Kierkegaard on Moral Particularism and Exemplarism
This chapter reads Kierkegaard’s Two Ages alongside two contemporary moral theories: Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism and Linda Zagzebski’s moral exemplarism. These perhaps-surprising interlocutors each offer criticisms of ethics based on principles. They also propose similar alternatives to principles, alternatives that emphasize narratives—either of situations themselves, or of moral exemplars who we might imitate in navigating such situations. However, Kierkegaard’s alternative to principles goes further than those of the contemporary critics. His view of moral narration implicates the narrator in the situation itself. Likewise, Kierkegaard’s account of moral education suggests that the ability to narrate in this way is rare, and is motivated by a sense of equality with others that directs one’s attention inward rather than attempting to rule over or sway others. Since Kierkegaard thinks individuals of this sort are rare, his approach ultimately proves incompatible with Dancy’s claim that we learn from childhood how to discern the moral reasons at work in situations. Zagzebski uses Kierkegaard’s account of envy to supplement her account of admiration. She claims that envy is a distortion of the admiration we use to identify moral exemplars. But for Kierkegaard, people in the present age cannot rely on their admiration of heroes for moral guidance. So in order for her account to accurately contextualize Kierkegaard’s understanding of envy, it would have to attend to his argument in favour of equality. This criticism need not prove fatal to her project, however, since admiration of historical exemplars would still be possible on this account. If successful, my arguments will shed light on the ways Kierkegaard often anticipates, sometimes resists, and could fruitfully inform contemporary criticisms of principle-based ethics.