The ethical project Kierkegaard and Nietzsche share : illustrating, analyzing, and evaluating different ways of life
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I believe that what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most fundamentally share is an ethical project, a basic approach to doing ethics. I argue that it is this project itself that can be their most valuable contribution to contemporary ethics. Unlike most normative ethical thinkers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche do not approach ethics by asking what actions are right or wrong or what principles can be found to distinguish right from wrong actions. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche take a much broader approach to ethics, asking instead about the fundamental existential stance that one takes towards oneself, towards others, and towards existence as a whole. The ethical project in which I find both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche engaged is the task of illustrating, analyzing, and evaluating different ways of life where these ways of life are defined by the agent’s fundamental existential stance. It is in the pursuit of this project that Kierkegaard illustrates what he calls the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious ‘spheres of existence.’ It is in the pursuit of this same project that Nietzsche illustrates what he sometimes calls ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality’ and sometimes calls the ‘noble mode of valuation’ and the ‘ascetic mode of valuation.’ It is also in the pursuit of this project that Nietzsche illustrates his portrait of a new ‘higher type’. Kierkegaard’s thinking about ‘despair’ and Nietzsche’s thinking about ‘nihilism’ are likewise part of this project. Specifically, these notions allow us to analyze and evaluate a way of life according to the internal collapse by which this way of life fails according its own evaluative standards. In addition, Kierkegaard’s thinking about a ‘leap of faith’ or ‘metamorphosis’ and Nietzsche’s thinking about a ‘self-overcoming’ and new ‘revaluation of values’ explain how an agent can make a transition between ways of life. Despite the centrality of something like this ethical project in ancient Greek ethics, I think this broader approach is generally lacking in contemporary ethical debate. I show how pursuing this project alongside the ethical projects we currently pursue can be valuable for contemporary ethical thinking.