Before we can appreciate what Weber’s take on ethics entails, we need to go more deeply into his conception of politics. An important first step is that politics presupposes the state, a point that Schmitt will later reverse. Weber briefly discusses, but quickly dismisses such “wide” notion of politics as are involved in, for instance, the politics of banks and marital life[1]. He instead understands politics as “the governing [Leitung] or the influencing of governance of a political community, (…) hence, a state”[2]. This leads him to a definition of the state as “that human community, which (successfully) claims for itself the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory (…)”[3]. There are faint echoes of Fichtean Setzung in Weber’s conception of normativity: legitimacy is something that is to be claimed, and being seen as legitimate is all there is to legitimacy[4]. In other words, legitimacy is an act in the sense that it has to be brought about actively rather than a reflection of a pre-existing normative realm. According to Weber, in his time the state is the only channel that will allow violence to be legitimately committed against other persons: the only route that allows the conferral of the ‘right’ to violence. From this, we can refine the definition of politics as a “striving for a share of power [Machtsanteil] or for an influencing of the share of power, whether between states, or within states between the groups of people it encloses”[5]. Both the rejection of supreme principles that would confer legitimacy by themselves and the place that is given to power are of course further signs of Nietzsche’s influence.

Furthermore, Weber harks back to Kant when he differentiates between the “political official” [Beamte] and the “element of the politician”, which is most visible in the “political leader” [Führer][6]. The official is expected to be “impartial” [unparteiisch] and is involved with “administration” [verwalten] rather than politics properly so called[7]. Weber elsewhere typifies this kind of administration as involving trained professionalism [fachgeschulten Beamtentums], bureaucracy and “purely technical” factors in the history of state formation[8]. We here recall Kant’s political moralist and the general conception of politics as presenting problems of a technical nature. However, for Weber the contrary position is not that of the moral politician, at least not as Kant would have used that term. For Kant, there was still an overarching moral framework that could be invoked to put politics in its place. Nietzsche has cut off direct access to such a framework, however. For that reason, and consistently with his equation of legitimacy and successfully claimed legitimacy, Weber sees substantive moral principles as belonging to a realm that is separate from life itself: Weber’s own time knows only the struggles of different such principles among themselves.

So long as life remains immanent and is interpreted in its own terms, it knows only of an unceasing struggle of these gods with one another. (…) The ultimately possible attitudes toward life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice. (cited in Wolin 1981, 403)

This so-called ‘warring gods thesis’ is connected to Weber’s view of the real politician and the political leader. The political official does his task “sine ira et studio – without anger and bias [ohne Zorn und Eingenommenheit]”[9]. However, “partisanship, battle, passion” [Parteinahme, Kampf, Leidenschaft] are “the politician’s element”[10]. Weber himself believes that both perspectives are important: the complexity of contemporary society requires a certain Beamtentum, but Weber rejects governance by officials alone [Beamtenherrschaft] on multiple occasions[11]. This means that both perspectives are always in play: politics is simultaneously, albeit in different aspects, about both technical decision-making by trained experts and decisive choices that are put into action by passionate leaders without being fully covered by underlying criteria. As in Fichte and Nietzsche, it is the act that counts in that latter aspect: in this case, the act of decision.

This tension is important for our understanding of Weber’s own work, but also as a prefiguration of what is to come in Carl Schmitt, whose started out, academically speaking, as Weber’s student. It is clear that Weber’s thought on legislation had a clear influence on Schmitt’s juridical streak, for instance. That becomes especially clear from the passage cited below.

The idea of a “law without gaps” is, of course, under vigorous attack. The conception of the modern judge as an automaton into which legal documents and fees are stuffed at the top in order that it may spill forth the verdict at the bottom along with the reasons, read mechanically from codified paragraphs – this conception is angrily rejected, perhaps because a certain approximation of this type would precisely be implied by a consistent bureaucratization of justice. (cited in McCormick 2005, 210-211)

Weber seems to hesitate when it comes to his own judgment on this quite concrete matter, namely whether judging should be seen as a predominantly technical exercise or an act of decision, though he seems to be inclined more towards the second option[12]. In a way, such hesitation or being-in-between is the most consistent position given the double structure that we have already encountered in many situations across Weber’s work.

