On German Moral Leadership – English version of op-ed in Sunday’s FAZ

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 00.18.25

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 00.17.38

For the published version in Sunday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung click here. For my original English text read on…

For the hell of it!

Immanuel Kant and Germany’s moral leadership

Economists err when they think that human rationality is all about applying one’s means efficiently in order to achieve one’s ends. That the efficient application of available resources in the pursuit of given objectives is an important dimension of our Reason, there is no doubt. The error however sips in when economists, and those influenced by them, assume that this is all rationality is about.

This type of instrumental approach to the meaning of Reason massively underestimates perhaps the one ingredient of human reasoning that makes us exceptional animals: the capacity to subject our ends, our objectives, to rational scrutiny. To ask ourselves not just questions such as “Should I invest in bonds or shares?” but also questions of the type: “I like X but should I like it?”

This summer we, Europeans, faced major challenges to our integrity and soul. The inflow of refugees tested our humanity and our rationality felt the strain of needing to make hard choices. Most European nations, and their governments, failed the test of history spectacularly. Closing borders down, stopping trains on their tracks, treating people in need as an existentialist threat, indulging in bickering at the level of the European Union as to who will bear a lesser part of the burden – all in all, Europe behaved abominably leading the Italian Prime Minister to utter in desperation: “If this is Europe, I do not want to be part of it.”

One country stood out, showing moral leadership on this issue: Germany. The sight of thousands of Germans welcoming wretched refugees who had been turned away in several other European countries was one to savour and one to extract considerable hope from. Hope that Europe’s soul has not been lost entirely. Chancellor Merkel’s relaxed leadership on the matter, even the magnanimous attitude of otherwise misanthropic German tabloids to the inflowing refugees, made amends for Europe’s failure to rise up to this humanitarian crisis.

Many have imputed ulterior motives to Germany’s generosity. Poor German demographics may be helped by an influx of relatively young, highly motivated, mostly well-educated fleeing Syrians. Guntram Wolff, in the Financial Times, recently drew a historical comparison with a 17th Century influx of French protestant refugees into the state of Brandenburg, who brought in with them skills and dynamism. Employers rejoice at the thought of more workers, putting downward pressure on wage costs, while macroeconomists try to calculate the fiscal costs to the welfare system in relation to the economic benefits from a boost in aggregate demand.

This cynical cost-benefit analysis misses the point, however. That there are benefits from immigration is beyond dispute – except by racists. Host countries (with the United States, Canada and Australia offering living examples) are the ones enjoying enormous net benefits, while the countries abandoned by their people suffer. But this is true for all aging Central and North Eastern European nations. Why is it only Germany and its people that took enthusiastically to welcoming refugees? The answer, clearly, has nothing to do with economics. If there are positive economic repercussions, these are mere byproducts of some other type of motivation that made Germans open their borders and hearts to the refugees. What might it be?

Students of philosophy may be tempted, as I am, to seek the answer in one of Germany’s grandest gifts to humanity: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Unlike economists and Anglo-Celtic philosophers, Kant is not satisfied with instrumental accounts of what it means to act rationally. Such accounts are fine for cats and sophisticated robots. But not for humans. Humans must have a capacity for moral reasoning that is, nevertheless, the result not of dogma but of pure Reason.

Kant’s practical Reason demands that we should undertake those actions which, when generalised, yield coherent outcomes. For example, lying cannot be a rational choice because, if universalised, if everyone were to lie all the time, trust in what others say would disappear and language would lose its coherence. True enough, many people refrain from lying because of the fear that they will be found out. But Kant does not consider such instrumental reasons for not lying as fully rational. In his mindset, the rational and the moral merge when we develop a capacity to act on the so-called categorical imperative: of acting in a universalisable manner independently of the consequences. For the hell of it, in plainer language.

