Ethics

By Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ilse Tödt et al. | Go to book overview

HISTORY AND GOOD [1][1]

218 ALL THAT HAS BEEN SAID thus far[2] implies that we have abandoned the abstract notion, largely dominant in ethical thought, of an isolated individual who has available an absolute criterion by which to choose continually and exclusively between a clearly recognized good and a clearly recognized evil.[3] Such an isolated individual does not exist; nor do we have such an absolute criterion of the good simply at our disposal; nor do good and evil present themselves to us in their pure form. The error of such an abstract ethical scheme is this: only the isolated individual is considered ethically relevant; only what is absolute[4] and universal is seen as normative; and only the choice between the clearly recognized good

[1] The beginning of the manuscript, up to page 228, line 15, was written on double sheets with the “Eichberger” watermark.

[2.] See above, page 51, regarding Bonhoeffer’s rejection not only of “the split between individual and society” that dominated ethics during his lifetime but also of the assumption of an accessible criterion for what is good (see above, page 52). In short, he was rejecting “any abstract ethic” (see above, page 99).

The sheet numbering of this manuscript starts with the number “15.” in the top left corner of the first sheet. A large underlined “15.” is found in Ethics working note No. 31 (ZE 97), also in the top left corner; this working note contains phrases on “The Individual and History.” The term “individual” is found on a sheet numbered “14.” that concludes the manuscript “Ethics as Formation” (see above, page 102, line 5). The first sheet of the manuscript “Heritage and Decay” bears the number “15.” in the top left corner. With the exception of sheets “15.” and “16.” of “Heritage and Decay,” all manuscripts up to this point have the page number at the top center of each page. Bonhoeffer apparently intended to insert the 1942 manuscript “History and the Good” at the point where, earlier in 1940, he had placed the manuscript “Heritage and Decay,” namely, after the manuscript “Ethics as Formation.”

[3.] The phrase “between a clearly recognized… evil” replaces “between good and evil.”

[4.] The “absolute” is the key term in German idealist philosophy, especially for Hegel. It denotes the unconditioned as opposed to the relative.

-219-

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