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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XII. Moral Imagination (Darwinism and Morality)

A FREE spirit acts according to his impulses, i.e., intuitions, which his thinking has selected out of the whole world of his Ideas. For an unfree spirit, the reason why he singles out a particular intuition from his world of Ideas, in order to make it the basis of an action, lies in the perceptual world which is given to him, i.e., in his past experiences. He recalls, before making a decision, what someone else has done, or recommended as proper in an analogous case, or what God has commanded to be done in such a case, etc., and he acts on these recollections. For a free spirit these preliminary conditions are not the only impulses to action. He takes an absolutely original decision. He cares as little what others have done in such a case as what commands they had laid down. He has purely ideal reasons which determine him to select a particular concept out of the sum of his concepts, and to realize it in action. But his action will belong to perceptible reality. Consequently, what he achieves will be identical with a definite content of perception. The concept will have to realize itself in a concrete particular event. As a concept it will not contain this particular event. It will refer to the event only in the same way as, in general, a concept is related to a percept, e.g., the concept lion to a particular lion. The link between concept and percept is the representation [See Translator's Preface, p. ix.] (cp. p. 80 ff.). To the unfree spirit this intermediate link is given from the outset. Motives exist in his consciousness from the first in the form of representations. Whenever he intends to do anything he acts as he has seen others act, or as he is ordered to do in each separate case. Hence authority is most effective in the form of examples, i.e., in the form of quite definite particular actions handed down for the consciousness of the unfree spirit. A Christian models his conduct less on the teaching than on the model of the Saviour. Rules have less value for telling men positively what to do than for telling them what to leave undone. Laws take on the form of general concepts only when they forbid actions, not when they prescribe actions. Laws concerning what we ought to do must be given to the unfree spirit in wholly concrete form. Clean the street in front of your door! Pay your taxes to such and such an amount to the tax-collector! etc. Conceptual form belongs to laws which inhibit actions. Thou shalt not steal! Thou shalt not commit adultery! These laws, too, influence the unfree spirit only by means of a concrete representation, e.g., that of the punishments attached by human authority, or of the pangs of conscience, or of eternal damnation, etc.

When the motive to an action exists in general conceptual form (e.g., Thou shalt do good to thy fellow-men! Thou shalt live so that thou promotest best thy welfare!) there must first be found, in the particular case, the concrete representation of the action (the relation of the concept to a content of perception). For a free spirit who is not compelled by any model nor by fear of punishment, etc., this translation of the concept into a representation is always necessary.

Now man produces concrete representations from out of the sum of his Ideas by means of the imagination. Hence what the free spirit needs in order to realize his Ideas, in order to assert himself in the world, is moral imagination. This is the source of the free spirit's action. Only those men, therefore, who are endowed with moral imagination are, properly speaking, morally productive. Those who merely preach morality, i.e., those who merely excogitate moral rules without being able to condense them into concrete representations, are morally unproductive. They are like those critics who can explain very reasonably how a work of art ought to be made, but who are themselves incapable of the smallest artistic production.

Moral imagination, in order to realize its representation, must set to work upon a determinate sphere of percepts. Human action does not create percepts, but transforms already existing percepts and gives them a new form. In order to be able to transform a definite object of perception, or a sum of such objects, in accordance with a moral representation, one must have grasped the law-abiding content of the percept-picture (its hitherto existing mode of working to which one wants to give a new form or a new direction). Further, it is necessary to discover the procedure by which it is possible to change the given law into the new one. This part of effective moral activity depends on knowledge of the particular world of phenomena with which one has got to deal. We shall, therefore, find it in some branch of scientific knowledge in general. Moral action, then, presupposes, in addition to the faculty of moral Ideation [Only a superficial critic will find in the use of the word “faculty,” in this and other passages, a relapse into the old-fashioned doctrine of faculties of the soul. The precise meaning of this word is evident from what is said on pp. 70 – 71.] and of moral imagination, the ability to transform the world of percepts without breaking the natural laws by which they are connected. This ability is moral technique. It may be learnt in the same sense in which science in general may be learnt. For, in general, men are better able to find concepts for the ready-made world than productively to originate out of their imagination future, and as yet non-existing, actions. Hence, it is very well possible for men without moral imagination to receive moral representations from others, and to engrave them skillfully into the actual world. Vice versa, it may happen that men with moral imagination lack technical skill, and are dependent on the service of other men for the realization of their representations.

