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The Philosophy of Freedom

On-line since: 22nd November,1996

The Reality of Freedom


Moral Imagination
(Darwinism and Morality)

A free spirit acts according to his impulses, that is, according to intuitions selected from the totality of his world of ideas by thinking. 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 world of percepts given to him, that is, in his past experiences. He recalls, before coming to a decision, what someone else has done or recommended as suitable in a comparable case, or what God has commanded to be done in such a case, and so on, and he acts accordingly. For a free spirit, these prior conditions are not the only impulses to action. He makes a completely first-hand decision. What others have done in such a case worries him as little as what they have decreed. He has purely ideal reasons which lead him to select from the sum of his concepts just one in particular, and then to translate it into action. But his action will belong to perceptible reality. What he achieves will thus be identical with a quite definite content of perception. The concept will have to realize itself in a single concrete occurrence. As a concept it will not be able to contain this particular event. It will refer to the event only in the same way as a concept is in general related to a percept, for example, the concept of the lion to a particular lion. The link between concept and percept is the mental picture (see Chapter 6). For the unfree spirit, this link is given from the outset. Motives are present in his consciousness from the outset in the form of mental pictures. Whenever there is something he wants to carry out, he does it as he has seen it done, or as he has been told to do it in the particular case. Hence authority works best through examples, that is, through providing quite definite particular actions for the consciousness of the unfree spirit. A Christian acts not so much according to the teaching as according to the example of the Saviour. Rules have less value for acting positively than for refraining from certain actions. Laws take on the form of general concepts only when they forbid actions, but not when they prescribe them. Laws concerning what he ought to do must be given to the unfree spirit in quite concrete form: Clean the street in front of your door! Pay your taxes, amounting to the sum here given, to the Tax Office at X! and so on. Conceptual form belongs to laws for inhibiting actions: Thou shalt not steal! Thou shalt not commit adultery! These laws, too, influence the unfree spirit only by means of a concrete mental picture, for example, that of the appropriate secular punishment, or the pangs of conscience, or eternal damnation, and so on.

Whenever the impulse for an action is present in a general conceptual form (for example, Thou shalt do good to thy fellow men! Thou shalt live so that thou best promotest thy welfare!) then for each particular case the concrete mental picture of the action (the relation of the concept to a content of perception) must first be found. For the free spirit who is impelled by no example, nor fear of punishment or the like, this translation of the concept into a mental picture is always necessary.

Man produces concrete mental pictures from the sum of his ideas chiefly by means of the imagination. Therefore what the free spirit needs in order to realize his ideas, in order to be effective, is moral imagination. This is the source of the free spirit's action. Therefore it is only men with moral imagination who are, strictly speaking, morally productive. Those who merely preach morality, that is, people who merely spin out moral rules without being able to condense them into concrete mental pictures, are morally unproductive. They are like those critics who can explain very intelligibly what a work of art ought to be like, but who are themselves incapable of even the slightest productive effort.

Moral imagination, in order to realize its mental picture, must set to work in a definite 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 mental picture, one must have grasped the principle at work within the percept picture, that is, the way it has hitherto worked, 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 principle into a new one. This part of effective moral activity depends on knowledge of the particular world of phenomena with which one is concerned. We shall, therefore, look for it in some branch of learning in general. Moral action, then, presupposes, in addition to the faculty of having moral ideas (moral intuition) and moral imagination, the ability to transform the world of percepts without violating the natural laws by which these are connected (see fn 1). This ability is moral technique. It can be learnt in the same sense in which any kind of knowledge can be learnt. Generally speaking, men are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future. Hence it is perfectly possible for men without moral imagination to receive such mental pictures from others, and to embody them skillfully into the actual world. Conversely, it may happen that men with moral imagination lack technical skill, and must make use of other men for the realization of their mental pictures.

In so far as knowledge of the objects within our sphere of action is necessary for acting morally, our action depends upon such knowledge. What we are concerned with here are laws of nature. We are dealing with natural science, not ethics.

Moral imagination and the faculty of having moral ideas can become objects of knowledge only after they have been produced by the individual. By then, however, they no longer regulate life, for they have already regulated it. They must now be regarded as effective causes, like all others (they are purposes only for the subject). We therefore deal with them as with a natural history of moral ideas.

Ethics as a science that sets standards, in addition to this, cannot exist.

