Forgone Conclusions

A real failure of a lot of political thinking is its failure to account the significance of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This phrase, svelte in its ramshackle way, comes to us from the great Danish theologian Kierkegaard, from whom we have it also that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Kierkegaard develops the concept of teleological suspension in 1843’s Fear and Trembling, in which he considers the Biblical (Genetic) Binding of Isaac. Abraham, the father of Isaac, prepares to sacrifice his son at God’s (ultimately insincere) behest, although this murder evidently would be against all morality. Kierkegaard permits Abraham’s faith in God, delity to His injunction, to overwhelm the categorical compulsion of standard morality: for this highest end-goal, telos, ethics he may suspend. 

The concept of teleological suspension is useful because it gets us thinking about the co-presence of separate and contrary obligations upon human conduct, and the difficulty of satisfactorily satisfying the set of these. In a world of viscous coup and necessary accident we must sometimes be partially rotten in order to be essentially correct. The teleological suspension of the ethical is a regular occurrence in human life, perhaps especially in political life. For instance, lots of people are willing to vote for bad candidates for office in order to keep the state out of the hands of worse candidates. The teleological questions whose answers motivate these compromises -- roughly, of the responsibility of citizens to prevent the existence of certain kinds of governments, to stave off certain states of affairs -- are obviously important to political action. There are other teleological cases that involve other types of political action. 

We can consider a case of what we might call the teleological suspension of the truthful. Take polling for presidential approval. We can assume that leading up to elections a president’s approval rating will be taken as a meter for judgment of the president’s party’s performance. When the rating is given as a simple up-down, yes-no assessment, important information is lost; a poor rating is read as a good argument for the other side (which it flatters and encourages). In advance of every set of elections that took place during Obama’s presidency, whether or not people left of Obama approved of his performance, it was in their interest to say that they did, so that their honest disapproval could not be construed, as it surely would have been, as promoting the Republican alternative. When we have perfect knowledge that we will be misinterpreted, we have the right to adjust our presentation. When the vital information is this kind of social matter it is more important to be honest than to be truthful. (This is to do with the fact that a response to a poll is not speech per se but rather a certain kind of speech-act -- it is an action rather than a strict assertion.) 

To recognize the significance of both reluctant voting and counterfeit approval should give us some hope for our current case. The president was elected with the votes of forty-six percent of the fifty-five percent who voted; his approval rating in his first weeks has rarely been as high as that first figure. His standing should be further reduced in recognition that the few who support him, or purport to, include many who do so only teleologically. 

Thinking on our present moment as it promotes the teleological suspension of the ethical provides us with an argument in favor of direct, rather than representative, democracy. It is obvious that under representative democracy such as ours, political calculations necessitate ideological concessions. One might vote to nominate a candidate whose policies’ effects would be somewhat worse than another’s, if the other seemed to have no chance of being elected to implement theirs; etc. This effect probably is responsible for some of the divergence between public opinion and public policy, where the latter lags. But the problem does not conclude with voting. Take the government we have now. While the president and the Republican Congress are both contemptible, they are differently contemptible; while many Republican members of Congress share many of Trump’s interests in the essential destruction of humane society, they probably still don’t think that he should be president. (No one is well served to have a figure of such cognitive incompetence -- that is, one who fails to make a decision in all and only those places where one is necessary -- who follows blindly his internal pathological necessity -- in charge of the nuclear arsenal.) But his presidency is a means to an end for their assorted bad interests, so they permit his continuation in the role. Moreover, it is difficult to force their hands by politics: the Left has little leverage to incline them: each right-wing office-holder represents a broad concatenated set of intolerable policies, so there can be no expectation of real political support for them. A great deal of teleological inertia thereby accrues under any representative system. (Of course, political inducement would not be necessary were most office-holders not mortally venal.) 

Against the catastrophic consequences of the problem Kierkegaard draws out, we may set some principles from Saint Augustine. Augustine, in his major work, the Confessions, reminds us to disregard the specious and superficial, and concern ourselves with the essential abstract principles, which for him reside in God, but which lose none of their significance by way of secularization. 

One particular example serves the point. In the fifth book of the Confessions, Augustine writes of his time, in his twenties, teaching rhetoric in Rome. He describes the treachery of his students, by which he was much disturbed: “ avoid paying the teacher his fee, numbers of young men would suddenly club together and transfer themselves to another tutor, breaking their word and out of love for money treating fairness as something to be outed.” Augustine notes that he was correct to be disturbed, but proposes that the manner of his disturbance at the time was misguided: “I cordially detested them, but not ‘with a perfect hatred’ (Ps. 138:22); for I probably felt more resentment for what I personally was to suffer from them than for the wrong they were doing to anyone and everyone.” 

Augustine draws a set of subtle distinctions and associations. He distinguishes between offense taken for one’s own sake and offense taken for the sake of rightness generally: only the (non-arbitrary) latter is right. Augustine recognizes that offenses against what is right are offenses against all persons: for all persons depend variously on rightness and are its natural allies. 

The point applies broadly. We may keep it in mind when we hear Americans with theocratic inclinations condemn alternative and opposed theocracy abroad: of course their narrow point is correct, but they should apprehend its relevance to their own case. Or when we think of the young Greek who, enraged at the austere brutality of the European Central Bank, joins his country’s Golden Dawn party, becomes a fascist ultranationalist. Fascist nationalists, of course, virtually destroyed Greece, among other countries, in the 1940s; and the point is that any such malignant nationalism endangers every nation, including the one that is putatively its object. 

We may keep it in mind also when the president tells a lie. The president likes to lie about small things -- the inaugural crowd, and so forth -- and is rarely held to practical account for it. We know that there are more important things to worry about -- the removal of healthcare from the access of tens of millions, the much further formalization of discrimination, the approach to nuclear war -- and that anyway he has gotten away with lying before, and we move on with our major concerns. This represents a teleological suspension of our attention. If things were decent we would not have to abide even the most minor of these lies, because every lie contains a repudiation of the truth, and in these cases not even for the purpose of honesty. Certainly the president, who never admits his mistakes, should be forced to admit his dishonesty in each case where it is so apparent. 

We may keep it in mind when we see people allow themselves to be lied to. It is presumably insane to consider a political affiliation more significant than one’s affiliation with truth -- while the exigencies of politics may compel cooperation with a politician who lies, this never justifies lies themselves. (And of course the acceptance of chronic untruthfulness has its own consequences, such as the collapse of evidentiary standards, from which every person and purpose must suffer.) The fact that persons can be divided between political affiliations and ineffable principles such as of truth suggests that many political affiliations, and personal qualities generally, are arbitrarily, tropistifically assumed, and undermines the laissez-faire presumption that human behavior, namely consumptive behavior, reasonably represents core human evaluative attitudes. 

Humanistic universalism is our best course. Nationalism is typically irrational except as a constituent subsidiary of internationalism. One’s real enemy is the enemy of the principles that should be all of ours (whose we should all be), or rather the fact of their opposition to these. The surest final way to defeat one’s enemies is to see all human beings re-allied to the principles that are distinctly human. The way to defend one’s principles is to comply with them. Freedom, never slavery, is service. 

For Augustine the solution is God. For Augustine God is “the truth, the the abundant source of assured goodness and most chaste peace.” Whether or not we can have God we must have the truth, which we can promote by making claims in good faith (that is, on good evidence) and being honest about our reasons. For recourse beyond this, the numinousness of human nurture and culture, the abstract slapstick of good humor, the shared separateness of persons: all these too.