In so far as we require for moral action knowledge of the objects upon which we are about to act, our action depends upon such knowledge. What we need to know here are laws of nature. These belong to the Natural Sciences, not to Ethics.

Moral imagination and the faculty of moral Ideation can become objects of knowledge only after they have first been produced by the individual. But, then, they no longer regulate life, but have already regulated it. They must now be treated as efficient causes, like all other causes (they are purposes only for the subject). The study of them is, as it were, the Natural Science of moral representations.

Ethics as a Normative Science, over and above this science, cannot exist.

Some would maintain the normative character of moral laws at least in the sense that Ethics is to be taken as a kind of dietetic which from the conditions of the organism's life, deduces general rules, on the basis of which it hopes to give detailed directions to the body. (Paulsen, System der Ethik.) This comparison is mistaken, because our moral life cannot be compared with the life of the organism. The function of the organism occurs without any volition on our part. We find its laws ready-made in the world; hence we can discover them and apply them when discovered. Moral laws, on the other hand, do not exist until we create them. We cannot apply them until we have created them. The error is due to the fact that moral laws are not, in their content, at every moment new creations, but are handed down by tradition. Those which we take over from our ancestors appear to be given like the natural laws of the organism. But it does not follow that a later generation has the right to apply them in the same way as dietetic rules. For they apply to individuals, and not, like natural laws, to specimens of a genus. Considered as an organism I am such a generic specimen, and I shall live in accordance with nature if I apply the laws of my genus to my particular case. As a moral being I am an individual and have laws which are wholly my own. [When Paulsen, p. 15 of the book mentioned above, says: “Different natural endowments and different conditions of life demand both a different bodily and also a different spiritual-moral diet,” he is very close to the correct view, but yet he misses the decisive point. In so far as I am an individual, I need no diet. Dietetic means the art of bringing a particular specimen into harmony with the general laws of the genus. But as an individual I am not a specimen of a genus.]

The view here upheld appears to contradict that fundamental doctrine of modern Natural Science which is known as the Theory of Evolution. But it only appears to do so. By evolution we mean the real development of the later out of the earlier in accordance with natural law. In the organic world, evolution means that the later (more perfect) organic forms are real descendants of the earlier (imperfect) forms, and have grown out of them in accordance with natural laws. The upholders of the theory of organic evolution ought really to believe that there was once a time on our earth, when a being could have observed with his own eyes the gradual evolution of reptiles out of proto-amniotes, supposing that he could have been present as an observer, and had been endowed with a sufficiently long span of life. Similarly, Evolutionists ought to suppose that a being could have watched the development of the solar system out of the primordial nebula of the Kant-Laplace hypothesis, if he could have occupied a suitable spot in the world-ether during that infinitely long period. [That on this supposition, the nature of both the proto-amniotes and of the primordial nebula of the Kant-Laplace hypothesis would have to be conceived differently from the Materialist's conception of it, is here irrelevant.] But no Evolutionist should ever dream of maintaining that he could from his concept of the proto-amniote deduce that of the reptile with all its qualities, if he had never seen a reptile. Just as little would it be possible to derive the solar system from the concept of the Kant-Laplace nebula, if this concept of an original nebula had been formed only from the percept of the nebula. In other words, if the Evolutionist is to think consistently, he is bound to maintain that out of earlier phases of evolution later ones really develop; that once the concept of the imperfect and that of the perfect have been given, we can understand the connection. But in no case should he admit that the concept formed from the earlier phases is, in itself, sufficient for deducing from it the later phases. From this it follows for Ethics that, whilst we can understand the connection of later moral concepts with earlier ones, it is not possible to deduce a single new moral Idea from earlier ones. The individual, as a moral being, produces his own content. This content, thus produced, is for Ethics a datum, as much as reptiles are a datum for Natural Science. Reptiles have evolved out of proto-amniotes, but the scientist cannot manufacture the concept of reptiles out of the concept of the proto-amniotes. Later moral Ideas evolve out of the earlier ones, but Ethics cannot manufacture out of the moral principles of an earlier culture those of a later one. The confusion is due to the fact that, as scientists, we start with the facts before us, and then make them objects of knowledge, whereas in moral action we first produce the facts ourselves, and then gain knowledge of them. In the evolution of the moral world-order we accomplish what, at a lower level, nature accomplishes: we alter some part of the perceptual world. Hence the ethical norm cannot straightway be made an object of knowledge, like a law of nature, for it must first be created. Only when that has been done can the norm become an object of knowledge.

