An Instance of Guilt

by Carl Pierer

GuiltA key ingredient to the good life seems to be that we, for ourselves, choose our goals and commitments. Indeed, Immanuel Kant goes as far as to claim that this is a necessary prerequisite for actions to have any moral worth at all. Individual Autonomy is widely accepted as an ideal. Kantianism and Consequentialism, two of the major contemporary ethical theories, disagree on many an issue, but this they value equally. However, in a recent paper, Thomas Miles from Boston College used Soren Kierkegaard's criticism of the ethical life and applied it to the concept of individual autonomy. This essay will first reconstruct Kierkegaard's and Miles' four main arguments and second try to demonstrate that the most powerful of those – the guilt trap – presupposes a religious point of view.

Kierkegaard's Either/Or was published pseudonymously under the name of Victor Eremita in 1843. Eremita claims to have found the papers of the book, which are written by four different authors. These writings are by A (the aesthete), Johannes the Seducer, B or Judge William and a Jutland priest. A's papers together with The Seducer's Diary form the first (the aesthetic life view), William's letters together with the priest's sermon the second part (the ethical life view). According to Miles, it is in William's letters that we find one of the most eloquent and sophisticated expositions of an autonomous ethical life. Very roughly, it can be sketched as follows.

“What I have said to you so often I say once more, or rather shout it to you: either/or; aut/aut.” The ethical life is all about choosing. By choosing and committing to a certain path of life, the ethical person takes responsibility for herself. By “choosing oneself”, she accepts her past and will identify with her present and future actions. Accepting something that connects past, present and future events gives herself continuity in time. Since commitment to duty and responsibility for herself, the ultimate aspiration of the ethical life, can be achieved autonomously, she is independent of the world. “Therefore, the truly ethical person has an inner serenity and sense of security, for he does not have duty outside himself but within himself”, Judge William writes. Miles identifies four main arguments against this position in Kierkegaard's authorship. He calls them: the guilt trap, the self-mastery argument, the problem of meaning and the loss of self.

The guilt trap

Although we might hold honourable ideals of ethical behaviour, it is hardly imaginable that anyone could live without ever committing a single wrong. The guilt trap argument is based on this fact. Miles reconstructs this argument from two distinct sources: the Jutland priest's letter in Either/Or and Climacus' (another of Kierkegaard's many pseudonyms, not to be confused with Anti-Climacus) writings in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. We might go ahead and choose our ethical life wholeheartedly but none of us manages to live up to it. There are a couple of reasons for that.

First, we all have a past. Since we do not choose (in the ethicist's sense) how to live at birth, we will have committed wrongs by the time we do so. This is a problem for Judge William. He writes that to choose oneself means to accept one's past (including one's failures) and thus to embrace one's guilt and to repent. However, Miles asks with Kierkegaard, “how, having repented and having found oneself guilty, could one possibly move on to the second step of living happily and securely in this world, serenely trusting in one's own ethical rectitude?” The ethicist's fulfilment in life is to live ethically. But, since we are fallible, this is not completely feasible. It seems the ethicist's life is a failure by her own standards.

Second, guilt “traps”. There is no way we can ignore or diminish it; the more and harder we try, the more guilty we become. Comparing, for instance, is a route chosen all too often: “But it's not that bad. He did the same!” Yet it appears that this achieves nothing but makes us even more guilty. This is related to the third point.

Third, to get rid of our guilt we depend on others. Suppose, William has not been completely honest with you. As a good ethicist he will feel guilty about it. To regain his initial status of innocence, he depends on your forgiveness. This challenges the autonomous life conception. Although we can – perfectly autonomous – become guilty, there is no way we can autonomously rid ourselves of guilt.

Following Miles, the next three arguments can be found in The Sickness unto Death. Written by Anti-Climacus, another of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, this book analyses various forms of despair and proposes a way out of it. Miles suggests that what Anti-Climacus calls “active defiant despair” comes close to the idea of individual autonomy.


Judge William writes that the ethicist commits herself entirely, even passionately to choosing herself. The problem, however, is that this commitment cannot be binding any stronger than a will to loosen those ties. The will that binds her to her commitment is just the same as the one that detaches her. Anti-Climacus argues: “In the whole dialectic within which it acts there is nothing steadfast; at no moment is the self steadfast, that is, eternally steadfast. The negative form of the self exercises a loosening power as well as a binding power; at any time it can quite arbitrarily start all over again, and no matter how long one idea is pursued, the entire action is within a hypothesis.” We cannot possible master ourselves, because what is to be mastered is the same as what does the mastering.

Problem of Meaning

If, as A would say and Judge William agrees, there is no metaphysical entity to give meaning to your life, meaning has to stem from your choices. Indeed, if there were such a power to give meaning to the autonomous person's life, it would constitute an infringement upon the person's autonomy. But Judge William says “either/or”, it doesn't matter which path you choose as long as you choose. This implies that meaning is entirely self-created. Anti-Climacus takes issue with this idea. He doubts that we can create meaning for our lives ourselves. Moreover, if the Self-Mastery Argument applies, then we cannot bind ourselves to our commitments. Since they can be resolved at will, our attachment will remain entirely experimental or hypothetical. On a whim, we can declare our life project null and void.

