Philosophy of Freedom's Individual Ethical Choice Poses Problems for Anthroposophical Society

Submitted by Admin on Sat, 06/12/2010 - 9:02am.
Blog: From the Catacombs
Excerpt from Crisis in Anthroposophy at the End of the Century

related post Renewal of the Anthroposophical Society

In the most recent issue of the Goetheanum News (Sept/Oct 1996) Manfred Schmidt-Brabant reports that world membership in this Society currently stands at 52,203. This figure was much the same 22 years ago -- then about fifty thousand world-wide members. Manfred Schmidt-Brabant then says: "We may ask, as so often, why is the Society growing so slowly?"

In his discussion of the moral will in The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner remarks that "A free being is one who can want what he himself considers right." Here is the problem in a nutshell: for how can anyone know something to be right unless he has some moral principles by which he is guided? And how is he to arrive at these moral principles unless he possesses historical knowledge -- both his own history and experience and that of mankind in general?

Certainly Rudolf Steiner’s epistemology and ideas relating to the moral will can be clearly distinguished from Aleister Crowley’s nihilism -- "Do as thou wilt is the whole of the law." Yet there are anthroposophists who, in dismissing the role of historical knowledge, come dangerously close to Crowleyism. This problem has arisen, I think, because Rudolf Steiner failed to provide, in his epistemological work, any historical examples of what he considered the moral will to be.

I do heartily wish that in his chapter, "Moral Imagination" (in which his definition of moral will is found) Steiner had refrained from condemning laws in general, Catholic confession, and the like. And I wish he had given us some concrete historical examples to go on. He says: "[From this it follows] for ethics that, though we can certainly see the connection between later moral concepts and earlier, we cannot get even a single new moral idea out of the earlier ones. As a moral being, the individual produces his own moral content."

But the fact of individuality as such is not sufficient for a grounding of ethics. The whole problem for ethics is not individuality, but the fact that individuals live together in society. Thus to ground ethics in individuality as such is deeply incoherent. We live with others, and ethics is about the "how" this living-together is possible.

It is not easy for me to see how we may preserve moral standards in the light of Steiner’s dictum that "the individual produces his own moral content." The Old Testament commandment, "Thou shalt not commit murder" ["Thou shalt not kill"] may certainly seem old hat to us now. But do we really want to live in a society where that commandment is ignored because people flock to the new commandment of "producing moral will out of themselves"?

In the last thirty or so years we have learned in America how problematic it is to ground ethics in individual choice. In elevating individual choice in the abortion right, for example, we have in effect declared that the weak are under no protection. It is as much to say that "Might equals right." What is the point of living in a society of laws if "Might equals right"? Doesn't this undermine the entire justification of the State or the government for existing?

Rudolf Steiner affirms that, "... the laws of the state, one and all, just like other objective laws of morality, have had their origin in the intuitions of free spirits," his purpose nevertheless is to ground ethics in a free morality: "Nature makes of man a merely natural being; society makes of him a law-abiding being; only he himself can make of himself a free man... The standpoint of free morality, then, does not declare the free spirit to be the only form in which a man can exist. It sees in the free spirit only the last stage of man’s evolution. This is not to deny that conduct according to standards has its justification as one stage in evolution. Only we cannot acknowledge it as the absolute standpoint in morality. For the free spirit overcomes the standards in the sense that he does not just accept commandments as his motives but orders his action according to his own impulses (intuitions)."

I think that Steiner’s great discovery here is that true morality does indeed spring from inner freedom. If this were not the case, morality could only mean an automatic obedience, the conformity of an automaton to an external rule. Yet the problem with this passage is that the cut he makes between nature and society is a little too clean. For man is neither wholly natural nor wholly social: man is a historical being. History is the missing term of Steiner’s ethics. It is an omission of astonishing dimension -- an absence from which the anthroposophist can only erect improvisation as a moral stance. "But the question today is, what shall we fashion -- quite fresh and new, without a past, without a tradition -- at the periphery, not determined by any center." (Arthur Zajonc) Here is a clear statement of postmodernism, which is the philosophy of the historyless, centerless void.