But is it not possible to make the old a measure for the new? Is not every man compelled to measure the products of his moral imagination by the standard of traditional moral doctrines? If he would be truly productive in morality, such measuring is as much an absurdity as it would be an absurdity if one were to measure a new species in nature by an old one and say that reptiles, because they do not agree with the proto-amniotes, are an illegitimate (degenerate) species.

Ethical Individualism, then, so far from being in opposition to the theory of evolution rightly understood, is a direct consequence of it. Haeckel's genealogical tree, from protozoa up to man as an organic being, ought to be capable of being worked out without a breach of natural law, and without a gap in its uniform evolution, up to the individual as a moral being in a definite sense. But in no case could we deduce the nature of a later species from the nature of an ancestral species. However true it is that the moral Ideas of the individual have perceptibly grown out of those of his ancestors, it is also true that the individual is morally barren, unless he has moral Ideas of his own.

The same Ethical Individualism, which I have developed on the basis of the preceding conceptions, might be equally well developed on the basis of the theory of evolution. The final result would be the same; only the path by which it was reached would be different.

That absolutely new moral Ideas should be developed by the moral imagination is for the theory of evolution no more miraculous than the development of one animal species out of another, provided only that this theory, as a Monistic world-view, rejects, in morality as in science, every transcendent (metaphysical) influence which cannot be ideally experienced. In doing so, it follows the same principle by which it is guided in seeking the causes of new organic forms without referring to the interference of an extra-mundane Being, who produces every new species in accordance with a new creative thought through supernatural influence. Just as Monism has no use for supernatural creative thoughts in explaining living organisms, so it is equally impossible for it to derive the moral world-order from causes which do not lie within the world of our experience. It cannot admit that the nature of moral will is exhausted by being traced back to a continuous supernatural influence upon moral life (divine government of the world from the outside), or a particular act of revelation at a particular moment in history (giving of the ten commandments), or through God's appearance on the earth (as Christ). All that happens in this way to and in man becomes a moral element only when it enters into human experience and becomes an individual's own. Moral processes are, for Monism, products of the world like everything else that exists, and their causes must be looked for in the world, i.e., in man, because man is the bearer of morality.

Ethical Individualism, then, is the crown of the edifice that Darwin and Haeckel have striven for Natural Science. It is Spiritualized Evolutionism applied to the moral life.

Anyone who restricts the concept of the natural from the outset to an arbitrarily narrowed sphere, is easily tempted not to find any room within it for free individual action. The consistent Evolutionist does not easily fall a prey to such a narrow-minded view. He cannot let the natural process of evolution terminate with the ape, and acknowledge for man a “supernatural” origin. He is bound, in his very search for the natural progenitors of man to seek Spirit even in nature. Again, he cannot stop short at the organic functions of man, and regard only these as natural. He is bound to look on the life of moral self-determination as the spiritual continuation of organic life.

The Evolutionist, then, in accordance with his fundamental principles, can maintain only that the present form of moral action evolves out of other kinds of world-happenings. He must leave the characterization of action, i.e., its determination as a free action, to the immediate observation of each action. All that he maintains is only that men have developed out of non-human ancestors. What the nature of men actually is must be determined by observation of men themselves. The results of this observation cannot possibly contradict the true history of evolution. Only the assertion that the results are such as to exclude their being due to a natural world-order would contradict recent developments in the Natural Sciences. [We are entitled to speak of thoughts (ethical Ideas) as objects of observation. For, although the products of thinking do not enter the field of observation, so long as thinking goes on, they may well become objects of observation subsequently. In this way we have gained our characterization of action.]