Taking refugees in is such a universalisable act. You do not take them in because of what you expect to gain. The fact that you may end up with great gains is irrelevant. The warm inner glow of having done the ‘right’ thing, the boost to aggregate demand, the effect on productivity – all these are great repercussions of one’s Kantian rationality. They are not, however, the motivation. One’s rational acts, according to Kant, are not to be determined by expected gain, that instrumental ‘utility’ that depends on what others do and on a number of contingencies. There is no strategy here. Just the application of the deontological reasoning which requires that we should act upon ‘universalisable’ rules.

There is, of course, no way that one can prove empirically that German solidarity to the refugees was of the Kantian type, and not some instrumental attempt to feel better about themselves, to show up other Europeans, to improve the country’s demographics. Be that as it may, I do not buy these cynical, instrumental accounts. Having observed so many Germans perform countless acts of kindness toward refugees shunned by other Europeans, I am convinced that something akin to Kantian reasoning is at work.

I say “something akin to Kantian reasoning” because full Kantian behaviour is neither observed in Germany nor necessarily desirable. There are times when good people need to lie (for instance when skinheads interrogate you on the whereabouts of a black person they are chasing) and there are several realms where German attitudes are far from consistent with Kantian thinking.

Indeed, this summer there was a second occasion when Europe harmed its integrity and damaged its soul: It happened on 12th and 13th July when the leader of a small European country, Greece, was threatened with expulsion from the Eurozone unless he accepted an economic reform program that no one truly believes (not even Chancellor Merkel) can alleviate my country’s long standing economic collapse, and the hopelessness that goes along with it. On that occasion no universalisable principle was in play, the result being that a proud nation was forced to surrender to an illogical economic program for which everyone in Europe, including Germany, will pay a price.

This is not the place to recount the vagaries of Greece’s never-ending crisis. And nor is there a need since its underlying cause has nothing to do with Greece: the real reason Greece has been imploding, while Berlin and the troika are insisting on a ‘reform’ program that pushes the country deeper into a black hole and keeps it hopelessly unreformed, is that the German government has not yet decided what it wants to do with the Eurozone.

Berlin knows well that, as it is, the Eurozone is non-viable. It needs major reforms. It needs mechanisms for recycling surpluses from the regions where they amass to the regions in deficit. Alas, Berlin has not formed an opinion, yet, on what these reforms should be, what form of European political union it wants, or how to convince Paris to go along with its priorities. So, while the Franco-German elephants tussle, little Greece is being squashed, awaiting the outcome of this interminable clash. In the process, millions of Greeks languish in desperation, hundreds of thousands of educated young men and women flee the country, and the oligarchy is having a field day exploiting the political impasse caused by last July’s surrender of our government.

Setting aside the Greek drama for now, Europe needs moral leadership from Germany. On the question of refugees, we have it – and that’s excellent. On the question of how to deal, at long last, with the Eurozone’s crisis, there has been no German leadership – indeed, quite the opposite, as the German government has been lagging behind developments, stepping in only at the last moment to tackle the symptoms but never its causes.

What should Berlin do? An excellent start would be to apply the same Kantian principle which has been evident in the case of the refugee crisis. Kant’s practical Reason asks of us to adopt policies that, if generalised, will yield coherent outcomes. Large trade surpluses cannot be ‘generalised’! Just as in the case of lying, securing economic prosperity in a monetary union by means of huge nert exports, and increasing competitiveness vis-à-vis other European countries, fails Kant’s test. And so does a motivated blindness to the fact that one’s surplus is another’s deficit.

Time for Germany to extend its moral leadership from the refugee issue to the Eurozone’s architecture. Evoking Immanuel Kant to ditch the incoherent view of itself as Europe’s export-oriented workshop would be an excellent start.

3 thoughts on “On German Moral Leadership – English version of op-ed in Sunday’s FAZ

  1. I admire the author’s ability – after all that has happened during the last half year – to still find it in his heart to extend a hand to the German government, grant them the capacity to do genuine good in the interest of humanity and concede to them the role of moral leadership. But, even at the peril of being called one of the cynics, I do not think that they deserve such generosity.

