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Morality is always Concrete

Our society is a society always needy of correction and improvement. In an article translated from the German, Robert Leicht rejects the idea that "the end justifies the means" and asks whether the means can achieve the end. Many means are completely useless.
Morality is always Concrete

Our speaking is often abstract. The end does not justify the means, not even in the struggle against terror. Many means are completely useless.

Lessons from Terror

By Robert Leicht

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT, September 21, 2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.zeit.de.]

If the terrorist attack on New York and Washington concerns our whole civilization (we could say soberly our civilization since it isn't so perfect that we must justify it totally), our civilization must show its strength in its defense. What are its strengths? We accept our society first of all as societas semper reformanda, as a society which is good in that it always knows that something can be improved and criticized. We accept it as a society in which we agree that we need never be completely agreed. We are never completely agreed on what should be criticized and improved, that is on action.

How do we manage with the fundamental moral and ethical conflicts resulting from the necessity of resisting terrorism? With military means, war or not war, pacifism or not pacifism? Restriction of the guarantees of freedom of the private sphere of the constitutional state - or not? Quickly we fall into polarizations: whoever is not for me is against me... (This hopeless confrontation is one of the goals of all terrorism!)

The simplest and most perilous way to settle these conflicts is the retreat to the formula: "The end justifies the means". The end - away with terrorism - is good and thus so are all means. No one thinks this way, at least not officially. Another simple way of dealing with such conflicts is the categorical declaration that certain means are not justified in any case. Such totally illicit means are certainly conceivable. However is this also true for statements like: "in no case military means... ", "in no case a relativization of data protection... "?

My suggestion is to limit polarization in an open self-critical society. Let us ask ourselves very soberly and precisely whether certain means can attain their end. If that can be shown somewhat plausibly, the question arises about their permissability. Then the end does not always justify the means. Uselessness already devalues the means and makes many methods appear destitute.

For example, I cannot decide for a principled pacifism or for a categorical renunciation on military instruments in the (international) combating of international terrorism. On individual measures, I would like to know exactly: What can be concretely achieved with this action? What are its (intended) main effects? What could be its (unintended) side effects? Will not the side-effects become the main effects at the end?

If we reflect this way in decisions, the really heart- and mind-rending conflicts of morality and ethics will not be spared us. However we will then deal more frugally with these conflicts and we will know more exactly about what we speak concretely.

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