Some people have wanted to maintain the standard-setting character of moral laws, at least in so far as they have understood ethics in the sense of dietetics, which deduces general rules from the organism's requirements in life as a basis for influencing the body in a particular way (e.g., Paulsen, in his System der Ethik). This comparison is false, because our moral life is not comparable with the life of the organism. The functioning of the organism occurs without any action on our part; we come upon its laws in the world ready-made and can therefore seek them and apply them when found. Moral laws, on the other hand, are first created by us. We cannot apply them until we have created them. The error arises through the fact that, as regards their content, moral laws are not newly created at every moment, but are inherited. Those that we have taken over from our ancestors appear to be given, like the natural laws of the organism. But a later generation will certainly not be justified in applying them as if they were dietetic rules. For they apply to individuals and not, as natural laws do, to specimens of a general type. Considered as an organism, I am such a generic specimen and I shall live in accordance with nature if I apply the natural laws of my general type to my particular case; as a moral being, I am an individual and have laws of my very own. (see fn 2)

This view appears to contradict the fundamental doctrine of modern natural science known as the theory of evolution. But it only appears to do so. Evolution is understood to mean the real development of the later out of the earlier in accordance with natural law. In the organic world, evolution is understood to mean that the later (more perfect) organic forms are real descendants of the earlier (imperfect) forms, and have developed from them in accordance with natural laws. The adherents of the theory of organic evolution ought really to picture to themselves that there was once a time on our earth when a being could have followed with his own eyes the gradual development of reptiles out of proto-amniotes, had he been able to be there at the time as an observer, endowed with a sufficiently long span of life. Similarly, evolutionists ought to picture to themselves that a being could have watched the development of the solar system out of the Kant-Laplace primordial nebula, had he been able to remain in a suitable spot out in the cosmic world ether during that infinitely long time. That with such mental pictures, the nature of both the proto-amniotes and the Kant-Laplace cosmic nebula would have to be thought of differently from the way the materialist thinkers do, is here irrelevant. But no evolutionist should ever dream of maintaining that he could get the concept of the reptile, with all its characteristics, out of his concept of the proto-amniotic animal, 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 a primordial nebula is thought of as being directly determined only by the percept of the primordial nebula. In other words, if the evolutionist is to think consistently, he is bound to maintain that later phases of evolution do actually result from earlier ones, and that once we have been given the concept of the imperfect and that of the perfect, we can see the connection; but on no account should he agree that the concept attained from the earlier is, in itself, sufficient for evolving the later out of it. 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 content. For the student of ethics, the content thus produced is just as much a given thing as reptiles are a given thing for the scientist. Reptiles have developed out of proto-amniotes, but the scientist cannot get the concept of reptiles out of the concept of the proto-amniotes. Later moral ideas evolve out of earlier, but the student of ethics cannot get the moral concepts of a later civilization out of those of an earlier one. The confusion arises because, as scientists, we start with the facts before us, and then get to know them, whereas in moral action we ourselves first create the facts which we then get to know. In the process of evolution of the moral world order we accomplish something that, at a lower level, is accomplished by nature: we alter something perceptible. The ethical standard thus cannot start, like a law of nature, by being known, but only by being created. Only when it is there, can it become an object of knowledge.

But can we not then 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? For something that should reveal itself as morally productive, this would be just as absurd as to want to measure a new form in nature by an old one and say that, because reptiles do not conform to the proto-amniotes, they are an unjustifiable (pathological) form.

Ethical individualism, then, is not in opposition to a rightly understood theory of evolution, but follows directly from it. Haeckel's genealogical tree, from protozoa up to man as an organic being, ought to be capable of being continued without an interruption of natural law and without a break in the uniformity of evolution, up to the individual as a being that is moral in a definite sense. But on no account could the nature of a descendant species be deduced from the nature of an ancestral one. However true it is that the moral ideas of the individual have perceptibly developed out of those of his ancestors, it is equally true that the individual is morally barren unless he has moral ideas of his own.

The same ethical individualism that I have developed on the basis of views already given could also be derived from the theory of evolution. The final conviction would be the same; only the path by which it was reached would be different.

The appearance of completely new moral ideas through moral imagination is, for the theory of evolution, no more miraculous than the development of a new animal species out of an old one ; only, as a monistic view of the world, this theory must reject, in morality as in science, every transcendental (metaphysical) influence, every influence that is merely inferred and cannot be experienced ideally. In doing so, the theory follows the same principle that guides it when it seeks the causes of new organic forms without invoking the interference of an extra-mundane Being who produces every new species, in accordance with a new creative thought, by 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 experienceable world. It cannot admit that the moral nature of will is completely accounted for by being traced back to a continuous supernatural influence upon moral life (divine government of the world from the outside), or to an act of revelation at a particular moment in history (giving of the ten commandments), or to God's appearance on the earth (as Christ). What happens to man, and in man, through all this, becomes a moral element only when, in human experience, it becomes an individual's own. For monism, moral processes are products of the world like everything else that exists, and their causes must be sought in the world, that is, in man, since man is the bearer of morality.

Ethical individualism, then, is the crowning feature of the edifice that Darwin and Haeckel have striven to build for natural science. It is spiritualized theory of evolution carried over into moral life.

Anyone who, in a narrow-minded way, restricts the concept of the natural from the outset to an arbitrarily limited sphere may easily conclude that there is no room in it for free individual action. The consistent evolutionist cannot fall a prey to such narrow-mindedness. He cannot let the natural course of evolution terminate with the ape, and allow man to have a “supernatural” origin; in his very search for the natural progenitors of man, he is bound to seek spirit in nature; again, he cannot stop short at the organic functions of man, and take only these as natural, but must go on to regard the free moral life as the spiritual continuation of organic life.

