they were doing. If I understand Kierkegaard and the lectures of Dreyfus correctly, this would seem to exclude them as Knights of Faith. To be a Knight of Faith, one has to stand alone in a way that is not comprehensible to one or others.

Upon reflection, I think I minimized the anguish, dread and self-questioning that Martin Luther King must have felt. He had an ethical duty to his family yet his commitment put them at risk. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for him to march those children through the streets of Birmingham or those people across the bridge in Selma. John Brown risking his sons and others for his commitment. Tubman not only risking herself but the people in the network and the people she was trying to help. Stowe the sympathy and understanding of a community that I am sure was dear to her. They all had a personal stake in that what they were doing in that it could very well entail loss that they would have a hard time justifying. Still, they all seem to be acting within the ethical sphere. The very fact that they could be public figures and elicit the sympathy and understanding of at least some others seems to exclude them from what Kierkegaard means by being a Knight of Faith. Like the example of Agamemnon, weighing one ethical against another and choosing to commit themselves to what they believe is the higher ethical.

But it seems that to be a Knight of Faith, one has to completely transcend the ethical in a commitment that is impossible to communicate with others or even understand oneself. For Kierkegaard, this only seems possible in the realm of faith. One can feel justified in his or her actions but cannot explain them. But the Knight of Faith cannot justify them to others or even make comprehensible to themselves. They are the individual who stands alone. This is very hard for me to understand. I feel like De Silentio.

Dreyfus says that the culture gets moved through suffering. But I don’t know if this applies to the suffering of people working within the ethical or the suffering of “the individual.” While I believe that people like Tubman and King move boundary markers, I am not sure how this relates to a Knight of Faith as I understand it. Except maybe as exemplar and new paradigm. This is what SK seems to believe Jesus served as and I think that the ethical commitment of the abolitionists and the civil rights activists looked to this paradigm of a higher ethical in forging their commitments. I don’t think it was a coincidence that both of these movements were rooted in religion. It is also the paradigm that Nietzsche wants to change through his exemplar Zarathustra. I also don’t understand the process and I am eager to hear what others think.

In my own life, I have a passionate commitment to both my family and my profession. They are world defining for me. But I am easily able justify these commitments to both myself and others and even, occasionally effect some change which I feel is for the better. What I have trouble comprehending and have a real difficult time justifying to others (especially my wife) is why I spend so many hours listening to lectures by Herbert Dreyfus and then listening to them again and then taking copious notes of what I have listened to.

BH

Michi said...

I'd like to know if it is requisite - must all such knights have a personal reason to defy the common ethos? If so, if they become public figures, do they somehow lose it?
To attempt to answer this question, I thought about it backwards and asked: “What are the consequences of their becoming a public figure? Does their becoming a public figure, alter the common ethos in some way? Does it alter their own feelings, understanding and/or personal turmoil over their ‘cause’ (for lack of a better word)?” If it does, then they might indeed loose the title, but wouldn’t they gain, perhaps, something stronger?
Now, going back once again, this does pose an interesting problem – in becoming public figures, their actions will be publicized and eventually by some, justified, so does it still defy the common ethos?
[If] Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith cannot communicate his actions in a way that could be understood by others and not even rationally understood by oneself: The Knight himself cannot communicate or justify his actions, but is there any rule exempting him if someone else does it?
My thoughts on this matter, after thinking about it awhile, were that: ifin becoming a member of the public eye, their actions and feelings do not change in any way AND if the common ethos still applies, regardless of if their actions have been publicized, well then I think they would still be a Knight of Faith.
However, for the record, I remain uncertain about these thoughts and must answer with questions, instead of conclusions.

Michi said...

To be a Knight of Faith, one has to stand alone in a way that is not comprehensible to one or others. …
…But it seems that to be a Knight of Faith, one has to completely transcend the ethical in a commitment that is impossible to communicate with others or even understand oneself.


