Nietzsche and Kierkegaard on the Ethical

By Raj N. Patel


Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are two great thinkers of the 19th century who had numerous points of philosophical intersection. Both had a distaste and suspicion for religious authority and instead emphasized individualism and subjectivity. However, one main area of disagreement between them the conception of the “ethical”: Nietzsche had a great distaste toward a conventional universal moral code of behavior, whereas it is precisely this universal ethic that characterizes Kierkegaard’s “ethical stage of life” which constitutes an important presupposition for his notion of the “religious stage of life”. In this paper, I will explore Kierkegaard and Nietzsche‘s conception of the ethical to elucidate some of their key differences and similarities. I will begin by describing how Kierkegaard characterizes the ethical and ethical behavior as consisting of deeply personal choices. I will show why Kierkegaard thinks that the ethical is an important presupposition for long-term commitments (such as marriage) and for a stable personhood. Judge Wilhelm‘s efforts to compel the aesthete (“A”) to turn toward the ethical life in Either/Or II will prove useful here. Next I will turn Nietzsche’s conception of the ethical and a universal ethical behavior and illuminate why a universal moral code presents such a danger for humanity. This will involve a discussion of Nietzsche’s firm belief in the hierarchy between people and his ideas about a “healthy” moral code, that is, a moral code which does not prescribe a universal code of behavior but recognizes the fundamental hierarchy that exists between people. I will end by arguing that Nietzsche‘s account falls short in two key areas and show why a universal moral code is ultimately more desirable than Nietzsche‘s conception of “healthy” moral codes.

For Kierkegaard, the ethical stage in life is one characterized by the deepest and most significant choices. In Either/Or Part II, Judge Wilhelm‘s main point of contention with the aesthete is that the aesthetic stage of life is marked by a lack of significant choice (“for the aesthetical is not evil but neutrality, and that is the reason why I affirmed that it is the ethical which constitutes the choice” (EO2, my emphasis)). Even the title of “Either/Or” has significance here: the choice is between either the ethical or the aesthetic (“what is it, then, that I distinguish in my either/or? Is it good and evil? No, I would only bring you up to the point where the choice between the evil and the good acquires significance for you” EO2)). The evil and the good only acquire significance in the ethicist‘s life. Surely one could raise the objection that the aesthete does have choices and in fact has many more choices than someone in the ethical stage of life. Without a firm commitment to the ethical and therefore to other people the aesthete can indulge in the choices that wouldn‘t be available in the ethical stage. For example, Don Juan, the exemplary aesthete, can choose which woman to seduce, how to seduce, and so on, without regard to anyone’s feelings but his own. However, what Judge Wilhelm is getting at is defining the conditions in which a proper ethical choice can be made and therefore have any kind of significance or meaning. He is highlighting the trivial nature of the aesthete’s choice compared to the deeply significant choice faced by someone in the ethical stage. Don Juan’s preference over one woman or another is not of any real significance to him and probably doesn‘t involve any deeply difficult reflection whereas the significance of the ethical choice is derived precisely by what is at stake when one makes the choice.