The Loss of Self

In Either/Or, Judge William the ethicist argues that A doesn't get a hold of his self. He offers “choosing oneself” a solution. It is very curious then that this path is criticised on the very same terms by Anti-Climacus. The problem is, again, the continuous reinvention of oneself. As Miles puts it: “Not only does the autonomous individual fail to create a self that he wants to have, but his continual attempts to construct a created, hypothetical self result in a failure to have a substantial self altogether.” At first, this criticism seems absurd. Doesn't Judge William explicitly state to choose oneself? How then can Miles say: “In pretending to be able to create himself, this person both avoids and rejects the self he actually has”? Anti-Climacus' states explicitly when we are free from despair:

“This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” (My emphasis)

Judge William seems to face a dilemma. Either he recognises that the self has been established by a power different from him. This would mean that he is not entirely autonomous. Or he acknowledges that the power that established his self is himself. In the second case, William would create himself and thus he “avoids and rejects the self he actually has”. Either way, William will regret it.

Defending Autonomy

These four arguments, Miles concludes in his paper, pose sever challenges to the notion of individual autonomy. For the sake of brevity, let us follow Miles' suggestion that the last three (self-mastery, problem of meaning and the loss of self) might be answered by an ab esse, ad posse style of argument: “People actually do succeed in great individual accomplishments without having a sense of obedience to a higher power, so it must be possible to do so.”

Miles thinks that even if we accept this (which we do here), the guilt trap argument still applies. There is, he writes, no autonomous reply to “the reality and inevitability of ethical guilt”. However, we must bear in mind that Climacus argues from a religious point of view. It is not clear that the argument can be made on purely secular terms. If this is not the case, the ethical ideal still stands.

The guilt trap argument has been presented with three aspects. First, we cannot – as fallible human beings – be entirely free from guilt. Second, the more we deny our guilt, the more guilty we become. Third, to rid ourselves of guilt we depend on others. In reply to the first and second aspect, Judge William might hold that we accept and repent our wrongdoings. To take responsibility for who we are means to acknowledge that we have committed wrongs. Yet, precisely in doing so we appreciate the fullness of our personality, of our personal history. We might fail to live up to ideal standards, still there is something deeply virtuous about having tried. To have the strength of the will and to try and live an autonomous live against the odds, this is the attraction of Judge William's position. It is because he wants what he is, ethical duty comes from within. Thus he can write: “Viewed rightly the ethical makes the individual infinitely secure within himself”. Of course, we may object, to live in peace with yourself you have to regain a status of innocence. You have to get rid of your guilt.

Miles, with Kierkegaard, is right to point out that to do so we depend on another's forgiveness. It seems ridiculous to answer a person, whom we have treated unethically: “Oh, but that's OK. I've forgiven myself.” To become innocent again, we depend on the forgiveness of the person we have wronged. But that alone is not enough. We say: “She never forgave herself”, indicating that, moreover, we need to accept the fact that another person forgave us. Indeed, this is the point where a secular reconstruction of the guilt trap (and hence Miles) runs into troubles. Can merely human forgiveness absolve us? It is not clear that another person's forgiveness can do what Miles wants it to do. Even though the other might say they forgive us, we cannot quite get back to the state of innocence. Suppose a bad enough ethical wrong and you will always have this lingering suspicion that your relation was damaged. To be entirely innocent again, it seems, we need divine forgiveness.

This point will become clearer when we consider wrongs committed against ourselves. The ethical person, according to Judge William, finds ethical duty within herself. It is not so much the other's forgiveness we depend on than our own forgiveness. It is us, our will that binds us to ethical behaviour. If we fail to be ethical, we wrong ourselves. Consider the following scenario: It is a Friday evening. You have told your friends you would stay at home to do some work. You are very committed to work for the next two hours. But as so often, after the first ten minutes you are surprised by how much work you have already done. At this pace, you will be done much quicker than expected. So, a little bit of reading on the side might do no harm. Just a bit. And there you are, you find yourself browsing 3QD for an hour and a half. Now, the question Miles would have to address is: Can you forgive yourself for that? Neither answer seems open to him. If you can then individual autonomy returns through the back door. If you cannot, who can? Again, it seems only a divine entity could possibly fill this position.

In other words, the guilt trap argument examined more closely requires an initial decision: either forgiving yourself (autonomously) is possible or a divine entity is required. In either case, it fails as a convincing argument against individual autonomy. In the former, it does not constitute an argument against autonomy at all. In the latter, a religious, non-autonomous view is presupposed. Unsurprisingly, it follows that autonomy should be impossible on this view.

To conclude, the criticism Anti-Climacus puts forward against Judge William's notion of autonomy seems to be answerable in ethical terms. His three arguments, the problems of self-mastery, of meaning and of the loss of self, may be answered by an ab esse, ad posse argument. The guilt trap argument, found in the writings of the Jutland priest and Climacus, seems to work only if we (as the two authors do) assume a religious point of view. This is a problem for Miles, who would like to see the argument at work in a secular framework. However, in striping the argument from its religious presupposition we get rid of its incompatibility with individual autonomy as well. In this (non-religious) light, both Kierkegaard's exposition and criticism of the ethical life render Judge William's position more nuanced. Yet, ultimately, to use the arguments against this view on life found in Kierkegaard requires an initial religious commitment. Whether this is to be taken or not is an individual choice.