Kierkegaard and modern moral philosophy : conceptual unintelligibility, moral obligations and divine commands.




Cantrell, Michael A.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



We moderns have lost a grasp on some of our most commonly used moral concepts. Or rather, the moral concepts that we use everyday have, in our grasp, lost the intelligibility they once enjoyed. Contemporary moral judgments are linguistic survivals from practices that have been largely abolished in many spheres of modern society. And although we continue to use the same expressions, many of our moral utterances are now lacking in content, due to our having relinquished the conditions for their intelligibility. Elizabeth Anscombe argued for this thesis in her 1958 article, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” I demonstrate that there are good reasons to believe that Anscombe’s diagnosis of our modern moral predicament is correct before turning to point out that Anscombe was not the first to propose such a radical picture of our moral situation. Over a century before Anscombe, Søren Kierkegaard diagnosed the disorder of our modern moral language and thought and worked to identify, expose and correct modernity’s conceptual confusions. Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of the disorder of our modern moral language and thought has remarkable commonalities with Anscombe’s. Nevertheless, whereas Anscombe famously suggested that we would do well to abandon our use of the moral “ought” and of the notions of moral “right”, “wrong” and “obligation,” Kierkegaard prescribes a different solution. Instead of jettisoning our unintelligible moral concepts, Kierkegaard suggests, we should recover a divine law conception of ethics that would render our moral language and thought intelligible once again. I argue that such a recovery of a divine law conception of ethics is a viable option; specifically, I argue that a divine command theory of moral obligation—conceived as a special case of a social theory of obligation and developed with an eye toward the essential roles played by both institutional rules and the virtues—is theoretically defensible and deserves to be taken as a serious metaethical option by contemporary ethical theorists.


Includes bibliographical references (p. 190-198).