For example, consider the dilemma faced by Julia in the movie Hellraiser. Julia is asked to kill innocent human beings in order to nourish Frank’s (her lover) soul so that he can become fully human again after an unfortunate accident involving a satanic Pandora‘s Box. Luring unsuspecting people back to the room where Frank can feast on their blood and become strong again involves dooming a perhaps innocent person to a painful and traumatic death. On the other hand, if she doesn’t choose to do this, Frank will not be able to sustain himself and so her refusal to bring humans for Frank to feast on will result in her lover‘s death. This choice is undeniably harder than Don Juan‘s choice precisely because of what is at stake depending on what action is chosen by Julia. This is exactly what Judge Wilhelm is getting at: The moment of choice is very serious to me, not so much on account of the rigorous cogitation involved in weighing the alternatives, not on account of the multiplicity of thoughts which attach themselves to every link in the chain, but rather because there is danger afoot, danger that the next instant it may not be equally in my power to choose, that something already has been lived which must be lived again. To think that for an instant one can keep one‘s personality a blank, or that strictly speaking one can break off and bring to a halt the course of the personal life, is a delusion. The personality is already interested in the choice before one chooses, and when the choice is postponed the personality chooses unconsciously, or the choice is made by obscure powers within it. So when at last the choice is made, one discovers (…) that there is something which must be done over again, something which must be revoked, and this is often very difficult. (EO2, p. 483, my emphasis)
Consider if Julia chooses not to lure men in order to save Frank from his death because she considers it to be a morally reprehensible action after some ethical reflection. Perhaps she reasons that Frank was entirely responsible for his own demise by opening the satanic Pandora‘s Box and therefore it would not be morally permissible for her to lure other perhaps innocent human beings to death to pay for Frank‘s mistake despite her deep love for him. The reasoning is clear but the choice would be undeniably difficult (her love for Frank presumably means that her “personality” has already developed an inclination toward saving him); saving the lives of innocent men (at least innocent in the sense they are not morally culpable for Frank‘s situation) comes at the price of her lover’s life.
Further, for Kierkegaard, the ethical stage in life allows the human being to achieve a stable personhood that wouldn’t be possible in the aesthetic stage.1 The aesthete is never directed by the constant purpose and stable set of values over time that the ethicist is bound to; instead the aesthete lives “only in the moment” which means that her life necessarily “disintegrates” (EO, p. 493). The ethicist’s life cannot be characterized by the lack of stability and continuity which marks the aesthete’s life because the ethicist can engage in life-long commitments that allow the construction of a coherent self-identity. This is because the ethical stage of life is where our actions are informed by stable principles as opposed to the aesthetic stage where our actions are contingent upon ephemeral proclivities and inclinations. It is precisely this presentism2 that precludes long term commitment to certain projects or goals.
Marriage is one such example of a long term commitment that presupposes the ethical stage of life. The aesthetic romantic lover (e.g. Don Juan) is not bound by commitment and can escape a relationship at any point when duty or commitment arise whereas the married ethicist is bound by commitment and obligation through time; in other words, to the aesthete, duty and pleasure are fundamentally opposed and form a dichotomy. For Judge Wilhelm and the ethicist, there is no such dichotomy (“you regard duty as the enemy of love; I regard it as its friend”; “No, duty comes as an old friend, an intimate, a confidant, whom the lovers mutually recognize in the deepest secret of their love” EO, p. 468/469). It is not difficult to see what Kierkegaard is getting at here: a marriage entails a long term commitment that would not allow the kind of thinking that marks the life of the aesthete, that is, a life view that “teaches enjoy life” and “live for your desire” (EO, p. 496). The ethical authority of the commitment in the marriage, and commitment to the marriage, must become a natural antagonist to the kind of thinking that would compel a person to instantaneously act on one desire or another. Therefore trivial aesthetic desires are trumped by the moral principles on which a genuine marriage is built upon.
Thus, for Kierkegaard, the ethical stage of life is characterized by an emphasis on choice, and indeed contains the necessary preconditions on which any meaningful choice can be made at all. The stable values given to us in the ethical stage allow for a coherent personhood and self-identity which further allows for long-term projects to be pursued and realized because trivial aesthetic desires are deemed irrelevant to overarching ethical principles. These ethical principles are a universal set of principles (“the ethical as such is the universal, it applies to everyone” FT, p. 83) that involve a deeply personal and subjective commitment that must be recognized (“It [the ethical] can be realized only by the individual subject, who alone can know what it is that moves within him” from PS in Bretall 1973, p. 226). The universalization of ethical principles and thus ethical behavior does not preclude the subjectivity and the personal nature of the choices and kind of life involved.
