Old And New Moral Concepts

Alte und neue Moralbegriffe
Rudolf Steiner, The Future, II. Volume, No. 16, January 14, 1893
Google translate: German to English


The word "modern" is on everyone's lips today. Every moment an "all-newest" is discovered on this or that area of ​​human creativity, or at least a promising start to it is noticed. Most of these discoveries, however, do not lead the discerning mind to something really new, but simply the inadequate historical education of the discoverers. For those who are currently influencing public opinion through speech and writing, knowledge equates to the same degree of judgment as the assertions of hubris and audacity in ninety-eight out of a hundred cases. Where now the words "new" and "modern" must help out, they should set terms that have something to do with the thing itself.

I do not want to tune into the wild cries of the unthinking and immature banner bearers of the "modern age" when I speak here of a "new" morality in opposition to the old one. But I have the conviction that the imperative of our time demands of us an acceleration of the change in the views and ways of life that has been taking place very slowly for a long time. Many branches of culture are already saturated with the spirit that speaks out in this demand, but a clear awareness of the main characteristics of the change is not common.

In the following sentence I find a simple expression for the basic feature of a truly future-oriented endeavor: Today, we seek to replace all otherworldly and extra-worldly motive forces with those that lie within the world. In the past people were looking for transcendent powers to explain the existence of phenomena. Revelation, mystical vision, or metaphysical speculation were supposed to lead to knowledge from higher beings. But at present, we seek to find the means to explain the world within ourselves.

One always needs to interpret these propositions in the right way, and one will find that they indicate the characteristic trait of a spiritual revolution that is in full swing. Science is turning more and more from the metaphysical point of view and seeks their explanatory principles within the realm of reality. Art strives to offer in its creations only that which is borrowed from nature and refrains from embodying supernatural ideas. With this endeavor, however, there is a danger of a departure in science as well as in art. Some of our contemporaries did not escape this danger. Instead of pursuing within themselves the traces of the spirit that one had erroneously sought outside of reality, they have lost sight of everything ideal; and we must see how science is content with mindless observing and registering facts, and art often with mere imitation of nature.

But these are abuses that must be overcome by recovering from what lies in the whole school of thought. The significance of the movement lies in the departure from that view of the world which regarded mind and nature as two completely separate entities, and in the recognition of the proposition that both are but two sides, two manifestations of one entity. Replacement of the two-world theory by the unitary world-view, that is the signature of the new time.

The area where this view appears to respond to the most severe prejudices is that of human action. While some naturalists already committed wholeheartedly to her, some aestheticians and art critics are  steeped in her, more or less, the ethicists want to know nothing about it. Here there is still the belief in norms that are supposed to dominate life like an otherworldly power, laws that are not created within human nature, but those that are finished

Guidelines are given to our actions. If one goes a long way, one admits that we owe these laws not to the revelation of a supernatural power, but that they are innate to our soul. They are not called divine commandments but categorical imperatives. But in any case, one thinks of the human personality as consisting of two independent entities: of the sensual nature with a sum of instincts and passions, and of the spiritual principle, which penetrates to the knowledge of the moral ideas, by which then the sensory element is controlled and restrained. The sharpest expression of this fundamental ethical view has been found in Kantian philosophy. Just think of the well-known apostrophe of duty! "Duty! You sublime and mighty name, that embraces nothing charming or ingratiating, but demands submission, you that holdest forth a law, which finds its way into the mind itself, and yet acquires veneration against his own will, where all inclinations are silenced, even though they secretly work against it."

In these words an independence of the moral commandments lies in a special power, to which everything individual in man simply has to submit. If this power also announces itself within the human personality, then it has its origin outside. The commandments of this power are the moral ideals that can be codified as a system of duties. He is considered by the followers of this direction to be a good person who puts these ideals as motives for his actions. One can call this doctrine the ethics of motives. It has numerous followers among German philosophers.

In a very watered form, she meets us at the Americans Coit and Salt. Coit says ("The Ethical Movement in Religion", translated by G. von Gizycki, p. 7): "Every duty is to do with the fervor of enthusiasm, and with the feeling of its absolute and highest value"; and Salter ("The Religion of Morality", translated by G. von Gizycki, p. 79): "A moral act must be done on principle". In addition to this ethic, there is another that takes into account not so much the motives, but rather the results of our actions. Their followers ask for the greater or lesser benefit that an action brings, and thus designate it as a better or worse one.

In doing so, they either look at the benefit for the individual or for the social whole. Accordingly, a distinction is made between individualist or socialist utilitarians. If the former foresees setting up general principles whose observance is to make the individual happy, then they present themselves as one-sided representatives of individualistic ethics. They must be called one-sided because action for their own benefit is by no means the sole aim of human individuality. In their nature, they can also be quite selfless in their action. But if these individualistic or socialist utilitarians derive norms from the nature of the individual or a set of norms to be obeyed, they commit the same error as the professors of the concept of duty: they overlook that all general rules and laws immediately prove to be a worthless phantom when the human being is within the living reality.

Laws are abstractions, but actions always take place under very specific concrete conditions. Weighing the various options and choosing the most practical in the given case, this is befitting us when it comes to action. An individual personality is always faced with a very specific situation and will make a decision in accordance with the matter. In this case a selfish act, in that case a selfless act will prove to be the right one. Soon the interest of the individual, soon that of the whole, will have to be considered.

Those who pay homage to egoism are just as wrong as the eulogists of compassion. For what is higher than the perception of one's own or of the other's well-being is the consideration of whether one or the other is more important under given conditions. In the first place, action is not primarily about feelings, not selfish ones, not selfless ones, but the right judgment about what to do. It may happen that someone sees and acts on an action as correct, suppressing the strongest emotions of his compassion. But since there is no absolutely correct judgment, but all truth has only conditional validity, which depends on the standpoint of the one who expresses it, so too is the judgment of a personality about what it has to do in a certain case, according to their particular circumstances to the world. In exactly the same situation, two people will act differently because, depending on their character, experience and education, they make different notions of what their task is in the given case.

Anyone who sees that the judgment of a concrete case is the author of an action can only speak for an individualistic conception in ethics. The only way to form such a judgment is to have the right view in a given situation and not a fixed norm. General laws can only be deduced from the facts, but the actions of man first create facts. If we infer from the common and lawfulness of human action certain general characteristics in individuals, peoples, and ages, we obtain an ethics, but not as a science of moral norms, but as the natural doctrine of morality. The laws thus obtained are individual as well as the laws of nature. Human behavior, as well as the laws of nature, constitute a particular phenomenon in nature. Ethics as normative science bears witness to a complete misunderstanding of the character of a science. Science makes progress in overcoming the view that in the individual phenomena general norms, types, are realized according to the principle of expediency. Science investigating the real fundamentals of phenomena. Only when ethics does not ask for general moral ideals but for the actual facts of action which lie in the concrete individuality of man, only then may it be regarded as a science of ethics equal to natural science.