In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard discusses the notion of a 'suspension' of the ethical. He begins by arguing that the ethical 'as such' is universal. The point, it seems, is that a system of behavioral rules must have general applicability since by its very nature it must extend throughout the community of adherents. Taking the basic Kierkegaardian temporal unit to be the 'moment' we may understand why the ethical must apply at every moment. Its universality is not only 'spatial' (if we may use that term to describe the physical limits of the community) but temporal as well, for a suspension of the ethical—temporal or otherwise—would require an enabling rule that would itself be subordinate to the ethical system. There can be no external telos—which would be the result of a fragmented perception of the effective system—because the ethical would, in a broader view, subsume and assimilate it.
The individual is identified with the particular. The individual's dilemma is that his freedom to express his particularity conflicts with his ethical duty to submit to the universal. In effect, he is free only to 'sin'. This is the inevitable result of 'temptation', which Kierkegaard characterizes as one's 'urge to assert his particularity'. But Kierkegaard offers a contradiction in the guise of paradox, arguing that 'faith' (if it exists) provides an excuse for the individual, as the particular, to draw his telos from outside the universal and thus stand in 'absolute relation' to it—a relationship that cannot be mediated (that is, logically reconciled) because mediation itself exists 'only' within the universal (where the urge would be revealed as temptation, and the behavior as sin). Here is the purported teleological suspension of the ethical.
Kierkegaard offers the examples of Abraham and Agamemnon, each of whom was required to sacrifice his child. While Agamemnon can be seen as a tragic hero conforming to the ethical by overcoming paternal love and duty in the interest of a greater ethical responsibility to God and people, Abraham cannot even begin to justify himself, for his act—if a genuine suspension of the ethical—is one of unspeakable faith.
But how is faith to be differentiated from the mere temptation to assert one's particularity? There is no easy answer for Kierkegaard, least of all by making reference to the outcome of the individual's actions. Kierkegaard sees greatness in those who act on faith, to some extent because of the lonely 'fear and distress' in which their unjustifiable actions are tried; thus his provocative phrase: 'those whom God blesses he damns in the same breath'. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the individual acting on faith believes that his actions are justified, believes that he has been authorized to move beyond the confines of the merely ethical and into the divine. Whether he is a saint or a madman is not for us to decide: courts will evaluate the justice of his behavior in light of the law; God will evaluate the justice of his behavior in light of his conscience.
But is this still a philosophy? Or has Kierkegaard ventured into the realm of theology? Why, if God exists as an active force in the world, does Kierkegaard make no allowance for divine writ in his characterization of the ethical? Why must such a telos remain not only peripheral but external to the universal ethos? While incorporating it would do nothing to alleviate the problem of differentiating between sin and the very rare virtue of acting on the indemonstrable authority of God, it would at least save Kierkegaard from having to argue for the incomprehensible 'paradox' of extra-universality. Moreover, once faith is invoked on behalf of the unjustifiable, how are limits to be set? Can one not equally—indeed, more consistently— argue for the freedom to pursue one's own particularity as an article of faith? If we must appeal to dogma for guidance on these questions, then it is not merely the ethical that we have suspended, but the philosophical.