For Nietzsche, however, the ethical is destructive because the kinds of the demands of a universal set of principles impose upon an individual. A universal code of action is necessarily impersonal because the principle that the action is predicated upon (in a universal ethical system) has its imperative external to the agent (“virtue”, “duty”, “goodness in itself,” goodness that has been stamped with the character of the impersonal and universally valid “these are fantasies and manifestations of decline” A.11). The impersonality which necessarily accompanies the universality of ethical principles is what is most disturbing because Nietzsche thinks this is necessarily destructive and unhealthy:
Whatever is not a condition for life harms it: a virtue that comes exclusively from a feeling of respect for the concept of “virtue” … is harmful (…) what could be more destructive than working, thinking, feeling, without any inner need, any deeply personal choice, any pleasure? as an automaton of “duty?” (A.11, emphasis in original)
It is crucial to recognize that the point of disagreement between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche lies precisely in the nature of the universalization; Nietzsche thinks universalization necessarily implies a loss of deeply personal choice whereas Kierkegaard does not accept this dichotomy. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s discussion about the ethical in Either/Or II is largely a discussion on the importance of choice and therefore Kierkegaard would share Nietzsche’s sentiments on the dangers that accompany acting impersonally and without a “deeply personal choice”. To fully understand what Nietzsche is getting at we must recognize that he thinks a universal set of principles (conventional morality) unjustifiably favors “weaker” human beings over the strong. Nietzsche believes in a fundamental hierarchy that exists between human beings and argues that it is dangerous and unhealthy for a universal set of moral principles to be externally imposed upon a “higher” human being (“our weak, unmanly social concepts of good and evil and their tremendous ascendancy over body and soul have … snapped the self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men” D.163; the theme continues throughout his work: see BGE.3.62; EH.3.5; GM.PF.6; GM.1.13; GM.3.14; A.11; A.5). This belief in the fundamental hierarchy between human beings means that some human beings (namely the “higher” human beings) should not have the external imposition of moral customs forced upon them, rather, they should be allowed to create their own values and customs (“a virtue needs to be our own invention, our own most personal need and self-defence: in any other sense, a virtue is just dangerous” A.11).
The objection is not aimed at all moral codes or morality in general; only the moral codes which are harmful to life, in other words, “unhealthy” (this is the “slave morality”; see GM.I.15). Indeed, “health”, “harmfulness [to life]”, and other biological and naturalistic considerations provide the main criteria for the evaluation of moral codes and systems for Nietzsche. A moral code that differentiates between natural ranks of human beings and therefore lays down different rules of conduct for different “types” of human being is one that is healthy in the Nietzschean sense. For this reason, Nietzsche praises what he calls “Indian [Hindu] morality” because of its hierarchical separation between castes:
Let us consider the other method for “improving” mankind, the method of breeding a particular race or type of man. The most magnificent example of this is furnished by Indian morality, sanctioned as religion in the form of “the law of Manu.” Here the objective is to breed no less than four races within the same society: one priestly, one warlike, one for trade and agriculture, and finally a race of servants, the Sudras. (…) One breathes a sigh of relief at leaving the Christian atmosphere of disease and dungeons for this healthier, higher, and wider world. How wretched is the New Testament compared to Manu, how foul it smells! (TI.8.3, emphasis added)
If a moral code that prescribes different standards and codes of conduct between different castes is the healthiest then one that reinforces a fundamental belief in the equality between humans is the unhealthiest. The unhealthiness of the universal moral code of conduct is derived from the danger posed to the “strong” human beings as the ―weak‖ are favored by a universal ethic; this is a deeply disturbing for Nietzsche. The real issue here is the consequence of the universal moral ethic. Why exactly does the “weak” winning over the “strong” present such a dangerous state of affairs for Nietzsche? At the heart of his criticism is the claim that the universal moral code creates a barrier to human flourishing and excellence because it imposes limits on the “higher men”. This is because a universal moral code will encourage qualities such as altruism, a belief in equality and compassion (staples of the slave morality); whereas the “higher” and “stronger” human has qualities such as indifference to suffering, selfishness, and a firm belief in hierarchy and difference (staples of the “master morality”; see GM.I.5; GM.I.6). The latter “stronger” qualities are what are required for the growth and development of the “higher” human being, and therefore, these are the same qualities that are required for human excellence and flourishing.
