A tale of two ethics: Why many Ger­mans think im­prac­ti­cal ide­al­ism is im­moral

Why many Ger­mans think im­prac­ti­cal ide­al­ism is im­moral

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS -

The phrases “ethic of con­vic­tion” and “ethic of re­spon­si­bil­ity” mean lit­tle to most English-speak­ers. In Ger­many the equiv­a­lent terms—Gesin­nungsethik and Ver­ant­wor­tungsethik—are house­hold words. Pun­dits drop them ca­su­ally dur­ing tele­vi­sion talk shows. Hosts use them as con­ver­sa­tion-starters at din­ner par­ties. The con­cepts draw on the op­po­si­tion be­tween ide­al­ism and prag­ma­tism that runs through pol­i­tics ev­ery­where. But they also cap­ture a spe­cific moral ten­sion that is “very Ger­man”, says Man­fred Güll­ner, a so­ci­ol­o­gist and poll­ster. Any­one in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing Ger­man pol­i­tics, on any­thing from the euro to refugees, would do well to get a han­dle on them.

The terms come from the so­ci­ol­o­gist Max We­ber, who used them in a speech he gave in Jan­uary 1919 to a group of left­ist stu­dents at a Mu­nich book­store. Ger­many had just lost the first world war. The Kaiser had ab­di­cated, the coun­try was in the throes of rev­o­lu­tion and Mu­nich was about to be­come the cap­i­tal of a short-lived “Bavar­ian Soviet Repub­lic”. Armed with only eight in­dex cards, We­ber gave a talk that would be­come a clas­sic of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence. (“Pol­i­tics as a Vo­ca­tion” was pub­lished in English only af­ter the sec­ond world war.) The lec­ture ranged broadly through his­tory, but its main pur­pose was to curb the Utopian ro­man­ti­cism then grip­ping the ide­o­logues fight­ing over the di­rec­tion of the new Ger­many, in­clud­ing those sit­ting in front of him.

We­ber de­scribed an “abysmal op­po­si­tion” be­tween two types of ethics. Those fol­low­ing their con­vic­tions wish to pre­serve their own moral pu­rity, no mat­ter what con­se­quences their poli­cies may have in the real world. “If an ac­tion of good in­tent leads to bad re­sults, then, in the ac­tor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stu­pid­ity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is re­spon­si­ble for the evil.” By con­trast, some­one guided by re­spon­si­bil­ity “takes ac­count of pre­cisely the av­er­age de­fi­cien­cies of peo­ple…(H)e does not even have the right to pre­sup­pose their goodness and per­fec­tion.” This sort of politi­cian will an­swer for all the con­se­quences of his ac­tions, even un­in­tended ones. We­ber left no doubt about his sym­pa­thies. Ethi­cists of con­vic­tion, he said, were “in nine out of ten cases wind­bags”.

The pre­vail­ing view to­day, like We­ber’s in 1919, is that “Ger­many has a sur­feit of Gesin­nungsethik,” says Wolf­gang Nowak, who served as an ad­viser to Ger­hard Schröder when he was chan­cel­lor. The post­war yearn­ing of Ger­mans to atone for their na­tion’s Nazi past through ex­trav­a­gant moral pos­ing ex­ac­er­bates the ten­dency. In gen­eral, the ethic of con­vic­tion is most preva­lent among left­ists and Protes­tants, and slightly less so among con­ser­va­tives and Catholics, says Mr. Güll­ner.

Thus the So­cial Democrats, who view them­selves as cru­saders for so­cial jus­tice, often give the im­pres­sion that they are not only “un­able but un­will­ing” to govern, lest they bear ac­tual re­spon­si­bil­ity, Mr. Güll­ner thinks. That may ex­plain why there has been a So­cial Demo­cratic chan­cel­lor for only 20 years since 1949, com­pared with 47 years un­der the Chris­tian Democrats. Many of Ger­many’s most stri­dent paci­fists, mean­while, are Luther­ans. Mar­got Käß­mann, the church’s for­mer leader, dreams of Ger­many hav­ing no army at all. She dis­avows force even to pre­vent or stop a geno­cide.

But an ethic of con­vic­tion also runs through the cen­tre-right, which since the 1950s has ap­proached the Euro­pean project as an end in it­self, a way for Ger­many to be­come post-na­tional and dis­solve its guilt along with its sovereignty. In the process, Ger­mans de­lib­er­ately over­looked the fact that most other Euro­peans never shared this goal. Once the euro cri­sis erupted, many con­ser­va­tives op­posed bail-outs out of an ethic of con­vic­tion, ar­gues Thilo Sar­razin, a con­tro­ver­sial pun­dit. They wanted to de­cry rule-break­ing by cri­sis coun­tries as in­her­ently bad—even at the cost of let­ting the cur­rency zone un­ravel.

The ethic of re­spon­si­bil­ity holds that such stances are not merely im­prac­ti­cal but wrong, and that what will not work can­not be moral. Those gov­ern­ing Ger­many have mostly been of this camp. In the 1980s mil­lions of Ger­mans marched against the mod­erni­sa­tion of NATO’s nu­clear ar­se­nal, but Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Sch­midt let the mis-

siles de­ploy, ac­cept­ing the grim logic of de­ter­rence. (His re­ward from his fel­low So­cial Democrats was largely dis­dain.) In the euro cri­sis, An­gela Merkel reluc­tantly agreed to bail-outs in or­der to hold the cur­rency zone to­gether.

TRANS­PORTS OF JOY

That is what makes Mrs. Merkel’s his­toric open­ing of Ger­many’s bor­ders to refugees on Septem­ber 4th, 2015 so re­mark­able. “She gal­loped away with an ethic of con­vic­tion,” says Kon­rad Ott, a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and au­thor of a book on mi­gra­tion and moral­ity. At the time this aligned her with a eu­phoric “wel­come cul­ture”, as or­di­nary Ger­mans vol­un­teered to help refugees and the press cel­e­brated the coun­try’s hu­man­i­tar­ian ex­am­ple. Mrs. Merkel re­fused to put a nu­mer­i­cal limit on ac­cept­ing hu­man be­ings in dire need, a po­si­tion she still main­tains.

But as pre­dicted by ethi­cists of re­spon­si­bil­ity (in whose ranks Mrs. Merkel is usu­ally found), the mood soon turned. Other Euro­peans ac­cused Ger­many of “moral im­pe­ri­al­ism”, the flip side of Gesin­nungsethik. And many Ger­mans felt that too much was be­ing asked of their so­ci­ety. Some, in a de­vel­op­ment that would not have sur­prised We­ber, turned xeno­pho­bic.

The his­tory of the past year can thus be seen as Mrs. Merkel’s at­tempt to re­turn to an ethic of re­spon­si­bil­ity with­out be­tray­ing her con­vic­tions. This in­cludes bit­ing her tongue as she deals with an in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian Turkey, whose co­op­er­a­tion she needs to re­duce the mi­grant flows, and other moral com­pro­mises. Max We­ber would have found her dilemma com­pelling. Even some­one with an ethic of re­spon­si­bil­ity, he said, some­times “reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is some­thing gen­uinely hu­man and mov­ing.”

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