Ethical Individualism, then, has nothing to fear from a Natural Science which understands itself. Observation yields spiritual activity (freedom) as the characteristic quality of the perfect form of human action. Freedom must be attributed to the human will, in so far as the will realizes purely ideal intuitions. For these are not the results of a necessity acting upon them from without, but are grounded in themselves. When we find that an action embodies such an ideal intuition, we feel it to be free. Freedom consists in this character of an action.

What, then, from this standpoint are we to say of the distinction, already mentioned above (p. 7) between the two statements “To be free means to be able to do what you will,” and “To be able, as you please, to desire or not to desire is the real meaning of the dogma of freewill”? Hamerling bases his theory of freewill precisely on this distinction, by declaring the first statement to be correct but the second to be an absurd tautology. He says, “I can do what I will, but to say I can will what I will is an empty tautology.” Whether I am able to do, i.e., to make real, what I will, i.e., what I have set before myself as my Idea of action, that depends on external circumstances and on my technical skill (cp. p. 156). To be free means to be able to determine by moral imagination out of oneself those representations (motives) which lie at the basis of the action. Freedom is impossible if anything other than I myself (whether a mechanical process or extra-mundane God whose existence is only inferred) determines my moral representations. In other words, I am free only when I myself produce these representations, but not when I am merely able to realize the motives which another being has implanted in me. A free being is one who can will what he regards as right. Whoever does anything other than what he wills must be impelled to it by motives which do not lie in himself. Such a man is unfree in his action. Accordingly, to be able to will, as you please, what you consider right or what you consider wrong would mean to be free or unfree as you please. This is, of course, just as absurd as to identify freedom with the ability to do what one is compelled to will. But this is just what Hamerling maintains when he says, “It is perfectly true that the will is always determined by motives, but it is absurd to say that on this ground it is unfree; for a greater freedom can neither be desired nor conceived than the freedom to realize oneself in proportion to one's own power and strength of decision.” On the contrary, it is well possible to desire a greater freedom and that a true freedom, viz., the freedom to determine for oneself the reasons for one's volitions.

Under certain conditions a man may be induced to abandon the execution of his will; but to allow others to prescribe to him what he ought to do — in other words, to will what another and not what he himself regards as right — to this a man will submit only when he does not feel free.

External powers may prevent me from doing what I will, but that is only to condemn me to do nothing or to be unfree. Not until they enslave my spirit, drive my motives out of my head, and put their own motives in the place of mine, do they really aim at making me unfree. That is the reason why the church attacks not only the mere doing, but especially the impure thoughts, i.e., motives of my action. The church makes me unfree if she calls impure all those motives which she has not enunciated. A church or other community produces unfreedom when its priests or teachers turn themselves into rulers of consciences, i.e., when the faithful are compelled to go to them (to the confessional) for the motives of their actions.


In the preceding chapters on human willing I have pointed out what man can experience in his actions, so as, through this experience, to become conscious that his willing is free. It is especially important to recognize that we derive the right to call an act of will free from the experiment of an ideal intuition realizing itself in the act. This can be nothing but a result of observation, in the sense that we observe the development of human volition in the direction towards the goal of attaining the possibility of just-such volition sustained by purely ideal intuition. This attainment is possible because the ideal intuition is effective through nothing but its own self-dependent essence. Where such an intuition is present in human consciousness, it has not developed itself out of the processes in the organism (cp. p. 111 ff.), but the organic activity has retired to make room for the ideal activity. Observation of an act of will which is an image of an intuition shows that out of it, likewise, all organically necessary activity has retired. The act of will is free. No one can observe this freedom of will who is unable to see how free will consists in this, that, first, the intuitive element lames and represses the necessary activity of the human organism and then puts in its place the spiritual activity of a will permeated by the Idea. Only those who are unable to observe these two factors in the free act of will believe that every act of will is unfree. Those who are able to observe them win through to the recognition that man is unfree in so far as he cannot carry through the repressing of the organic activity, but that this unfreedom is tending towards freedom, and that this freedom, so far from being an abstract ideal, is a directive force inherent in human nature. Man is free in proportion as he succeeds in realizing in his acts of will the same mood of soul which pervades him when he is conscious in himself of the formation of purely ideal (spiritual) intuitions.