Thus in the Nietzschean picture the ethical is characterized by the destructive force that it has on “higher” individuals and thus to human flourishing. In essence, Nietzsche’s objection is that it forces certain humans to recognize the “other” or “others” which interferes with greatness or human flourishing and unjustifiably favors “weaker” humans. The Kierkegaardian emphasis on the deeply personal ethical choice is not intelligible for Nietzsche since the imperative of the ethical action (in accordance with a universal code of conduct) is external to the agent; in fact, a deeply personal choice may not even be possible in such conditions (see GM.I.13).
Despite these differences, there is much common ground between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. They both recognize the importance of deeply personal and subjective choices (even if the conditions in which the choices can be made may be different for the two thinkers); they both recognize that a long term goal or commitment requires at least some sort of stability and is not possible by someone who is constantly acting upon ephemeral desires (“the great man – a man whom nature has constructed and invented in grand style – what is he? First: there is a long logic to all of his activity, hard to survey because of its length” WP.962; also see Nietzsche‘s refutations of hedonism and acting in order to purely secure happiness BGE.225; BGE.228); they both find impersonal choice and blind adherence to any system destructive and dangerous (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both provide scathing critiques of institutionalized religion).
I argue that Nietzsche‘s account of the ethical falls short in two critical areas where Kierkegaard’s doesn’t. Firstly, an aspect in which Kierkegaard seems to be more compelling are his preconditions for the significance of the ethical choice and thus the deeply personal nature of the ethical choice. Let us reconsider our Hellraiser example. Julia’s dilemma was between the life of her lover and the lives of a few unknown human beings. Her ethical reflections led to the devastating conclusion that the ethically permissible act would condemn her lover to his doom. The ethical evaluation certainly had some notions of equality between persons; a belief in the dignity of the other; indeed a certain selflessness (all staples of the kind of universal moral ethic that is so destructive for Nietzsche). Can we conceivably characterize her choice as an impersonal one simply because the action that was undertaken after the ethical reflection would be required by all individuals acting in accordance with the same universal ethical precept? I argue no. Precisely what is at stake, namely the life of her lover, which presumably is of extreme intrinsic importance to her, is what makes the choice a most personal and pressing matter. Moreover, many people face extremely difficult ethical dilemmas many times throughout their lives: are their choices any less personal because they may be informed by an ethical principle that is universal and binding? The choices and the actions can still be, on a most fundamental level, personal.4 The universality and obligatory nature of a set of collective ethical principles does not mean that the action is necessarily impersonal.
My second fundamental objection to Nietzsche‘s characterization of the ethical concerns his claim that universal ethical behavior is unnatural. Kierkegaard claims that the ethical is universal; this does not seem problematic to him. It is a fundamental concern for Nietzsche. However, it is not clear how Nietzsche can claim a universal moral code denotes weakness and danger when his criterion for evaluation of moralities is what is “natural” and “healthy”. Even the term “natural” is problematic here. Consider his example of the Indian morality which he argues is much “higher” and “healthier” than a moral code that recognizes equality between persons. Nietzsche recognizes that this hierarchical structure has no metaphysical foundation (as is claimed by its proponents within Hindu literature), and indeed, it is a societal arrangement created and sustained through a religious and cultural narrative that violently asserts precisely a metaphysical foundation by those that have a firm interest in keeping the hierarchy (that is, the highest and priestly caste, the Brahmins).5 The essential differences that are posited by the hierarchy are entirely created through conditions imposed upon the lower castes by those in the higher castes and thus the differences between the castes are not natural by any means. What must be highlighted is the contingency with which those in the structure are caught in its web: those who are born to a lower caste are denoted as “weak” by an external system simply by accident of birth. A universal moral code that recognizes that the essential “caste” differences between the Chandala and the Brahmin (two opposite poles of the caste system) are accidental, and indeed, that there is no essential difference between the two, is infinitely more desirable than the alternative that Nietzsche praises. Without the notion of the essential difference, there is no justification for the kinds of treatment that lower castes (or “weaker” people, in Nietzschean terms) are subject to because there is simply no justification for the denotation of “weakness” onto them.