Importantly, this does not mean that the politician should aim for indecision, or that he should waver between the mode of the political official and that of the leader. The task is always to achieve unity – the unbroken whole of subjective value and objective rationality we mentioned earlier. How does the politician do this? It is a hard and perhaps impossible task, but Weber’s answer involves a combination of the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility. In order to understand his stance on politics and ethics, it is important to briefly discuss a way that ethics should not function in politics according to Weber: for it carries the potential to play an “ethically highly fatal role” [sittlich höchst fatale Rolle][13]. This concerns mechanisms that employ ‘ethics’ to seek out a guilty party afterwards or to legitimate a certain course of action after the fact, selecting particular “grounds” which justify such judgment[14]. Weber associates this with “old wives”, “unchivalrousness” [Unritterlichkeit], and, most notably, the sanctimonious tendency to pronounce one’s own case and oneself as ‘correct’ [pfäffische Rechthaberei][15]. The politician should not be concerned with this idle game of seeking to justify oneself in the past: rather, he should try to bear responsibility for the future[16]. This comes very close to Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment as vengeful rage directed at the past, but Weber advances his critique of ‘moralism’ in political rather than psychological terms.

The true relationship between politics and ethics is not one of grounding or “decreeing”[17]. This is impossible because it is not the case that good actions always lead to good outcomes, and evil actions to evil outcomes. According to Weber, the whole structure of theodicy is designed to come to terms with this fact: good actions can lead to evil outcomes, and evil actions to good outcomes[18]. The ability to successfully grapple with such riddles in concrete situations is the mark of the true politician. He has to come to terms both with the aforementioned ethic of conviction, which in religious terms says: “the Christ does right and the consequences are up to God”, and the ethic of responsibility, which emphasizes that one has to reckon with the consequences of one’s actions[19]. This implies that any ethical order that attempts to establish itself through political means has to reckon with the factual requirements that are attached to the ideal. “Bringing forth absolute justice on the world” requires a following: the necessary “human machinery”, who require certain premiums, whether of this world or of a more spiritual kind. This necessity makes the leader fully dependent on the motives of his following, as distinct from his own. What the cosmopolitan finally achieves, is therefore not in his own hands, all the more since even the most devout follower is apt to use the leader’s cause as a cover to legitimate baser motives, in the sense outlined above[20]. This means that involving oneself with politics and the violence it entails – recall Weber’s definition of politics – means signing a pact with “devilish powers”[21]. One never knows what will happen, and crucially for Schmitt, what will become of the politician himself [was aus ihm selbst (…) werden kann]. Echoing Rousseau’s criticism on Saint-Pierre, Weber says: “he who cannot see this, is politically a child”[22]. At the same time, it is always possible to be authentically unable to act in a certain way, regardless of the consequences[23]. We need both conviction and responsibility in politics, but it is impossible to say which is more important, or in which circumstances one should prevail over the other[24]. To have the Beruf for politics is to stand inside of the resulting paradoxes, and it requires one to reach for the impossible ideals: that in turn, as we have seen, requires not only a leader, but also a hero[25].

[1] ibid, 5

[2] ibid

[3] ibid, 6

[4] ibid, 7: “ (…) legitimate (that is, seen to be legitimate) (…)”.

[5] ibid

[6] ibid, 32

[7] ibid

[8] ibid, 21; 21; 22

[9] ibid, 32

[10] ibid

[11] ibid, 33; 57-58

[12] McCormick 2005, 210-212

[13] Weber 2012, 66

[14] ibid

[15] ibid, 66-67

[16] ibid, 67

[17] ibid, 73

[18] ibid, 73-74

[19] ibid, 70-71

[20] ibid, 77-78

[21] ibid, 78

[22] ibid, 74

[23] ibid, 81

[24] ibid, 80

[25] ibid, 78; 82-83


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