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Stop Kidding Yourself: Kierkegaard on Self-Deception

Gordon Marino explains how we talk ourselves out of doing the right thing.

There is a strong movement afoot calling for more ethics classes, workshops and review boards. The presumption is that our citizenry is in dire need of more knowledge of ethics, and more practice in the art of analysis. While all this may be true, Kierkegaard, a thinker who is seldom included in texts on moral philosophy, can be enlisted to offer some cautionary insights to ethics specialists and those who are serious or perhaps silly enough to believe that the major task in life is to become a good and righteous individual.

In his own oblique way, Kierkegaard maintained that more attention needs to be directed towards the issue of our personal appropriation of ideas – to the question as to whether or not we live in the ideas we espouse. Abiding by your beliefs requires refraining from the impulse to talk yourself out of them when they become highly inconvenient. For this reason, the Danish lyrical philosopher took serious note of the process of, and human proclivity for, self-deception. In this short essay, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s understanding of the significant role that self-deception plays in moral failure. But how are we to avoid self-deception? Is there a technique that we might master, or a series of workshops to sign up for? While I am not about to offer ‘seven steps to self-transparency’, I will suggest that there are insights that can be gleaned from Leon Festinger and Sigmund Freud which might be a boon to those of us who wish to avoid pulling the wool over our own eyes.

The Many Faces of Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard was the first philosopher since Plato to pay serious attention to the question of how to communicate ethical-religious truths. It was Kierkegaard’s view that transmitting these kinds of truths was not just a matter of disseminating information, or, as it were, passing along a thought or mental representation. On matters moral, it will not suffice to broadcast arguments and hand out treatises about the nature of obligation. Kierkegaard believed that with this kind of endeavor, communication involved moving the individual with whom you were communicating into a new and more vibrant relation to his or her own convictions. And so Kierkegaard developed what he described as a method of ‘indirect communication’. Integral to this method was his extensive use of pseudonyms.

Kierkegaard wrote a good deal in his own name – for instance, The Concept of Irony and Works of Love. Nevertheless, the works of his which created the greatest impact on the history of ideas were all written under noms-de-plume. Johannes Climacus was the author of Kierkegaard’s most famous philosophical texts, The Philosophical Fragments and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript; Vigilius Haufnensis’ name is on the title page of The Concept of Anxiety; and Johannes de Silentio brings us the immortal Fear and Trembling. At many points throughout the complex authorship, one pseudonym refers to and often critiques another. Amongst those in the industry of Kierkegaard scholarship there is naturally much debate about the significance of these noms-de-plume. But there is considerable consensus that each of these pseudonyms was intended to represent a life-perspective. Climacus, for example, embodies the perspective of a philosopher; Haufnensis, that of a psychologist. However, according to his journals, Kierkegaard’s most beloved pseudonym was the devotedly Christian Anti-Climacus – where the ‘anti’ stands here for ‘before Climacus’. That is, ‘Christian’ Anti-Climacus is before his ‘philosopher’, Johannes Climacus. Anti-Climacus is the Kierkegaardian persona behind the monumental The Sickness Unto Death and Practice in Christianity. Kierkegaard originally signed his own name to The Sickness Unto Death, but changed his mind and published it under a pseudonym because he did not believe that he lived up to the ideas expressed in the text.

In his preface to The Sickness, Anti-Climacus begins:

“Many may find the form of this ‘exposition’ strange; it may seem to them too rigorous to be upbuilding and too upbuilding to be rigorously scholarly. As far as the latter is concerned, I have no opinion. As to the former, I beg to differ; if it were true that it is too rigorous to be upbuilding, I would consider it a fault… From the Christian point of view, everything, indeed everything, ought to serve for upbuilding… It is precisely Christianity’s relation to life (in contrast to a scholarly distance from life) or the ethical aspect of Christianity that is upbuilding, and the mode of presentation, however rigorous it may be otherwise, is completely different, qualitatively different, from the kind of scienticity and scholarliness that is ‘indifferent,’ whose lofty heroism is so far, Christianly, from being heroism that, Christianly, it is a kind of inhuman curiosity.” (SUD p.5)

Kierkegaard’s ideal Christian self held that all intellectual work ought to be edifying or ‘upbuilding’, which for Kierkegaard and his authors means it ought to speak to and ultimately augment a non-narcissistic, ethical-religious concern about oneself. Anti-Climacus continues his preface, “All Christian knowing, however rigorous its form, ought to be concerned [in upbuilding], but this concern is precisely the upbuilding.” For Kierkegaard, the objectivity or pretense of objectivity that had become the model of academic and scientific researchers was a kind of spiritual suicide, since it involved the suppression of the self-concern that is the taproot of our best selves.

