Moral intuition

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Moral intuition and the moral imagination or moral fantasy that follows from it and the corresponding moral technique[1] - as the ability to put the intuitively grasped moral impulses into practice - form the basis of the ethical individualism already advocated by Rudolf Steiner in his «Philosophy of Freedom», which is based on the freedom of the human being, but also on the responsibility that goes with it:

„The free spirit acts according to its impulses, which are intuitions selected from the whole of its world of ideas by thinking. For the unfree spirit, the reason why it selects a certain intuition from its world of ideas in order to base an action on it lies in the world of perception given to it, that is, in its previous experiences. Before he comes to a decision, he remembers what someone has done or approved of doing in a case analogous to his own, or what God has commanded for this case, and so on, and he acts accordingly. To the free spirit these preconditions are not the only impulses of action. He takes an absolutely first decision. He cares neither what others have done in this case, nor what they have ordered for it. He has purely ideal reasons that move him to single out one particular concept from the sum of his concepts and to translate it into action. But his action will belong to perceptible reality. What he accomplishes will therefore be identical with a quite specific perceptual content. The concept will have to realise itself in a concrete individual event. As a concept, it will not be able to contain this individual case. It will only be able to refer to it in the way that a concept refers to a perception, for example, as the concept of the lion refers to a single lion. The middle link between concept and perception is the imagination (cf. p. 107 f.). To the unfree spirit, this middle link is given from the outset. The motives are present from the outset as ideas in his consciousness. If he wants to carry out something, he does so as he has seen it, or as he is commanded to do for the individual case. Authority therefore works best by example, that is, by the transmission of quite definite individual actions to the consciousness of the unfree spirit. The Christian acts less according to doctrines than according to the example of the Redeemer. Rules have less value for positive action than for refraining from certain actions. Laws enter into the general conceptual form only when they forbid actions, not when they command them to be done. Laws about what it should do must be given to the unfree spirit in quite concrete form: Clean the street outside your front gate! Pay your taxes in this certain amount at tax office X! and so on. The laws to prevent actions have conceptual form: Thou shalt not steal! Thou shalt not commit adultery! However, these laws only have an effect on the unfree spirit through the reference to a concrete idea, for example, that of the corresponding temporal punishments, or the torment of conscience, or eternal damnation, and so on.

As soon as the impulse to an action is present in the general conceptual form (for example: thou shalt do good to thy fellow men! thou shalt live in such a way that thou best promotes thy well-being!), then in each individual case the concrete conception of the action (the relation of the concept to a perceptual content) must first be found. With the free spirit, which is driven by no example and no fear of punishment, etc., this transposition of the concept into the idea is always necessary.

Man first produces concrete ideas out of the sum of his ideas through imagination. What the free spirit needs to realise its ideas, to assert itself, is therefore the moral imagination. It is the source of the free spirit's action. That is why only people with moral imagination are actually morally productive. The mere moral preachers, that is: the people who spin out moral rules without being able to condense them into concrete ideas, are morally unproductive. They are like the critics who know how to explain intelligently what a work of art should be like, but who themselves cannot achieve anything at all.

The moral imagination, in order to realise its conception, must intervene in a certain area of perceptions. The action of man does not create perceptions, but transforms the perceptions that already exist, gives them a new shape. In order to be able to reshape a certain object of perception or a sum of such objects in accordance with a moral conception, one must have grasped the lawful content (the previous mode of action, which one wants to reshape or give a new direction) of this perceptual image. Furthermore, one must find the mode according to which this regularity can be transformed into a new one. This part of moral effectiveness is based on knowledge of the world of appearances with which one is dealing. It is therefore to be sought in a branch of scientific knowledge in general. Moral action therefore presupposes, in addition to the moral faculty of ideas and the moral imagination, the ability to transform the world of perceptions without breaking its natural-law connection. This ability is moral technique. It is learnable in the same sense that science is learnable. In general, people are better suited to finding concepts for the already finished world than to productively determine future actions from their imagination that do not yet exist. It is therefore quite possible for people without moral imagination to receive moral ideas from others and skilfully imprint them on reality. The reverse case can also occur, that people with moral imagination are without the technical ability and then have to make use of other people to realise their ideas.

