Kierkegaard on Admiration

When a particularly ethical person – depending who you are it might be Peter Singer or Martin Luther King, Evans cites Mother Teresa in his book – is brought up in conversation, it seems almost a requirement to express sincere admiration for them. Anybody with a shred of ethics, you might say, ought to give credit to people who’ve made sacrifices for what is right. And we do: we make statues, name things after people, and so on.

Kierkegaard had consistently harsh words for this practice. In his journals he writes that “admiration [speaking ethically] is suspiciously like an evasion”. One of his pseudonyms wrote that “what is [ethical] must therefore not be presented as an object for admiration, but as a requirement.” Evans concurs, writing that “there is nothing so conducive to sleep, ethically speaking, as admiration.”

Why is this? Psychologically, admiration creates a distance between the admirer and the admired. You admire people for great actions, feats of strength or cunning: things that you could not do yourself. Moreover, you admire people for doing things that are above and beyond the call of duty – “supererogatory” actions, in philosophical terms – not things that are expected of them. Cue Chris Rock’s famous stand-up routine about wanting credit. Finally, admiration gives you a false sense of accomplishment. “It is easy to convince myself I must be a fine fellow because of my great admiration for Mother Teresa,” Evans writes.

But aren’t some actions really deserving of admiration? Why is it wrong to admire people for going above and beyond the call of duty? Well. Kierkegaard wrote – and I agree – that there is no such thing as “above and beyond the call of duty”; that there is no line between the things ethically expected of you and the things that you could do if you wanted to be really ethical. Of course there is a social line between those two things: we do not publicly condemn people for not giving all their money to the poor and going off to volunteer in Africa. But this represents our moral weakness and desire for compromise, not some kind of fundamental fact about the way ethics works.

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