Politics and Ethics- Max Weber


Ajit Kumar AJIT KUMARWISDOM IAS, New Delhi.

Even more explicitly ethical than was his methodology, Weber's political project also discloses his entrenched preoccupation with the willful resuscitation of certain character traits in modern society. At the outset, it seems undeniable that Weber was a deeply liberal political thinker especially in a German context that is not well known for liberalism. This means that his ultimate value as a political thinker was locked on individual freedom, that “old, general type of human ideals” [Weber 1895/1994, 19]. He was also a bourgeois liberal, and self-consciously so, in a time of great transformations that were undermining the social conditions necessary to support classical liberal values and bourgeois institutions, thereby challenging liberalism to attempt a radical self-redirection. To that extent, he belongs to that generation of liberal political thinkers in fin-de-siècle Europe who clearly perceived the general crisis of liberalism and sought to resolve it in their own liberal ways [Bellamy 1992, 157–216]. Weber's own way was to address the problem of classical liberal characterology that was, in his view, being progressively undermined by the indiscriminate bureaucratization of modern society.
Charismatic Leadership Democracy
Such a concern with ethical character is clearly discernible in Weber's stark political realism. Utterly devoid of any normative qualities, for instance, the modern state is defined simply as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory [Weber 1919/1994, 310],” whether that legitimacy derives from charisma, tradition, or law. Further, he held that, even in a democratic state, domination of the ruled by the ruler(s) is simply an unavoidable political fact. If the genuine self-rule of the people is impossible, the only choice is one between leaderless and leadership democracy (Führerdemokratie). When advocating a sweeping democratization of post-war Germany, thus, Weber envisioned democracy in Germany as a political marketplace in which strong charismatic leaders can be identified and elected by winning votes in a free competition, even struggle, among themselves. Preserving and enhancing this element of struggle in politics is important since it is only through a dynamic electoral process that national leaders strong enough to control an otherwise omnipotent bureaucracy can be made. The primary concern for Weber in devising democratic institutions has, in other words, less to do with the values and institutions that can realise the ideals of democracy as such than with the cultivation of a certain character fit for national leadership. So far, Weber's theory of democracy seems to contain certain authoritarian elements that can support Jürgen Habermas's famous critique that Carl Schmitt, “the Kronjuristof the Third Reich,” was “a legitimate pupil of Weber's” [Stammer (ed.), 1971, 66].
Leadership democracy is, however, not solely reliant upon the quality of its leaders, let alone that of a caesaristic dictator. In addition to electoral competition, Weber saw localized, yet public associational life as a breeding ground for the formation of charismatic leaders. When leaders are identified and trained at the level of, say neighborhood choral societies and bowling clubs [Weber 2002], the alleged authoritarian elitism of leadership democracy comes across as more pluralistic in its conceptualization, far from its usual identification with demagogic dictatorship and unthinking mass following. Insofar as a civil society, or “sectlike society” in his own parlance, functions as an effective medium for the horizontal diffusion of charismatic qualities among lay people, his notion of charisma can retain a strongly democratic tone to the extent that he also suggested social pluralism as a sociocultural ground for the political education of the lay citizenry from which genuine leaders would hail. In short, the charismatic leadership ideal in Weber's political project also requires a heterogeneous and pluralistically organized civil society as its corollary. Together, Weber expected, strong national leadership and a robust civil society would form a bulwark of political dynamism in times of bureaucratic petrification.
Nationalism and Power-Politics
Weber's preoccupation with civic education runs like a thread through his nationalism as well. There can be no denying that Weber was an ardent nationalist. And yet, his nationalism was unambiguously free from the obsession with primordial ethnicity and race that was prevalent in Wilhelmine Germany. Even in the Freiburg Address of 1895, which unleashed his nationalist zeal with an uninhibited and youthful rhetorical force, he makes it clear that the ultimate rationale for the nationalist value-commitment that should guide all political judgments, even political and economic sciences as well, has less to do with the promotion of the German national interests per se than with a civic education of the citizenry in general and political maturity of the bourgeois class in particular. At a time when “the ultimate, most sublime values have retreated from the public sphere” [Weber 1919/1946, 155], Weber found an instrumental value in nationalism insofar as it can imbue patriotic feelings among the otherwise apathetic citizenry and thereby increase their participation in public affairs.