Though Kierkegaard was a quadruply-reflected individual, he had second thoughts about thinking driven by mere curiosity. So far as he was concerned, the unconscious or half-conscious aim behind a good deal of philosophical ratiocination was to put ourselves in the dark. An object lesson: in both the Concluding Unscientific Postscript and a famous discourse published under his own name, ‘The Decisiveness of Death (At the Side of a Grave)’, Kierkegaard insists that there is a difference between understanding that all humans are mortal and grasping that I myself am going to die. The latter discourse goes on to fix the point that the idea of your own death is perhaps the most upbuilding of teachers; and so Kierkegaard prods us to understand that it is certain that one uncertain day it will all be over. Along his dialectical way, Kierkegaard notes and scoffs at the fact that philosophers have come up with intellectual ruses to help them avert from the sight of their own graves: ruses of the form, “death is nothing to be feared, for ‘when it is, I am not, and when I am not, it is not.’” But despite all the puzzles that we might generate about it, our own death is often on our mind and there is a right and wrong way of relating to it.

Another object lesson in misplaced cogitation is more to our point: there are philosophers who, taking note of the intractable problems that Sartre raised with the Freudian account of repression, reason that no coherent account of self-deception can be given. Thus, they deceive themselves into imagining that they cannot deceive themselves. Kierkegaard assures us that whether we have a theoretical model for it or not, self-deception is a reality, and a frightful snare – frightful for its destructive power, and for the fact that it is undetectable.

In emphasizing Kierkegaard’s suspicions about self-reflection and its pitfalls, I do not mean to imply that he was some type of irrationalist. As Kierkegaard’s Book on Adler makes plain, he acknowledges the supreme importance of conceptual clarity and coherence. Still, he was savvy to certain forms of the misuse of reason. Of course, abuse is no argument against use, as Stephen Toulmin has noted. And yet, true believers in the sanctity of reason should welcome knowledge of the signs hinting that reason is being used for self-obscurification – especially when the hints bear upon our ethical aspirations.

Lessons In Life

Like Kant, Kierkegaard held that we each have knowledge enough to discern right from wrong, in the form of conscience. On both Kant’s and Kierkegaard’s accounts, if we did not have such knowledge we would not be morally culpable. But we are morally culpable: therefore, we must have the knowledge. Ethically speaking, the challenge is not to acquire more knowledge, but instead to hold on to the knowledge that we already have. In Part II of The Sickness Unto Death, Anti-Climacus defines despair – which is the sickness unto death – as sin. He then reflects on different views of sin, the first being the Socratic notion that sin is ignorance. In the end, the author will argue that in a way Socrates was right: sin often involves a form of ignorance – but it is an ignorance that we ourselves are responsible for producing.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard’s persona bemoans the fact that people acquire mountains of knowledge that do not make a dent in their lives. Like Johannes Climacus, Anti-Climacus insists that there are two levels of understanding. When the deeper, existential layer is missing, we have the foundation for comedy. As though from the pulpit, Anti-Climacus proclaims:

“No, but when a man stands and says the right thing, and consequently has understood it, and then when he acts he does the wrong thing, and thus shows that he has not understood it – yes, this is exceedingly comic. It is exceedingly comic that a man stirred to tears so that not only sweat but also tears pour down his face, can sit and read or hear an exposition on self-denial, on the nobility of sacrificing his life for the truth – and then in the next moment, ein, zwei, drei, vupti, almost with tears still in his eyes, be in full swing, in the sweat of his brow and to the best of his modest ability, helping untruth to be victorious. It is exceedingly comic that a speaker with sincere voice and gestures, deeply stirred and deeply stirring, can movingly depict the truth, can face all the powers of evil and of hell boldly, with cool self-assurance in his bearing, a dauntlessness in his air, and an appropriateness of movement worthy of admiration – it is exceedingly comic that almost simultaneously, practically still ‘in his dressing gown,’ he can timidly and cravenly cut and run away from the slightest inconvenience.” ( SUD p.91)

A few pages later this pivotal lesson in moral phenomenology proceeds, “In the life of the spirit there is no standing still [stilstand] (really no state [tilstand], either; everything is actuation).” In life, there is no calling a time out, no stepping out of time for a few minutes: “If a person does not do what is right at the very second that he knows it – then, first of all, knowing simmers down. Next comes the question of how willing appraises what is known.” (SUD p.94)

Sounding like a faculty psychologist, Anti-Climacus continues:

