Theosophy, Decision-making, and Ethics

Barbara Hebert – USA

Theosophy BH 2

According to Heidi Zak in her article in Inc., adults make more than 35,000 decisions per day. These decisions range from deciding what to wear, what route to take when driving to work, what to eat for meals to more complex decisions that involve one’s career and family. Dr. Eva Krockow in her article in Psychology Today writes: “Assuming that most people spend around seven hours per day sleeping and thus blissfully choice-free, that makes roughly 2,000 decisions per hour or one decision every two seconds.” Dr. Krockow questions these numbers, but clearly, we are making far more decisions on a daily basis than we realize. Krockow does, however, point out that sometimes small decisions can lead to major consequences, and she encourages increased awareness of the decisions we are making.


Theosophy BH 3 ethics

As seekers for Truth, we attempt (and sometimes succeed!) to be mindful in all that we do. We work to remain vigilant in self-observation and awareness as we walk through this physical incarnation. How often, though, are we mindful or self-observant in terms of the decisions we make? How many of those decisions are made in light of Theosophical ethics?

There is, of course, no identified and verbalized set of Theosophical ethics. Theosophists are encouraged to do their own study, their own self-observation, and make their own decisions. In fact, as we are all aware, the Theosophical Society is founded on freedom of thought.

First, let’s define ethics. While this term can have many meanings, for our purposes we will define ethics as the personal code of conduct for an individual within a given community. The community, for us, is the Theosophical Society, and it is the teachings within the theosophical literature that imply the code of conduct for us as theosophists.

The first, and perhaps most important, ethical statement of conduct can be found in the First Object of the TS where we agree, as members, to come together regardless of race, creed, sex, caste, or color. This object focuses on the unity of all beings at their core despite differences in manifestation, calls upon us to recognize the innate divinity of all beings, and to behave toward others in a respectful, caring, and unitive manner.

John Algeo, former International Vice President of the Theosophical Society writes about the theosophical teachings: 

“The ancient wisdom or perennial philosophy as it has also been called, is a body of teachings that imply a way of behaving.”

His article, “The Golden Stairs: Ethics in the Ancient Wisdom Tradition” points out that Blavatsky’s “The Golden Stairs” is a summary of ethics based on the Ageless Wisdom. His in-depth discussion about “The Golden Stairs” provides an opportunity for much contemplation and consideration. Furthermore, he tells us that basic theosophical concepts such as karma, viveka (discrimination), ahimsa (harmlessness) and vairagya (dispassion) are also among the many theosophical concepts that outline an ethical way of living and interacting with others.

Radha Burnier, former International President cites the statements made by the Dalai Lama, saying:

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama has clearly stated that it is essential for everyone to learn to live the right kind of life rather than attempt to reach nirvana. Without learning to have relationships of compassion, integrity, unselfishness, friendliness, and care for others, mentally projected "spiritual" aims lead nowhere.”

She goes on to say that “The world will change only when virtue is a recognized part of people's lives, but people in general refuse to see this. They are concentrated on their own personal and selfish objectives, or they seek solace from their problems through spiritual achievement, whether it is named moksha, nirvana, or salvation. Few are ready to believe that how we live and behave is important, and that if the right kind of life is lived, in due time, true understanding will dawn about proceeding on the spiritual Path; moksha or nirvana will come nearer by itself.”  

Looking at these three examples, the First Object of the TS and the statements by John Algeo and Radha Burnier, we have been provided with a rather intimidating list of ethical principles upon which to base our lives: responsibility for all of our thoughts, words, and actions; harmlessness, discrimination, dispassion, compassion, integrity, unselfishness, friendliness, and care for others. If we incorporated the ethical guidelines provided in “The Golden Stairs, we would certainly add to this list. Digging just a little more deeply into the Ageless Wisdom teachings, the list would grow even longer.

It is clear, then, that the theosophical teachings provide us with the ethical guidelines for daily life. Study will take us only so far. We must implement the teachings, incorporate the principles of the Ageless Wisdom, and put our ethics into practice. This is a necessary component of being a spiritual seeker and walking the path.

If we go back to the beginning of our discussion, it would be important to ask: when we make the 35,000 decisions daily, are we considering our theosophical ethics when we make those decisions?  Maybe we do, sometimes. It makes one wonder what life would be if we did incorporate those ethics into all of our decision-making.

Let’s take a simple example to begin with: the decision about what to wear in the morning. It seems like a simple decision, but if we apply the ethic of harmlessness, is it quite so simple? Are there any leather components to the clothing or shoes? Where was the clothing made and by whom? These types of questions, and others, can be difficult but exemplify the detail to which our ethics may be applied.

The same types of questions may be applied to what we eat for meals. Are we taking into consideration the essential unity of all life? Are we practicing ahimsa in our choice of food? And so on.

Let us look at decisions that may be a little bit more complex in terms of ethical decision-making. Many of us are actively working for the Theosophical Society in some way, whether it is attending classes or talks, supporting the local group in some way, or holding some type of local, regional, national, or international position. As members of and workers for the TS, the decisions we make impact the whole of the organization. How are we making those decisions, even the seemingly most inconsequential decisions? Are we mindful? Are we implementing theosophical ethics of compassion, ahimsa, discernment, etc.?

Looking a little bit more deeply at our ethical decision-making, it is useful to explore how we come to the answers upon which we base our decisions. Are we looking externally for answers, or are we looking internally at our own beliefs? If we believe in the Law of Karma, we know that we are responsible for whatever decisions we make, whether based internally or externally. However, if we look to an external source to make our decisions, then how does that impact our karma and perhaps the karma of the external source? It seems to be of integral importance that we listen to ourselves in making decisions. Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear the perspectives of others, but the ultimate decision must come from within and it must be based on truth, integrity, ahimsa, viveka, vairagya, compassion, care for the whole rather than self, and so on.

What is being asked of us is not simple. Very little, if anything, on the path seems to be simple.  Unlike many other organizations and traditions, the Theosophical Society does not define a code of ethics by which its members must live. Those decisions are left to each of us individually, based on our own understanding of the teachings. It requires mindfulness, self-observation, and a constant eye to one’s motivations and intentions: a very difficult task.

Although the task set before us is a difficult one, it is not impossible. We can begin by making one ethically based decision in a day, then two ethically based decisions, and so on. Will we get to 35,000 ethically based decisions in a day? Probably not for quite some time, but that is our path. It seems safe to say that those who have gone before us, the Holy Ones who stand behind the Theosophical Society, learned through their many incarnations to make 35,000+ ethically based decisions daily. We will, too, one day.


Algeo, John. The Golden Stairs: Ethics in the Ancient Wisdom Tradition. The American Theosophist, November 1984. 

Burnier, Radha. What is Our Priority? Quest  92.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2004):228-229. 

Krockow, Eva. “How Many Decisions Do we Make Each Day?”. Psychology Today, Sept. 27, 2018.

Zak, Heidi. Adults Make More Than 35,000 Decisions Per Day. Here Are 4 Ways to Prevent Mental Burnout. Inc.'s%20estimated%20that%20the%20average,we%20pivot%20the%20business%3F)


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