Crucial to this civic educational project was, according to Weber, exposing citizens to the harsh reality of “eternal struggle,” or power-politics (Machtpolitik) among the nation-states with which Germany had to engage actively [Weber 1895/1994, 16]. Weber observed with more than a hint of envy, for example, that it was “the reverberation of a position of world power” that exposed the English citizens “to ‘chronic’ political schooling,” and it was this political education that made possible both the empire-building and liberal democracy [Ibid., 26]. In this sense, Weber's nationalism can be surmised as a variant of liberal imperialism, or social imperialism (Sozialimperialismus) as it was called in Germany; to that extent, one might say that his political thinking is not free from the problems of liberalism in turn-of-the-century Europe [Beetham 1989, 322]. Be that as it may, Weber's liberal nationalism was still significantly different from his contemporaries' in its preoccupation with a liberal characterology and civic education [Kim 2002, 435–441, 455–457]. The next question that Weber's ethico-political project raises is, then, what kind of character virtues are necessary for the kind of leadership and citizenship that can together make a great nation, while holding inevitable bureaucratization in check.
The Ethics of Conviction and Responsibility
Weber suggested two sets of ethical virtues that a proper political education should cultivate — the ethic of conviction (Gesinnungsethik) and the ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik). According to the ethic of responsibility, on the one hand, an action is given meaning only as a cause of an effect, that is, only in terms of its causal relationship to the empirical world. The virtue lies in an objective understanding of the possible causal effect of an action and the calculated reorientation of the elements of an action in such a way as to achieve a desired consequence. An ethical question is thereby reduced to a question of technically correct procedure, and free action consists of choosing the correct means. By emphasizing the causality to which a free agent subscribes, in short, Weber prescribes an ethical integrity between action and consequences, instead of a Kantian emphasis on that between action and intention.
According to the ethic of conviction, on the other hand, a free agent should be able to choose autonomously not only the means, but also the end; “this concept of personality finds its ‘essence’ in the constancy of its inner relation to certain ultimate ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ of life” [Weber 1903–06/1975, 192]. In this respect, Weber's problem hinges on the recognition that the kind of rationality applied in choosing a means cannot be used in choosing an end. These two kinds of reasoning represent categorically distinct modes of rationality, a boundary further reinforced by modern value fragmentation. With no objectively ascertainable ground of choice provided, then, a free agent has to create a purpose ex nihilo: “ultimately life as a whole, if it is not to be permitted to run on as an event in nature but is instead to be consciously guided, is a series of ultimate decisions through which the soul — as in Plato — chooses its own fate” [Weber 1917/1949, 18]. This ultimate decision and the Kantian integrity between intention and action constitute the essence of what Weber calls an ethic of conviction.
It is often held that the gulf between these two types of ethic is unbridgeable for Weber. Demanding an unmitigated integrity between one's ultimate value and political action, that is to say, the deontological ethic of conviction cannot be reconciled with that of responsibility which is consequentialist in essence. In fact, Weber himself admitted the “abysmal contrast” that separates the two. This frank admission, nevertheless, cannot be taken to mean that he privileged the latter over the former as far as political education is concerned.
Weber clearly understood the deep tension between consequentialism and deontology, but he still insisted that they should be forcefully brought together. The former recognition only lends urgency to the latter agenda. Resolving this analytical inconsistency in terms of certain “ethical decrees” did not interest Weber at all. Instead, he sought for a moral character that can produce this “combination” with a sheer force of will. He called such a character a “politician with a sense of vocation” (Berufspolitiker) who combines a passionate conviction in supra-mundane ideals that politics has to serve and a sober rational calculation of its realizability in this mundane world. Weber thus concluded: “the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility are not absolute opposites. They are complementary to one another, and only in combination do they produce the true human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics’” [Weber 1919/1994, 368].
In the end, Weber's ethical project is not about formal analysis of moral maxims, nor is it about substantive virtues that reflect some kind of ontic telos. It is too formal to be an Aristotelean virtue ethics, and it is too concerned with moral character to be a Kantian deontology narrowly understood. The goal of Weber's ethical project, rather, aims at cultivating a character who can willfully bring together these conflicting formal virtues to create what he calls “total personality” (Gesamtpersönlichkeit). It culminates in an ethical characterology or philosophical anthropology in which passion and reason are properly ordered by sheer force of individual volition. In this light, Weber's political virtue resides not simply in a subjective intensity of value commitment nor in a detached intellectual integrity, but in their willful combination in a unified soul.


Tuesday, 12th Jan 2016, 05:07:05 AM

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