“Willing is dialectical and has under it the entire lower nature of man. If willing does not agree with what is known, then it does not necessarily follow that willing goes ahead and does the opposite of what knowing understood (presumably such strong opposites are rare); rather, willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: ‘We shall look at it tomorrow.’ During all this, knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more; alas, for the good must be done immediately, as soon as it is known… but the lower nature’s power lies in stretching things out.” (SUD p.94)

In this dialogue between the mind and will, perhaps the lower nature gains a foothold by raising the question in the mind, “Do I really know what I ought to do in this case?” Like fish in the sea, our medium is time, and when it comes to conscience, time is often portrayed in Kierkegaard as an enemy or a narcotic that puts us to sleep with regard to what is really important. Anti-Climacus closes:

“Gradually, willing’s objection to this development lessens; it almost appears to be in collusion. And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what it wants is absolutely right. And this is how perhaps the great majority of men live: they work gradually at eclipsing their ethical and ethical-religious comprehension…” (SUD p.94)

This is a powerful statement. On Anti-Climacus’ analysis, most people work at obscuring their ethical-religious understanding, which is to say, at muffling the voice of conscience. Why? Because that ethical-religious understanding, “would lead them out into decisions and conclusions that their lower nature does not much care for.” (p.94)

In the Kierkegaardian unconscious, as opposed to the Freudian, there is an understanding that doing the right thing will bring us into a collision with our worldly interests. And so, when such a collision seems as though it might be in the offing, we hesitate and take a little time to “eclipse our ethical-religious understanding.” For an embarrassing example – back in the Eighties I was a graduate student working on a dissertation on Kierkegaard. I wanted very badly to study for a year in Denmark so that I could master Kierkegaard’s native tongue and read his works in the original. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship and was a finalist. At the time, our government was involved in what I took to be unconscionable activities in Nicaragua. I resolved, or it might be better to say, I almost resolved, to tax-resist rather than to contribute to what I took to be absolutely heinous policies. However, a friend informed me that if I tax-resisted I could forget about the Fulbright, and for that matter about having any peace in my life in the near future. Using an apt image, he convinced me to sleep on my decision; and go to sleep I did.

Another friend, a psychoanalyst, was also very helpful in talking me out of the counsel of my conscience. She told me that tax-resisting at this point in my life was probably motivated by a fear of success, impulses towards self-destruction, and perhaps an element of grandiosity. The dialogue that Kierkegaard describes between knowing and willing occurred. In the end knowing and willing agreed, and the easy road became the right road. I resisted my impulse to tax-resist, and went on to study Kierkegaard and his views on self-deception in Denmark.

Again, Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms instruct that when push comes to shove, we are inclined to shove our heads in the sand and talk ourselves out of what we know. But it could be argued that such claims simply make the point that moral insight is not enough in life: we also need moral character. In this sense, Kierkegaard might be understood as offering a brief on behalf of Aristotelian virtue ethics. And yet there are signs aplenty that Kierkegaard took Aristotle to be unduly naïve about the human capacity for radical evil. Again and again, Kierkegaard recites that what we really need a revelation for is not to understand the incarnation, but rather to truly grasp that we are sinners. Paradoxically enough, such an understanding would require faith, yet faith is the opposite of sin. For those who wince at the mention of theological terms such as ‘sin’, it might suffice to accept Kierkegaard’s persistent claim that self-deception is the cause of much moral failure, while resisting the intimation that, this side of faith and prayer, there is little we can do to protect ourselves from ourselves.

The Psychology of Self-Deception

As Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche all observed, philosophy, moral philosophy in particular, is in dire need of psychology. It does no good to construct complex maps of the self and erect Byzantine theories of the summum bonum if you have no sense of what you are up against in yourself. So in the interests of filling the prescriptions of Schopenhauer and friends and responding to the problem of self-deception, I would like to introduce the psychologist Leon Festinger.

Festinger wrote his very powerful theory in the late Seventies. He argues that when you have two conflicting beliefs, you are in the unpleasant state he calls cognitive dissonance. In this state of mental tension, you will be motivated to alter one of the beliefs. But the stronger the belief, the more likely that you will do whatever is necessary to retain it. For example, I had a student last year who thought he was an honest person who would never steal. One day he let it slip that he downloaded all kinds of music and movies. I reproached him, saying that this was theft. But true to Festinger’s theory, he explained that he only pirated material that he would never have bought in the store. Hence, he was able to purloin music and retain the belief that he was a pure and honest soul. Or again, if I have a belief that I am an honest person and find myself telling a lie, I can convince myself that the lie is only a white lie, and as such is not evidence that I am dishonest.

