Moral Virtue, Mental Health, and Happiness: The Moral Psychology of Kierkegaard’s Judge William

Peter J. Mehl, “Moral Virtue, Mental Health, and Happiness:  The Moral Psychology of Kierkegaard’s Judge William;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 155-82



This article discusses the relationship between “ethics and the psychological sciences (both broadly construed)” as that relationship is expressed by Judge William.  In pointing to the discussion of the self and the nature of personhood, and how these influence how we understand ethics and define mental health, Mehl has clearly put his finger on something important in Kierkegaard’s writings.  E/O I is largely intended as a depiction of how the self breaks down when one does not attend to these things.  The esthete does not strive to become a self, and hence disintegrates; even A is terrified by the Seducer, who is in fact the incarnation of A’s own psychological and moral theories.  E/O II presents an ethical person writing to A, trying to explain to him the true nature of the self, why the self needs to be ethical to be healthy, and what the nature of that “ethical” is.  Later (particularly pseudonymous) writings similarly employ this basic argument:  here is the nature of the self, and for the self to be healthy one needs to adopt this sort of life.

Mehl points out that the ethical person is often not in fact happy, and the “strong autonomy” like William advocates often leaves one the least happy because William’s ethics are not in fact livable.  You can never be perfect, you can never be completely self-aware, and you can never be fully autonomous.  Striving to be so only leads to frustration and unhappiness.  On the other hand, many self-absorbed or shallow esthetes are quite happy.  Mehl points out that William rejects this because such “happiness” is not based on anything the individual can control, but rather on external circumstances.  Mehl also argues that the only thing that makes William’s “strong autonomy” either viable or desirable is that his ethics is essentially theonomous.

I think Mehl goes astray in applying today’s standards of “mental health” to William’s argument.  Today’s therapist wants the patient to be happy above all else.  William has a more Kantian notion (and it is significant that Mehl makes so little mention of Kant).  For Kant, only the ethical person is truly free, truly rational and truly a person.  The person who aims at happiness becomes unfree and irrational; and since rationality is the hallmark of personhood, the person who acts for any reason other than moral duty is not really a person.  The fact that this moral agent may be less happy than the Epicurean is of no concern to Kant; and it seems to be of little concern to Judge William as well.  I say “little” because William, unlike Kant, does have a notion of an “equilibrium between the esthetic and the ethical.”  He believes that the ethical actually makes life more beautiful and, ultimately, happier than it would have been.  However, to act for the sake of attaining that sort of happiness would be to treat the ethical as only a means to that end, and that would not be to act ethically at all.  If I marry because I am convinced that marriage will in fact be the most romantically and erotically fulfilling life for me, my commitment isn’t to the marriage or my spouse; it is to me and my happiness.  In that case, I am not ethical at all, but still esthetic.  Only if I turn my life over to the ethical and live for its sake can I experience the happiness that comes from being ethical.  In E/O I, A remarks that one who pursues happiness often misses it by pursuing it; but he is unable to understand why.  William is offering an explanation:  the one who pursues the equilibrium that will lead to true happiness will lack the necessary condition to experience it, since the condition is that one be oriented towards the ethical rather than towards the esthetic; but the one who chooses the ethical will find that the esthetic comes back as well, even though it was not chosen.

Mehl notes that William’s description of the ethical in fact is a formula for despair, since it cannot be fulfilled.  He attributes this to William’s being part of a particular theological and moral tradition.  In this, I think he is on to something.  The overall structure of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship is to carry out the Pauline/Augustinian understanding of the relationship between ethics and faith:  the Law is a disciplinarian whose job is not to save, but to drive one to the Gospel.  Is that William’s understanding of his intention?  I don’t think so.   William tends to veer off before his reasoning reaches the breaking point.  His God is too ready to bless our moral efforts.  While the sermon in the “Ultimatum” may say that “as against God, we are always in the wrong,” William doesn’t really see it that way.  William doesn’t even realize the vast gulf between his own religious claims and those of the sermon he includes in his writings.  For William, we fulfill our duty to God by being ethical and by bearing God in mind while we do so.  We may fall short, through accident or ignorance or even failure of will; but William doesn’t see this as a major problem.  As long as one wills the ethical and strives with all one’s might, one can be said to have chosen “the good” and thus to be good.  The religion of Paul, who denounced all his previous striving to fulfill the Law as “garbage,” is completely alien to William.  His push for “strong autonomy” is more conceptual than theological, more Kant than Luther:  “strong autonomy” is the only true autonomy, and only the autonomous person is truly a person, truly free from the disintegrating forces of “obscure passions within” and social currents without.  Kierkegaard’s argument is that this sort of autonomy cannot stop short of “bankruptcy” except by an arbitrary choice:  Either willfully cut off ethical reasoning and accept one’s limited success in fulfilling the absolute moral law as “good enough”/Or follow the ethical to its logical conclusion, admit that one cannot fulfill its requirements, and throw oneself on God’s mercy.  William does not make this argument; he cannot, since he has “chosen” to remain partly unaware of his own moral failure and his own need for a radically religious alternative.  He can no more admit his need for the religious without thereby ceasing to be ethical than A could admit his need to choose good and evil without thereby choosing to be ethical.  That is why any discussion of the need for the religious or the ultimate unfulfillability of the ethical must wait for religious personae, such as Frater Taciturnus.


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