In conclusion, I showed that the Kierkegaardian conception of the ethical is more compelling than the Nietzschean one. Nietzsche’s characterization of the ethical is too simple; he is too quick to dismiss the possibility of a thoughtful and meaningful engagement in ethical behavior. Indeed, many of his criticisms against impersonality and blind adherence to ethical principles would be shared by Kierkegaard: those who are following blindly and acting without reflection are not engaged in ethical behavior in the Kierkegaardian sense (there are strict preconditions that must be met). I showed why Kierkegaard deems ethical behavior to be so important for long-term commitments as well as a stable personhood and why Nietzsche thinks that it is so destructive. It was also on this point where I highlighted that Nietzsche ran into some fundamental problems that render his account inferior to the Kierkegaardian account. I argued that the notion of “natural”, which Nietzsche seems to use to justify many of his claims about which moral codes are more desirable than others, is not a justifiable criterion of evaluation. From our considerations here I hope to have shown that Kierkegaard’s account seems more subtle and correct in its explanation of ethical behavior.


1 Kierkegaard makes numerous claims indicating that the aesthete does not have a stable personality or personhood because of the lack of continuity by which he/she may act (“unless the individual has originally apprehended himself as a concrete personality in continuity, he will not acquire this later continuity” EO, p. 553; for more, see p. 536; p. 503; p. 435).
2 Where the term “presentism” denotes a “lack of unity … [an] unwillingness to abide by a constant set of values over time … [an affinity to] being swayed by present stimuli” (Angier 2006, p. 38)
3 This would happen, of course, only if Kierkegaard accepted that acting in accordance with universal principles precludes the possibility of a deeply personal choice.
4Even Nietzsche, to a certain degree, recognizes this (“Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that‖ GS.V.354).
5 In the passage where Nietzsche talks about Indian morality being “higher” and “healthier” than “the world of the New Testatment”, he goes on to write “this method also found it necessary to be terrible — not in the struggle against beasts, but against their equivalent — the ill-bred man, the mongrel man, the chandala. And again the breeder had no other means to fight against this large group of mongrel men than by making them sick and weak (…) The success of such sanitary police measures was inevitable: murderous epidemics, ghastly venereal diseases, and thereupon again “the law of the knife,” ordaining circumcision for male children and the removal of the internal labia for female children” (TI.8.3, emphasis added). The point being that Nietzsche clearly recognizes that there is an imposition of conditions which creates differences between those that are born in different castes (what he deems “sanitary measures”).


List of Abbreviations of Cited Philosophical Texts:
BGE – Beyond Good and Evil
GM – On the Genealogy of Morality
TI – Twilight of the Idols
GS – The Gay Science
EH – Ecce Homo
D – Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality
EO – Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
PS – Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
FT – Fear and Trembling
Angier, T. P. (2006). Either Kierkegaard / Or Nietzsche: Moral Philosophy in a New Key (Intersections: Continental and Analytic Philosophy) (Intersections: Continental and Analytic … Continental and Analytic Philosophy). Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Clark, M., Nietzsche, F. W., & Swensen, A. J. (1998). On the Genealogy of Morality (New Ed ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Kaufmann, F., & (translator, W. (1968). The Will to Power. New York: Vintage Books.
Kierkegaard, S. (1973). A Kierkegaard Anthology (1st Princeton Paperback Ed ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kierkegaard, S. (1986). Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Classics.
Kierkegaard, S. (1992). Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (Penguin Classics) (New Ed ed.). London: Penguin Classics.
Nietzsche, F. (1997). Nietzsche: Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (2 ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2005). Nietzsche: The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. W. (1967). The Will to Power (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Raj N. Patel (’10) is a Philosophy major at George Washington University.

Art courtesy of orbituated.

One thought on “Nietzsche and Kierkegaard on the Ethical

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *