Chapter 12 AudioBook

The Philosophy of Freedom
Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path, Lipson translation
copyright © Anthroposophic Press, 1995
Audio by Dale Brunsvold
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Chapter 12

Moral Imagination
(Darwinism and Ethics)


(25:38) Whole chapter audio

Part 1 of 4 audio within text
[1] Free spirits act out of their impulses—that is, from intuitions chosen by thinking from the totality of their world of ideas. The reason that unfree spirits separate particular intuitions from their world of ideas, to make them the basis of an action, lies in what the perceptual world has given them—that is, in their previous experiences. Before coming to a decision, unfree spirits remember what someone did, or recommended, or what God commanded in such a case, and so forth. Then they act accordingly. Free spirits have other sources of action than these preconditions. They make absolutely original decisions. They worry neither about what others have done in their situation, nor about what they have been commanded to do. Purely conceptual reasons move them to select a particular concept from the sum of their concepts and translate it into action. Their action, however, belongs to perceptible reality. What they perform there will thus be identical to a quite specific perceptual content. The concept will have to realize itself in a concrete, individual event. But, as a concept, it cannot contain that event. It can relate to it only as any concept relates to a percept— for example, as the concept of “lion” relates to an individual lion.

The link mediating between a concept and a percept is the mental picture (cf. p. 100). For an unfree spirit, this link is given in advance—motives are present in advance as mental pictures in consciousness. When unfree spirits want to do something, they do it as they have seen it done, or as they have been told to do in this particular case. Authority, therefore, works best through examples, that is, through the transmission of quite specific, individual acts to the consciousness of unfree spirits. A Christian acts less in accordance with the teachings than with the model of the Redeemer. With regard to positive action, rules have less value than they do for the restraint of particular actions. Only when they forbid actions, and not when they command them to be done, do laws take on universal conceptual form. Laws concerning what unfree spirits should do must be given to them in quite concrete form: Clean the street in front of your doorway! Pay your taxes at just this rate at tax-office X! and so forth. The laws forbidding actions take the conceptual form: Thou shalt not steal! Thou shalt not commit adultery! But these laws, too, affect unfree spirits only by their appeal to concrete mental pictures, such as that of the corresponding secular punishment, torments of conscience, eternal damnation, and so forth.

[2] As soon as an impulse to action is present in the form of a general concept—for example, thou shalt do good to thy neighbor, or thou shalt live so as best to further thy well-being—then a concrete mental picture of the action (the relation of the concept to a perceptual content) must first be found in each individual case. This translation of concept into mental picture is always necessary for a free spirit, who is driven neither by a model nor by fear of punishment.

[3] Imagination is the chief means by which human beings produce concrete mental pictures from the sum of their ideas. Free spirits need moral imagination to realize their ideas and make them effective. Moral imagination is the source of a free spirit’s actions. Therefore, only people who have moral imagination are really morally productive. Simple moral preachers—that is, people who spin out codes of ethics without being able to condense them into concrete mental pictures—are morally unproductive. They are like critics who can rationally discuss what works of art should be like, but cannot themselves produce anything at all.

[4] To turn a mental picture into a reality, moral imagination must set to work in a specific field of percepts. Human action does not create percepts, it recasts alreadyexisting percepts and gives them a new form. To be able to transform a specific perceptual object or group of objects in accordance with a moral mental picture, one must have understood the laws of the perceptual picture to which one wants to give new form or new direction— that is, one must have understood how it has worked until now. Further, one must find the method by which those laws can be transformed. This part of moral efficacy depends on knowledge of the phenomenal world with which one is dealing. This knowledge must therefore be sought in a branch of general scientific knowledge. Hence, along with the faculty1 for moral ideas and imagination, moral action presupposes the capacity to transform the world of percepts without interrupting its coherence in natural law.

The capacity to transform the world of percepts is moral technique. It is learnable in the sense that any knowledge is learnable. Generally, people are better equipped to find concepts for the world that is already finished than to determine productively, out of their imagination, future, notyet- existent actions. Therefore, those without moral imagination may well receive the moral mental pictures of other people and skillfully work them into reality. The reverse can also occur: people with moral imagination can lack technical skill and may have to make use of others to realize their mental pictures.

[5] Insofar as knowledge of the objects within our field of action is necessary for moral action, our actions are based upon this kind of knowledge. What is relevant here are natural laws. We are dealing with natural science, not with ethics.

[6] Moral imagination and the moral capacity for ideas can become objects of knowledge only after an individual has produced them. By then, they no longer regulate life; they have already regulated it. They can be regarded as effective causes like any others—they are purposes only for the subject. Hence, we deal with them as with a natural history of moral ideas.

[7] Apart from this, there can be no science of ethical norms.


