Political, economic, social, and business transformations and crises confront each and every one of us with ethical dilemmas. They force us to reflect together on the meaning of collective responsibility, as well as on the apparent dichotomy between the ideal world and the real world. What is a collective endeavour? What is a common vision? In the face of change, should we cry helplessness or appeal to our own responsibility?
The great German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) gives an enlightening interpretation of this dilemma between what he calls “the ethics of conviction” and “the ethics of responsibility”.
Peace of mind is the promised result. This is a deep-seated conviction, and no transgressions are allowed.
The ethics of conviction is based on duty and the higher principles one believes in. It considers it wrong not to tell the truth for truth’s sake and is concerned with abiding by the values and norms we hold dear. In this case, by upholding a higher value that marginalizes the rest, with no real concern for the consequences, some form of ideology or idealism is involved. Here, it is not efficiency that is important, but whether one’s thinking correlates with one’s actions. Peace of mind is the promised result. This is a deep-seated conviction, and no transgressions are allowed.
In contrast, the ethics of responsibility is about rationality and confronting reality. It is concerned with the means and lengths an individual is prepared to go to, to achieve a goal, and emphasizes the importance of pragmatism in this. The ethics of responsibility also draws attention to the significance of seeking innovative and diplomatic ways of resolving crises by focusing on building our common future and being mindful of the consequences. Here, the focus on efficiency demands pragmatism, compromise, and the ability to foresee the consequences and adjust activities accordingly. According to Weber, the ethics of responsibility is the ethics for people of action.
From a sociological perspective, all human activity is organized according to these two principles. This is not to say that ethics of conviction means an absence of responsibility, nor that ethics of responsibility means an absence of conviction, only that when we are faced with ethical choices, one position prevails over the other. Weber also refers to the ethics of responsibility as an “ethics of success” or the “ethics of adaptation to the possible”. He stresses that when there is a conflict between the two ethics, one must choose the ethics of responsibility in order to build a common future, and adjust one’s convictions to one’s responsibilities by thinking dialectically.
Two complimentary ethics
In the best of all possible worlds, the two ethics are not contradictory but complementary: in becoming President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela skilfully combined his political convictions (support for human rights, universal democracy, the ‘rainbow’ nation) with his responsibility as a statesman (integrating the white minority, economic pragmatism, the Reconciliation Commission, reintegrating the country into the global community). Other examples include the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981, where moral conviction met political responsibility, and ethical companies, which belief in the importance of impact investing. To paraphrase Henri-Louis Bergson, it is about “acting like a man of thought and thinking like a man of action”.
Most often, the dilemma between these two types of ethics arises in situations of tension, crisis, or transformation, when decisions have to be made and action taken. As we know, offering criticism is easy, while building something is difficult.
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