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Ethics (from Greekἠθική [ἐπιστήμη] ēthikē [epistēmē] "the moral (understanding)" resp. ἠθικός ēthikós "concerning one's character") has been a philosophical discipline since Aristotle, which deals with the knowledge, based on reason, of the right, moral action of human beings and seeks to establish an ethos (Greekἦθος ēthos "manner, habit, custom, usage, character, moral nature", originally "accustomed place, habitual seat") based on this. The ethical attitude is rooted in the activity of the consciousness soul directed towards the spiritual, which Aristotle called the dianoetikon.

Basically, a distinction can be made between an ethics of ought, which determines the individual through instructions from outside, and an ethics of aspiration, which builds on the individual's own moral competence. In addition, three different basic forms of ethics are commonly distinguished, although there are overlaps:

Since the beginning of the 20th century, a line of research known as a meta-ethics has been established, particularly in the Anglo-American world, which does not make any statements about the content of moral values, but rather seeks to determine the nature of morality in a very general and formal way, for example through semantic analysis of moral judgements. In this context, the following questions are discussed in particular: "Do objective values exist at all beyond subjective value concepts and desires?", "Can ethical values, should they exist objectively (or at least intersubjectively), be recognised as such?", i.e. are they capable of truth in a logical sense, and finally also the crucial question: "Should we be moral at all? And if so, why?"

Ethical individualism in Rudolf Steiner's work

An ethical individualism based on human freedom and drawn from one's own moral intuition, the philosophical foundations of which Rudolf Steiner discussed in detail as early as 1894 in his main philosophical work, «The Philosophy of Freedom», is intended to gradually expand and later completely replace all normative ethics based on merely traditionally handed-down value concepts and moral duties with a truly free morality.

„Whoever thinks of a world-ground apart from our world of ideas thinks that the ideal reason why something is recognised as true by us is different from why it is objectively true. Thus truth is conceived as dogma. And in the field of ethics the commandment is what dogma is in science. When man seeks the impulses for his actions in commandments, he acts according to laws whose justification does not depend on him; he thinks of a norm that is prescribed for his actions from without. He acts out of duty. To speak of duty only makes sense in this view. We must feel the impulse from outside and recognise the necessity to follow it, then we act out of duty. Our epistemology cannot accept such action where man appears in his moral perfection. We know that the world of ideas is infinite perfection itself; we know that with it the impulses of our action lie within us; and consequently we must allow as ethical only such action in which the deed flows only from the idea of it that lies within us. From this point of view, man performs an action only because its reality is a need for him. He acts because an inner (own) urge, not an external power, drives him. The object of his action, as soon as he forms a concept of it, fulfils him in such a way that he strives to realise it. In the need for the realisation of an idea, in the urge to form an intention, should also be the only impulse of our action. Everything that urges us to act should live itself out in the idea. We do not act out of duty, we do not act according to an impulse, we act out of love for the object to which our action is to extend. The object, in that we imagine it, calls forth in us the urge for an action appropriate to it. Such an action is alone a free one. For if, in addition to the interest we take in the object, there had to be a second, different occasion, then we would not want this object for its own sake, we would want another and accomplish this, which we do not want; we would perform an action against our will. This would be the case, for example, with acting out of egoism. Here we take no interest in the action itself; it is not a need for us, but the benefit it brings us is. But then we also feel it at the same time as a compulsion that we must perform that action, only for the sake of this end. It is not a need in itself; for we would refrain from it if it did not entail the benefit. But an act which we do not perform for its own sake is an unfree act. Egoism acts unfree. Every person who performs an action for a reason that does not follow from the objective content of the action itself acts unfree. To perform an action for its own sake is to act out of love. Only he who is guided by love of action, by devotion to objectivity, acts truly freely. He who is incapable of this unselfish devotion will never be able to regard his action as a free one.“ (Lit.:GA 1, p. 201ff)

This is reflected in the basic maxim of free people formulated by Rudolf Steiner:

„Living in the love of action and let live in the understanding of the will of others is the basic maxim of free human beings.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 166)

„These remarks shed light on those questions which a general ethics has to answer. The latter is often treated as if it were a sum of norms according to which human action must be guided. From this point of view, ethics is contrasted with natural science and, in general, with the science of being. While the latter is supposed to teach us the laws of what exists, of what is, ethics is supposed to teach us those of what is supposed to be. Ethics is supposed to be a code of all human ideals, a detailed answer to the question: What is good? But such a science is impossible. There can be no general answer to this question. Ethical action is, after all, a product of what asserts itself in the individual; it is always given in the individual case, never in general. There are no general laws about what one should and should not do. Just do not regard the individual legal statutes of different peoples as such. They are also nothing more than the outflow of individual intentions. What this or that personality has felt as a moral motive has communicated itself to a whole people, has become the "law of this people". A general natural law that applies to all people and all times is an absurdity. Legal views and moral concepts come and go with the peoples, even with the individuals. Individuality is always decisive.“ (Lit.:GA 1, p. 201ff)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.