If these are both true, then I have a few questions:
1. Since, in this day & age, there are so many different views, and usually there are groups of people who believe each, so what is the definition for the “common ethos today”?
2. Considering this, do you think it is even possible to truly BE a Knight of Faith in the purest sense of the concept anymore?
3. Is the requisite for a common ethos, or belief, one where an opinion has a much stronger, and louder, opinion than the other?
For example, although homosexuality is, basically, more accepted today (due to its exposure in our everyday media and lives), hate crimes of that nature are still occurring and people are still speaking out.
But who has the larger opinion now? AND if the majority is for homosexuality (or at least accept it and want peace, not hate crimes), than does that make those who are AGAINST it the new Knights of Faith? Oh my… If so, that really does put a sad face on my evening…

Karl Tyson said...

Thank you Michi!

You have hit the core issue I was trying to frame: If the Knight of Faith must essentially reject the common ethos or custom of the day, how do you deal with situations where that custom is in flux, or so fragmented that nobody could put their finger on it anyway?

Worse, it seems many of the paradigm cases used to tease out the Knight of Faith rebellion against the ordinary understanding happen to fall into that category - indeterminate.

The earlier discussion with Brad (BH) established the difficulty of doing this in terms of discrimination against blacks in America from 1820 - 1970, when attitudes about color were in constant flux - with some minority of people taking either extreme of the possible views on it (total equality vs. total segregation or enslavement). I am not saying one could not draw a line and say - after this point the common ethos was equality. I am saying one would have to think hard about that line.

But you have extended and generalized the problem, and let me phrase it like this: Given that it is extraordinarily hard in most cases to establish the common ethos, and counter-cultural cases are available, the aspiring Knight of Faith might not find a stance that is unique and rejects the cultural norms.

So, just like the idea that as soon as you credibly doubt the existence of God, God himself is dead (Neitzsche more or less), then as soon as the cultural milieau is in a state of rapid change, the option of being a Knight of Faith is gone. The thing that defines it has been removed. Either no-one is a Knight of Faith, or everyone is.

I would like to propose some further examples just to kick around:

Am I a Knight of Faith if I reject
1. Watching any TV?
2. Driving a car?
3. Using a computer?
4. Eating prepackaged food?

These seem to me accepted cultural attitudes that very few people reject on principle - although certainly a few do. Would any of these adequately undergird a modern Knight of Faith?

Yates said...

Chey Karl,
Glad to hear I caught on to some of that discussion afterall. Sorry for the delay, I've been menaing to come back to this since a decade ago or so. It's been a busy month -apologies.

So, just like the idea that as soon as you credibly doubt the existence of God, God himself is dead (Neitzsche more or less), then as soon as the cultural milieau is in a state of rapid change, the option of being a Knight of Faith is gone. The thing that defines it has been removed. Either no-one is a Knight of Faith, or everyone is.
It would go quickly out of style if that latter were true, I suspect… I wonder then – does this mean CULTURE itself is dead or dying? Not that we are necessarily DOUBTING the existence of culture exactly, but more that we are changing the values of what we consider art or acceptable as culturally founded material. Perhaps that is what certain modern authors and artists are attempting to create. Perhaps, in a way, some of them are the newest Knights of Faith, causing us to be shaken by the values or images they introduce to us. It would certainly make sense, since we, as a generation, have become so desensitized.

I would like to propose some further examples just to kick around:

Am I a Knight of Faith if I reject
1. Watching any TV?
2. Driving a car?
3. Using a computer?
4. Eating prepackaged food?

These are very good questions, Karl, specifically because if one lives in the States, or any European founded country for that matter, chances are you will do at least one of these activities – so is rejecting just one of these enough? Or must we reject all of them to be a pioneer of this philosophy?
I, for example, do not DRIVE a car, I usually take the bus, however I do ride in them and I feel the pull of wondering if I shouldn’t become a driver. So that kind of falls into that dilemma of the tug and pull struggle of the Knight of Faith (except I’m not doing much more that having an internal argument- no saving of slaves or fighting against the Crusades for me).

These seem to me accepted cultural attitudes that very few people reject on principle - although certainly a few do. Would any of these adequately undergird a modern Knight of Faith?
I will have to meditate on this inquiry further before giving you an adequate assessment of my opinion…