If he is to keep to his fundamental principles, the evolutionist can state only that the present form of moral action evolves from other forms of activity in the world; the characterizing of an action, that is, whether it is a free one, he must leave to the immediate observation of the action. In fact, he maintains only that men have developed out of ancestors that were not yet human. What men are actually like must be determined by observation of men themselves. The results of this observation cannot contradict the properly understood history of evolution. Only the assertion that the results are such as to exclude a natural ordering of the world would contradict recent trends in the natural sciences. (see fn 3)

Ethical individualism has nothing to fear from a natural science that understands itself: for observation shows that the perfect form of human action has freedom as its characteristic quality. This freedom must be allowed to the human will, in so far as the will realizes purely ideal intuitions. For these intuitions are not the results of a necessity acting upon them from without, but are due only to themselves. If a man finds that an action is the image of such an ideal intuition, then he feels it to be free. In this characteristic of an action lies its freedom.

What are we to say, from this standpoint, about the distinction mentioned earlier (see Chapter 1) between the two propositions, “To be free means to be able to do as one wills” and, “To be at liberty to desire or not to desire is the real proposition involved in the dogma of freewill”? Hamerling bases his view of free will 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 as I will. But to say I can want as I will is an empty tautology.” Whether I am able to do, that is, to translate into reality, what I will, that is, what I have set before myself as my idea of action, depends on external circumstances and on my technical skill (see above). To be free means to be able of one's own accord to determine by moral imagination those mental pictures (motives) which underlie the action. Freedom is impossible if anything other then myself (mechanical process or merely inferred extra-mundane God) determines my moral ideas. In other words, I am free only when I myself produce these mental pictures, not when I am merely able to carry out the motives which another being has implanted in me. A free being is one who can want what he himself considers right. Whoever does anything other than what he wants must be impelled to it by motives which do not lie within him. Such a man is unfree in his action. To be at liberty to want what one considers right or what one considers wrong, would therefore mean to be at liberty to be free or unfree. This is, of course, just as absurd as to see freedom in the ability to do what one is compelled to will. But this last 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 account 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 strength and determination.” In deed it can! It is certainly possible to desire a greater freedom, and this for the first time the true one: namely, to decide for oneself the motives for one's will.

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

External powers may prevent me from doing as I will. Then they simply condemn me to do nothing or to be unfree. Not until they would 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. For this reason the Church sets itself not only against the mere doing, but especially against the impure thoughts, that is, the motives of my action. The Church makes me unfree if, for her, all those motives she has not herself enunciated seem impure. A Church or other community produces unfreedom when its priests or teachers make themselves into keepers of consciences, that is, when the faithful are obliged to go to them (to the confessional) for the motives of their actions.

Author's addition, 1918

In these chapters on the human will I have shown what man can experience in his actions so that, through this experience, he comes to be aware: My will is free. It is particularly significant that the right to call an act of will free arises from the experience that an ideal intuition comes to realization in the act of will. This experience can only be the result of an observation, and is so, in the sense that we observe our will on a path of development towards the goal where it becomes possible for an act of will to be sustained by purely ideal intuition. This goal can be reached, because in ideal intuition nothing else is at work but its own self-sustaining essence. When such an intuition is present in human consciousness, then it has not been developed out of the processes of the organism, but rather the organic activity has withdrawn to make room for the ideal activity (see Chapter 9). When I observe an act of will that is an image of an intuition, then from this act of will too all organically necessary activity has withdrawn. The act of will is free. This freedom of the will cannot be observed by anyone who is unable to see how the free act of will consists in the fact that, firstly, through the intuitive element, the activity that is necessary for the human organism is checked and repressed, and then replaced by the spiritual activity of the idea-filled will. Only those who cannot make this observation of the twofold nature of a free act of will, believe that every act of will is unfree. Those who can make this observation win through to the recognition that man is unfree in so far as he cannot complete the process of suppressing the organic activity; but that this unfreedom tends towards freedom, and that this freedom is by no means an abstract ideal but is a directive force inherent in human nature. Man is free to the extent that he is able to realize in his acts of will the same mood of soul that lives in him when he becomes aware of the forming of purely ideal (spiritual) Intuitions.


  1. Only a superficial critic will find in the use of the word “faculty” in this and other passages a relapse into the doctrine of faculties of the soul, found in the older psychology. The meaning of the word is clear when taken in connection with what is said in (Chapter 5).
  2. When Paulsen (on page 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 its generic laws. But as an individual I am not a specimen of a general type.
  3. That we speak of thoughts (ethical ideas) as objects of observation is fully justified. For, although during the activity of thinking the products of thinking do not appear at the same time in the field of observation, they can nevertheless become objects of observation afterwards. And it is in this way that we have arrived at our characterization of action.

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