ISIS/Suspension of Ethics

The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.

To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally a secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?

The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.

This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).

Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic.  Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.

With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.

Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.

Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.

I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.


13 thoughts on “ISIS/Suspension of Ethics

  1. Well done Gary. But the problem as I see it for our religious friends is that they are not likely to see their possible suspension of secular ethical belief in the light that you cast so well. Rather, like so many of us in other areas, they will say “that’s what the other guy (or the other guy’s religion) does, not me (or my religion).” I am always a bit dumbfounded when my more religious friends object to me raising the history of religious abuse (the crusades etc) as an instructor on the grounds that “that was long ago” and somehow meaningless now.

    And we should be aware that there have also been ‘secular gods’ who have demanded and obtained suspension of those same secular ethical beliefs in fealty to themselves or to their system of belief. Mankind seems to have historically needed someone or something to believe in, to merge with, and raise what he/she perceives as his otherwise (unacknowledged) meaningless life to some transcendent level. This need has most often been filled by religion, but there have also existed other “isms” that have filled the more recently created ‘god shaped hole’ and demanded suspension of those same secular ethical norms in pursuit of that supposed transcendent meaning (often just personal power clothed in what is presented as better raiment). And those other isms have also wreaked havoc on humanity. When those isms have collapsed the followers do not generally do a mea culpa and accept responsibility but rather claim they were misled, subverted in some fashion by the secular god. Never personally responsible, they all become Eichmann.

    Maybe the difference between the religious true believer and the isms true believer is not in their suspension of ethical belief in pursuit of their cause but in their explanation when it inevitably falls apart. Gods are never fallible, but secular gods are. Easier to blame the secular god and claim you were led astray or just following orders than to blame the omnipotent and supposedly all powerful God.


    • Agreed, Michael. I object to the “teleological suspension of ethics” by religious or secular entities. I think Kierkegaard himself would see both these “suspensions” as bogus. He clarifies Abraham’s position by comparison to Agamemnon. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in order to save his men and sail for Troy. Although his situation seems at first glance to be like Abraham’s, it is not a true teleological suspension of ethics, but rather a conflict within the ethical realm, wherein one ethical obligation (to his men) supersedes another ethical obligation (to his daughter). Abraham, unlike Agamemnon, cannot reach his decision through ratiocination or “mediation”; he must reject the ethical dimension entirely and act “by virtue of the absurd.” The religious and secular abuses of which you and I speak are public practices for the presumed “betterment” of society – a subordination of one ethical principle to a higher one. I think Kierkegaard would scoff at them. For myself, I see your point, but I’d still be more nervous with the religious ethic, where an inscrutable God is the highest authority. Where a humanist ethics based on rational principles is the highest authority, at least one has to make some effort to show that one’s actions match up to those principles (however misguided).

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  2. I think you have put your finger on the problem. Religious people often argue that religion does not lead to atrocities and that atrocities in the name of religion are carried out by misguided people. That may be true, but as you show, any system of belief that leads people to believe that it “trumps” normal ethics carries this inherent danger.


  3. Brilliantly expressed. Citing an invisible, unaccountable deity to commit cold-blooded murder is the most dangerous justification of all in the suspension of ethics, decency or compassion.


    • Thanks. I actually think Kierkegaard may have had the same thought and it caused him lifelong anxiety. As he struggled with what it means to be a Christian, the Abraham story was a breaking point, a gut check. Could he have done what Abraham did (agreed to kill Isaac on command)? Kierkegaard could not “mediate” Abraham’s choice in any way with normal ethics. To Kierkegaard, “easy Christians” live out their “Christian” lives without ever asking themselves if they could do what Abraham did. They skip over that conundrum. But Kierkegaard could not look away. Either you had to admit you were unwilling to take that step with Abraham, stick with the “ethical” life, and give up Christianity. Or you had to be willing to take that step with Abraham. And if you were so willing, what does that mean? One could argue that Kierkegaard’s whole philosophy of Christian existentialism is his attempt to answer that question. (So you and I took the “either” choice, and Kierkegaard found he could only take the “or” by inventing the philosophy of Christian existentialism.)


  4. Gary,
    As you know I have often maintained that one of the most dangerous things facing us globally is so called “organized religion,” much to the consternation of my Christian friends who are ready to agree as to Islam but not to Christianity. All religions seem to have a fundamentalist branch (and yes my Christian friends that includes Christianity) and many kill non-believers and those who oppose them. But even where they don’t kill them they dehumanize and marginalize them. But after decades of debating this issue with friends who are believers I have come to the conclusion, so eloquently expressed by a lapsed Jewish friend, who once chastised me for arguing against biblical literalism with an Evangelical, by saying : “Michael, you can’t discuss reality with people who believe in fairy tales.”

    He was right, but I have also come to believe that, in different shades, most of us believe in fairy tales; stories we tell ourselves that we end up living and that become our illusory web (what I think you call “subjective organizing webs”). So the only solution I see is to try to drop all the armor; drop all belief systems. Probably impossible but I think worth the effort to move a bit down that road.


    • I sympathize with your point about “organized religion,” but I’m reluctant to shut down our myth-making capacity, our capacity to create narratives about the world. The Freudian in me thinks that our individual lives would be an incoherent chaos without such narratives, and the Romantic in me still clings to the idea that more than religion, more than science, the imagination is our redemptive power, individually and collectively.


      • Well I don’t want to lose my imagination either; its what has me convinced I am a bright attractive guy and that you are usually wrong when you oppose my point of view. But seriously I understand your hesitancy and I have it as well. It probably doesn’t matter as neither of us will ever succeed at jettisoning those illusions.


  5. A fantastic essay, glad to have stumbled on someone so knowledgable about Kierkegaard!

    One thing I want to note (leading towards a question for you), in relation to your points that for Kierkegaard ethics is about universal principles and dictates of God are about teleologically suspending the ethical, is that what makes ethics universal is that all can understand and access the validity of those principles. Part of what makes commands of God non-ethical is that they cannot be understood by any others (hence the fascination with Tarquinius Superbus). But it seems that members of ISIS do understand each other, hence why it is a large militancy. My question to you is, should we expand the scope of who can understand a dictate of faith while it still being a commandment of the absolute in Kierkegaard’s sense, or should the fact that it is such a large movement lead us to conclude that this is not a legitimate dictate of faith, and the reasons for the movement are universally accessible non-ethical reasons, perhaps socio-political reasons having to do with biases in favor of patriarchy and conservatism? Anyways, very excited to see you connect ISIS and Kierkegaard’s thoughts on faith, and I am curious as to what you think in regards to the question just posed.

    Looking forward to reading more of your excellent writing,


    • When you suggest that the ISIS example is, from Kierkegaard’s point of view, “not a legitimate dictate of faith, and the reasons for the movement are universally accessible non-ethical reasons, perhaps socio-political reasons,” I think you get it exactly right (although I could not have said it so well myself). Yes to ethics being universally accessible to human understanding, whereas the movement of faith is specifically not universally accessible to human understanding. The movement of faith is always a lone relation between the individual and the absolute, and it does not lend itself to social deployments. Full disclosure: I have not studied Kierkegaard the way a philosophy professor might study Kierkegaard, so my opinions are not authoritative, but at least they get us talking 🙂


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