Insofar as knowledge of the objects of our sphere of action is necessary for moral action, our action is based on this knowledge. What comes into consideration here are laws of nature. We are dealing with natural science, not ethics.

The moral imagination and the moral faculty of ideas can only become the object of knowledge after they have been produced by the individual. But then they no longer regulate life, they have already regulated it. They are to be understood as acting causes like all others (ends they are only for the subject). We deal with them as a natural theory of moral ideas.

There can be no ethics as a science of norms apart from this.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 191ff)

Freedom is the necessary prerequisite for being able to develop love, which is the actual goal of earth evolution. This is the basic maxim of free human beings: Living in the love of action and let live in the understanding of the will of others.

„But how is it possible for people to live together if everyone only strives to assert his or her individuality? This is an objection of misunderstood moralism. It believes that a community of people is only possible if they are all united by a jointly determined moral order. This moralism does not understand the unity of the world of ideas. It does not understand that the world of ideas which is active in me is no other than that in my fellow man. This unity, however, is merely a result of the experience of the world. But it must be such. For if it were to be recognised by anything other than observation, it would not be individual experience but general norm that would be valid in its sphere. Individuality is only possible when each individual being knows of the other only through individual observation. The difference between me and my fellow human being does not lie in the fact that we live in two completely different spiritual worlds, but that he receives different intuitions from the world of ideas common to us than I do. He wants to live out his intuitions, I mine. If we both really draw from the idea and do not follow any external (physical or spiritual) impulses, we can only meet in the same striving, in the same intentions. A moral misunderstanding, a clash, is impossible in morally free people. Only the morally unfree, who follows the instinct of nature or an assumed commandment of duty, repels the neighbouring human being if he does not follow the same instinct and the same commandment.

Living in the love of action and letting live in the understanding of the will of others is the basic maxim of free men. They know no other will than that with which their will is intuitively in harmony; how they will will in a particular case will be told to them by their faculty of ideas.

If the original reason for compatibility did not lie in the human being, it would not be implanted in it by any external laws! Only because human individuals are of one spirit can they live side by side. The free man lives in the confidence that the other free man belongs with him to a spiritual world and will meet with him in his intentions. The free person does not demand agreement from his fellow human beings, but he expects it because it is in human nature. This does not refer to the necessities that exist for this or that external institution, but to the attitude, to the constitution of soul, through which man, in his experience of himself among fellow-men whom he values, does the most justice to human dignity.“ (Lit.:GA 4, p. 165)


  • Rudolf Steiner: The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. The Basic Features of a Modern World View. Results of Soul Observation Arrived at by the Scientific Method, translated from the German by William Lindeman, Anthroposophic Press 1986, ISBN 0-88010-156-3
  • Rudolf Steiner: The Philosophy of Freedom. The Basis for a Modern World Conception, translated by Michael Wilson, Rudolf Steiner Press 1964
  • Rudolf Steiner: The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. The Basis for a Modern World Conception, Introduction by Hugo S. Bergman, Ph.D., edited, and with Notes by Paul M. Allen, translated from the German by Rita Stebbing, Rudolf Steiner Publications, Inc. 1963, ISBN 62-22389
  • Rudolf Steiner: Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. Fundamentals of a Modern World Conception, Sixth edition, based on the original authorized Translation by Prof. and Mrs. R. F. Alfred Hoernlé, revised and amended by Hermann Poppelbaum, Phil.D., Rudolf Steiner Publishing Company, London 1939


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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  1. not to be confused with the "moral technique of the future" mentioned by Rudolf Steiner, which can arise, especially in the West, as the fruit of "mechanical occultism".