Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik are household words in Germany and they relate to the moral tension between idealism and pragmatism. Gesinnungsethik refers to the “ethic of conviction” and Verantwortungsethik to the “ethic of responsibility”. Are we fully responsible for the consequences of our actions (Verantwortungsethik or the ethic of responsibility)? Or is it enough to act with good intentions and a pure heart regardless of the outcome (Gesinnungsethik or the ethic of conviction”)?

Most would say it’s okay to lie when the Nazi’s come knocking, i.e. it’s okay to do wrong in order to do good. The trouble is that one has just stepped on a slippery slope of moral relativism where it is all too easy to justify abandoning vital principles, rationalizing (rational – lies) away the very standards of integrity and conscience that are the foundation of civilization. Perhaps it’s only okay to do a SMALL wrong in order to do MUCH greater good? With great certainty regarding the probability of that greater good actually occurring? And humility around the possibility of unintended consequences? Including the challenge of restoring the moral code?

It is important to differentiate clearly between Red Rules and Blue Rules. Red Rule: Malum in se; wrong because it is inherently wrong (Thou shalt not kill) v. Blue Rule: Malum prohibitum; wrong simply because it is prohibited by the legislature i.e. speed limits.

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Excerpt:  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 . . . [Sociologist Max] 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”.

As always, I share what I most want/need to learn. – Nathan S. Collier