The Integrity of Evil: Kierkegaard on the Actualization of Human Evil

By Roberts, David | Philosophy Today, December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Integrity of Evil: Kierkegaard on the Actualization of Human Evil


Roberts, David, Philosophy Today


Within all religious or philosophical schools of thought where order and moral goodness are the foundations and substance of existence, the concept of evil is problematic. If the ground of existence is ordered and good, then all that comes from the ground is good - there would seem to be no room in existence for a rebellion against good. The rebellion would simply be a part of the order and goodness of existence, and so also be good. One way of dealing with the problem of evil is to view it as coming from the limitations of human knowledge: what we call evil is really good, though we do not see it as good because of our limited perspective. Thus, evil does not truly exist. If one wants to take evil seriously, however, this answer is not convincing.

Another approach has been taken throughout the history of Western Philosophy, beginning in Socrates, carried on in another form by Augustine, and also present in Kant's moral theory. This view conceives of evil as a privation: evil is not a substance, but a lack of substance. For Socrates, to know the Good is to do the Good, and so if a person is committing evil, this is due to a lack or privation of knowledge, the result of which is an enslavement to the less real world of appearances - the life in the cave. For Augustine, the movement toward evil is a deficiency of the will that has lost itself in the things of this world (more will be said on Augustine below). For Kant, moral evil is to act according to the incentives, rather than according to the rational good will; this is to lack the freedom and autonomy necessary for good moral action. In each of these renditions of evil as privation, the process of moving from the substance of life (whether the Good, God, or rational self-determination), leaves a person's life weakened and disordered. Thus, evil is a kind of disintegration - an evil person lacks integrity.

The Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard is critical of this view of evil. He finds this view to be an inadequate explanation of the power of moral evil that we experience in the world. The effects of evil we experience are not simply due to evil's destructive tendencies, according to Kierkegaard, but due to a powerful integrity within the nature of moral evil itself. No doubt there are forms of evil that move in the direction of privation and lack, but I will argue in this essay that Kierkegaard has provided an analysis of a more actualized from of evil, by giving positive content to the notion of moral evil.

I will begin this analysis by briefly looking at the privation view of evil, specifically in terms of Augustine. This will give a picture of how human actualization and integrity are generally conceived within this view. This leads to an analysis of Kierkegaard's understanding of human self-actualization. In this analysis I look at the movement of the self through the well-known Kierkegaardian existence-stages: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The analysis will center not around the nature of these stages, but on the tensions within each stage that lead to self-becoming or self-actualization. Thus, I emphasize how these stages confront despair - the limit or boundary each stage runs up against, and so founders upon. It is at these points of foundering that human actualization takes place. It will be important for us to see that for Kierkegaard human actualization takes place not as a matter of course, but in choices- selfactualization takes place in an interplay between self-consciousness and freedom. Therefore, human self-actualization, as well as the integrity of the self, consists of a growth in both self-consciousness and freedom.

The Privation Approach to the Problem of Evil

Ultimately the privation view of evil stems from a view that the ground of human existence is ordered (or order itself). All that exists arises out of and can be explained by this ground. Thus, that which remains closely related to the ground has the most actuality, and is the most ordered or rational (is well-integrated with what lies within and outside the self). …

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