[8] Some people have tried to retain the normative character of moral laws—at least, to the extent that they have understood ethics as if it were analogous to dietetics. Dietetics derives general rules from the organism’s requirements for life, so as then to affect the body on the basis of these rules. But the comparison between ethics and dietetics is false because our moral life cannot be compared with the life of the organism. The organism’s activity exists without any contribution on our part. We find its laws already present in the world. Hence we can seek the laws and apply those that we have found. But moral laws are first created by us. Before they are created, we cannot apply them. The error arises because moral laws are not created at each moment with a new content, but are inherited. Thus moral laws, inherited from one’s ancestors, appear to be given, like the natural laws of the organism. But they are in no way applied by a later generation with the same legitimacy as the rules of diet. For moral laws deal with the individual and not, like natural law, with an example of a species. I, as an organism, am just such an example of a species; I will live according to nature if I apply the natural laws of the species to my particular case. But, as a moral being, I am an individual and have laws of my very own.

[9] The view presented here seems to contradict the fundamental teaching of modern natural science known as the theory of evolution. But it only seems to be so. People understand evolution to mean the real development, according to natural laws, of what is later from what was earlier. People understand evolution in the organic world to mean that later (more perfect) organic forms are real descendants of earlier (more imperfect) forms and developed from them according to natural laws. Adherents of the theory of organic evolution must actually imagine that there was once a time on earth when a being—if it were present as an observer endowed with a sufficiently long life-span—could have followed with its own eyes the gradual development of reptiles from proto-amniotes. In the same way, evolutionists imagine that a being—if it could have remained in an appropriate spot in the worldether during that infinitely long time—could have observed the development of the solar system out of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula. In order to picture things in this way, however, the nature of the proto-amniotes, like the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula, would have to be thought of differently than materialists think of them. But that is irrelevant here.

Evolutionists could never claim that, without having ever seen a reptile, they could derive the concept of reptiles, with all of their features, from the concept of protoamniotes. Nor can the solar system be derived from the concept of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula, if that concept is understood to be directly determined only by the percept of the primordial nebula. In other words, if they think consistently, evolutionists must assert that later phases of evolution really follow from earlier ones, and that if we have the concept of the imperfect and that of the perfect given to us, we will be able to see the connection. But on no account can evolutionists affirm that the concept attained from the earlier is sufficient to develop the concept of the later from it. It follows that, while ethicists can certainly see the connection between earlier and later moral concepts, not even a single new moral idea can be drawn forth from earlier ones. As moral beings, individuals produce their own content. For an ethicist, this content is just as much a given as reptiles are a given for the natural scientist. Reptiles developed from proto-amniotes, but natural scientists cannot get the concept of reptiles from out of the concept of proto-amniotes. Later moral ideas develop from earlier ones, but ethicists cannot draw forth the ethical concepts of later cultural epochs from those of earlier epochs.

The confusion arises because as natural scientists we already have the facts before us and afterward investigate them cognitively, while for ethical action we must ourselves first create the facts that we cognize afterward. In the evolutionary process of the ethical world order, we accomplish something that, on a lower level, is accomplished by nature: we alter something perceptible. Thus, initially, the ethical norm cannot be cognized like a natural law; rather, it must be created. Only once it is present can it become the object of cognition.

[10] But can we not measure the new against the old? Are not all of us forced to measure what we produce by our moral imagination against received ethical teachings? If we are to be ethically productive, this is as absurd as if we were to measure a new natural form against an old one and say: reptiles are an unjustifiable (pathological) form because they do not match proto-amniotes.

[11] Thus, ethical individualism does not contradict a theory of evolution when it is properly understood, but follows directly from it. Haeckel’s genealogical tree, running from protozoa to human beings as organic beings, ought to be traceable—without interrupting natural law or breaking the uniformity of evolution—right up to the individual as an ethical being in a specific sense. But nowhere could we derive the nature of a subsequent species from the nature of an ancestral species. It is true that an individual’s ethical ideas evolve from those of his or her predecessors, but it is equally true that individuals are ethically sterile if they lack moral ideas of their own.

[12] The same ethical individualism that I have developed on the basis of the preceding views could also be derived from the theory of evolution. The final conviction would be the same. Only the path by which it was attained would be different.


[13] To the theory of evolution, the emergence of completely new ethical ideas from moral imagination is no more amazing than the development of a new animal species from an old one. But, as a monistic worldview, evolutionary theory must reject—in ethics, as in science—every merely inferred, otherworldly (metaphysical) influence that cannot be experienced conceptually. In so doing, it is following the same principle as when it seeks causes of new organic forms without appeal to the interference of an otherworldly being who—by supernatural influence— summons each new species according to a new creative thought. Just as monism cannot employ supernatural creative thoughts to explain living creatures, so likewise it cannot derive the ethical order of the world from causes lying outside the experienceable world. For monism, the moral essence of someone’s will is never fully explained by tracing it back to some continuous supernatural influence on ethical life (divine world rule from without), to a specific temporal revelation (transmission of the ten commandments), or to the appearance of God on earth (Christ). What happens in a human being and to a human being by means of these becomes ethical only if is appropriated in human experience by individuals who make it their own. For monism, ethical processes are products of the world like everything else that exists, and their causes must be sought in the world—that is to say, in human beings, because humans are the bearers of morality.

[14] Thus, ethical individualism becomes the pinnacle of the edifice that Darwin and Haeckel sought to build for natural science. It is spiritualized evolutionary theory, transferred to moral life.