Festinger’s theory all but states that we are naturally inclined to hoodwink ourselves. The key to being able to make earnest – which for Kierkegaard would be to say, ethical-religious – use of Festinger’s theory, is to have enough observing ego to be able to admit to yourself when you are in a squeeze between incompatible beliefs.

On the face of it, one might not think that Freud and Kierkegaard would have much to say to one another. Though they were both Galileos of the inner world, Kierkegaard was a philosopher and a poet of faith, and Freud a fundamentalist of the lab-coat stripe. Kierkegaard insisted that religion was the bedrock of moral life. Freud, on the other hand, furrowed his brow at the moral record of religion. Nevertheless, Freud might be an ally in the Kierkegaardian struggle against self-deception.

Kierkegaard fought against many forms of the leveling process. In particular, he maintained that we should never think of lowering our moral ideals on the grounds that they are impossible to achieve. In his psychological masterwork The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s psychologist Vigilius Haufniensis huffs:

“The more ideal ethics is, the better. It must not permit itself to be distracted by the babble that it is useless to require the impossible. For even to listen to such talk is unethical, and is something for which ethics has neither time nor opportunity. Ethics will have nothing to do with bargaining…” (CA p.17)

For Kierkegaard, even to consider the possibility that we might lower the bar for ourselves is a transgressive attempt to talk ourselves out of the truth.

In his most philosophical work, Civilization and its Discontents, Freud reasons that we should not aspire to moral ideals that are unrealistic – such as loving our enemies or thinking that we should despise ourselves for sexual wishes. On Freud’s account, hyperbolic ideals make for excessive repression, and in the process of those repressive acts, energy is turned over to the super-ego, which in turn becomes even more persecutory, and ultimately more enmeshed in unconscious drives. Freud writes:

“[W]e are very often obliged, for therapeutic purposes, to oppose the super-ego, and we endeavor to lower its demands. Exactly the same objections can be made against the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego. It, too, does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. It issues a command and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it. On the contrary, it assumes that a man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is required of it, that his ego has unlimited mastery over his id. This is a mistake; and even in what are known as normal people the id cannot be controlled beyond certain limits. If more is demanded of a man, a revolt will be produced in him or a neurosis, or he will be made unhappy.” (CD p.21:74)

Freud argues that Christ may as well have commanded us to fly as command universal love. Like Nietzsche, Freud was alert to the fact that the super-ego – conscience itself – can be lunatic, marching people off to death-camps but insisting that the victims tidy up their bunks before they go to the ovens. For Freud, grandiose moral ideals are a goad to excessive repressions, and to explosions of instincts in the form of noteworthy transgressions.

Though morally conservative, I think Freud can be read as recommending we take a tolerant attitude towards the impulses that visit us. According to Freud, we are literally by nature condemned to desires which a higher layer of the self finds repugnant. Incestuous feelings are a prime example. Nevertheless, on Freud’s reckoning, to the extent that we can acknowledge such impulses and feelings, we will be less likely to express these drives in actions or in some form of psychological legerdemain. Kierkegaard has always given me to understand that when you are discussing morals and psychology, it is important to put the flesh of concrete examples on the bones of theory. So let me give a personal example of Kierkegaardian psychology with a Freudian twist.

As a young man I enjoyed some success in sports. One of my sons caught the fire, and I pushed him quite hard to become a Division One football player. He made it to the elite level, but then floundered in football, and ultimately transferred to a smaller school and quit the pigskin arts. Even though he had moved to one of the best academic institutions in the country, I was furious at him – and worse, furious with myself for being in such an unreasonable rage. As Festinger would have predicted, I was fishing around for a good reason to be angry at him – until it hit me that given my past and the place that sports played in my relationship with my own father, it was understandable that I would be upset with him. All of which is only to say that in this instance I was able to avoid both terrorizing myself and building up an ersatz case against my son. The whole emotional storm blew over in about a month and my relationship with my son is on a very good and warm footing now. But things could have easily been otherwise.


Once again, Kierkegaard warns those of us with moral aspirations to be wary of the tendency to think ourselves out of our moral coordinates. It could be gainsaid that Kierkegaard does not provide us with anything in the way of a litmus test to decide when our reflections are an earnest attempt to find the right course of action or an attempt to back out of a potential sacrifice. Worse yet, Kierkegaard seems insensitive to the complexity of ethical problems on issues such as distributive justice. Those blind spots aside, we would be well advised to take note of the light he sheds on the darkness we bring upon ourselves.

© Prof. Gordon D. Marino 2008

Gordon Marino is Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library and Professor of Philosophy at St Olaf’s College, Minnesota.

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