„Absolute Ethics“ and „Ethics of Responsibility“

In the wake of the First World War and in the face of increasing ideological extremism, the German sociologist Max Weber postulated a difference between people that follow absolute ethics on the one side and people that take ethical responsibility for the consequences of their acts on the other side.

The general argument, I believe, is following: There are members of society that see the responsibility of their acts with the principle that they follow. It is not personally their fault if their acts aiming for the realization of a certain principle cause consequences. I want to track that notion back to the contract-theory of Hobbes and Locke. Giving up sovereignty and power to the overarching Leviathan bound by its contracts is also surrendering the responsibility for one’s actions to it. That constitutes normative power of the given system of law. Of course, from Locke to Kant and many other have since put emphasis on the importance on one’s independence to act according to one’s conscience, however it appears to have normally included the establishment of another overarching institution that would then hold responsibility for the consequences for acts. Whether it is the church, the state, the code of human rights, the idea of good, or the discourse-theoretical convention – they seem to always establish a norm-giving institution that is above the reach of the individual member of society.

That means, that either the ethical judgement, which of a set of decisions in an ethical dilemma is preferable, does not lie with the individual person or that the responsibility for the consequences of that judgement if made by a person lies with the principle of his action.

Ethics of responsibility needs to be thought radical, I believe. A person that believes she is able to make a ethical decision and estimate what outcome is preferable needs to accept the absolute responsibility for it. That means the abondement of every norm-giving institution. She sets herself as the absolute institution and has to accept that everybody else is that too. Some might call that a „regression“ to the natural state that Hobbes described as a war of everybody against everybody.

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