[15] Those who narrow-mindedly confine the concept of what is natural to an arbitrarily limited region easily reach the point of not being able to find any room there for free individual action. Consistent, systematic evolutionists cannot fall into any such narrow-mindedness. They cannot close the natural path of evolution with the apes, and then give humanity a “supernatural” origin. Evolutionists must seek the spirit, too, in nature, even in the search for natural human ancestors. They cannot stop at human organic processes, finding those alone to be natural. They must also regard the morally free life as a spiritual continuation of organic life.

[16] According to their fundamental principles, theorists of evolution can claim only that present ethical behavior follows from other kinds of occurrences in the world. To characterize an action—for instance, to define it as free— must be left to immediate observation of the action itself. After all, evolutionists also claim only that humans evolved from non-human ancestors. What humans are actually like must be ascertained through observation of human beings themselves. The results of such observation cannot come into conflict with a properly understood history of evolution. Only the claim that these results were such as to preclude a natural world order could not be aligned with the current trend of natural science.

[17] Ethical individualism has nothing to fear from a natural science that understands itself: observation shows that freedom is characteristic of the perfected form of human action. This freedom must be ascribed to the human will insofar as the will realizes pure conceptual intuitions. For these intuitions do not result from necessity working upon them from without; they are self-sustaining. We feel the action to be free when we find that it is the image of such an ideal intuition. The freedom of an action lies in this characteristic.

[18] From this standpoint, what can be said about the distinction made in Chapter One between the two sentences “To be free means to be able to do what one wills” and “The real meaning of the dogma of free will is to be able to desire or not desire as one pleases”? Hamerling based his view of free will precisely on this distinction, describing the first of these as correct and the second as an absurd tautology. He says, “I can do what I will. But to say that I can will what I will is an empty tautology.” Whether I do—transform into reality—what I will—that is, what I have intended as the idea of my action—depends on outer circumstances and on my technical skill (cf. p.182). To be free means: to be able—on my own, through moral imagination—to determine the mental pictures (motives) underlying an action. Freedom is impossible if something outside myself (whether a mechanical process or a merely inferred, otherworldly God) determines my moral mental pictures. Therefore, I am free only when I produce these mental pictures myself, not merely when I can carry out motives that another has placed within me. Free beings are those who can will what they themselves hold to be right. Those who do something other than what they want must be driven to it through motives that do not lie within them. They are acting unfreely. To choose to will or want what I consider right or not right therefore means to choose to be free or unfree. But this, naturally, is just as absurd as to see freedom in the capacity to do what one has to will. Yet this is exactly what Hamerling claims when he says that it is perfectly clear that the will is always determined by motives, but it is absurd to say that it is therefore unfree; for we can neither wish for, nor think of, a greater freedom of the will than for it to realize itself according to its own strength and determination.

But we can wish for a greater freedom, and only then is it true freedom: namely, to determine for ourselves the motive of our will.

[19] Under certain circumstances, we can be induced to refrain from what we want to do. To allow ourselves to be told what we ought to do, that is, to want what others, and not we ourselves, consider to be right—to this we submit only to the extent that we do not feel free.

[20] Outer forces can prevent me from doing what I will. In that case, they simply condemn me to inaction or to unfreedom. Only if they subjugate my spirit, drive my motives from my head, and replace them with their own— only then do they really intend to make me unfree. This is why the Church is not merely against actions, but particularly against impure thoughts, the motives for my actions. The Church makes me unfree when it sees as impure all motives it has not itself decreed. A church or any other community creates unfreedom when its priests or teachers turn themselves into keepers of conscience, so that the faithful (in the confessional) must take the motives for their actions from them.


Addendum to the new edition (1918)
[1] This discussion of human will shows what human beings can experience in their actions so that, through this experience, they arrive at the awareness: “My will is free.” It is especially significant that the justification for calling a will “free” comes from the experience that a conceptual intuition realizes itself in the will. This can result only from observation; and it does so only when human willing observes itself in a stream of development whose aim is precisely to make possible willing carried by purely conceptual intuition. This is achievable because in conceptual intuition nothing but its own self-based essence is at work. Whenever such an intuition is present in human consciousness, it has not developed from the processes of the organism (cf. pp. 135 ff.). Rather, organic activity has withdrawn to make room for conceptual activity. If I observe willing that is the image of an intuition, then all organically necessary activity has withdrawn from that willing. The will is free. Such freedom of will cannot be observed by someone unable to see that free willing consists in the fact that the necessary activity of the human organism is first numbed and suppressed by the intuitive element, and then replaced by the spiritual activity of the idea-filled will. Only someone who cannot make this observation of the twofold nature of a free act of will believes that all willing is unfree. Anyone who can make the observation struggles through to the insight that human beings are unfree to the extent that they cannot complete the process of restraining the organic activity; but that such unfreedom strives toward freedom, which is in no way an abstract ideal, but a guiding power inherent in human nature. Human beings are free to the extent that they can realize, in their willing, the same mood of soul that lives in them when they are conscious of forming purely conceptual (spiritual) intuitions.

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