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  • Reverend James Squire

The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

Updated: Feb 9, 2021



I don’t know about you, but I was one who had trouble with Bob Woodward interviewing President Trump in February, discovering that he knew the gravity of the Covid 19 Flu, and kept that secret until his book was published. A lot of people were crying foul. If he would have let the American people know then, even though President Trump had no plan to do so, then many people would have not died, our country’s economy would not be in ruins, and people would not have had dire hardships to confront. He had it on tape! I also noticed that a good many news people backed Woodward up in his decision under the heading of you have to check out the reliability of what was said. Checking your sources is the be all and end all. I don’t buy it, but I can justify what Woodward did by something that I covered in my Ethics course that seems to be at the heart of Woodward and the presses’ position.

I don’t think that they had heard of Soren Kiekegaard (1813-1855), a Danish theologian, who introduced the world to The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical in his book, Fear and Trembling. It means an unethical action can be performed for results that lead to a better end. Machiavelli, another philosopher, put it another way that “the ends justifies the means.” Both theories say that you can do anything along the way as long as it produces a greater good result.

It is also a catchy phrase that you can throw around at a gathering to impress people even if you don’t know what it means. People in general don’t like to appear less intelligent than others so you won ‘t be challenged as Woodward, in my opinion, hasn’t been challenged enough about why he didn’t come forward in a more timely fashion.

However, I would argue that the Via Media would be the proper way to go. That school of thought says that you have to choose the “lesser of two evils”. Letting others know without proper checking of sources would certainly be more moral that letting people die, the economy to tank, and for Americans to be thrown into economic despair. The Via Media approach to ethical decision making also depends on a guiding phrase, “wrong but necessary”. Could anyone debate the “necessity” of getting that news out earlier. I wish I had Woodward in my Ethics class. My students would never have let him get away with his excuse.

The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical. I can just imagine one of my former ethics students knocking on the front door of Woodward’s house, and saying, “I just want to let you know that I am not buying any of this teleological suspension of the ethical stuff.”

I actually did have a high-profile student athlete introduce the phrase to a reporter who was interviewing him. The reporter was impressed. It appeared in his interview on the sports page! The key difference between my student athlete and Woodward is that my student knew what the phrase meant and the ethical action required in dealing with the information that President Trump said on tape.

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