    Until a few weeks ago, Mrs Merkel had been taking a rather ‘classical’ conservative approach on dealing with the rising numbers of refugees trying to find shelter in her country. She did so mostly by either citing the Dublin Regulations preventing the world’s poor and downtrodden from reaching the German promised land – a framework of rules that had been imposed upon all of Europe’s nations by the rich countries of the north in order to spare themselves the ugly business of dealing with the problem – or by simply not mentioning the issue at all.
    The latter can be seen as her general modus operandi throughout her two and a half-term reign so far, concerning any matter of import threatening to put a stain on her immaculate reputation as being the model of pragmatism and rationality, for which she has been loved by her electorate and voted into office time and again.
    And as if to prove her total abstinence from such irrational diversions as displaying any kind of true affection or sympathy with those in real danger of losing everything, the queen of the Have-Alls told to the crying face of a Palestinian refugee girl on live television that, even after four years of the relative safety of living in a German shelter, she and her entire family may still have to be sent back to the hell of a Lebanese refugee camp, because Germany could not bare to take on all those in need of refuge. She could – and for the sake of honesty maybe should – have also said to the crying girl that because we Germans are so utterly devoted to our rules and regulations, which so conveniently prevent us from having to deal with such moral questions in a true Kantian way, that even the danger of killing the innocent in the process cannot stay our hands from enforcing them.

    In the past, the Chancellor has never seriously addressed the fact that mass migration from the chaos of war in the middle east and central asia, from catastrophic climate change and from economic devastation had been happening all along.
    She never, not even remotely, criticised the merciless exploitation of whole continents by ruthless despots and their German and European business partners, that forces people to abandon their homes and families and sell everything they own in order to afford the long and dangerous journey to where the profits from their suffering are being accumulated.
    She never openly dealt with the inconvenient truth of many thousands already dying from starvation and disease in refugee camps or drowning in the Mediterranean and she never showed any sympathy for those southern and eastern European countries like Greece, Italy, Spain or Hungary that had been left to do the Germans’ dirty work of dealing with the poor and the suffering and keep them the hell out of Germany.
    She also never expressed any moral concerns about the sad fact that at the same time the people of these European countries were being choked half to death themselves by austerity programmes invented and – as this summer’s events have clearly shown – ultimately enforced by the German leadership; All for the sake of sticking to the rules and serving the contracts and with total disregard of the humanitarian consequences and also in complete denial of logic, rational thinking or anything else that Immanuel Kant might have deemed a reasonable approach to dealing with these crises.

    And although the number of refugees has seen a sudden surge over the last few weeks because other European governments have finally had it with doing the Germans’ dirty work and have simply stopped following the Dublin Regulations, thereby forcing the northern countries to finally deal with the problem themselves, the number of people illegally entering Germany and seeking refuge has already been rising steadily over the last years. However, Mrs Merkel, following the good old German conservative tradition of refusing to even think about treating Germany as the immigration country it already is and has been for many decades, has simply remained in total denial of that fact.
    And because of Germany’s nature as a federal state, the burden of dealing with the already high numbers of refugees falls solely on the states themselves and especially on communal and municipal governments who are left with finding a way to organize and fund the actual groundwork required to find shelter, food, clothes and medical treatment for the new arrivals. And since this is, after all, the motherland of austerity where fiscal consolidation is widely regarded as the first and foremost duty of any finance minister or city treasurer, one can imagine why there is just not enough money to adequately deal with the humanitarian crisis.
    And here comes the involvement of our glorious media machine, working hard on perfecting the art of desaster pornography, flooding their frontpages, airwaves and live-blogging, news-flashing websites with image after image of the wretched souls disembarking Buses and trains, carrying with them only their half-starved children, the dirty clothes they wear and the horrified looks in their eyes. And then, only then our glorious leader finally realizes that something terrible is going on and that she can no longer make it go away by ignoring it.

    The german basic law – the most important body of german rules and regulations – grants everyone the right to seek political asylum in this country, regardless of the circumstances of their arrival within its borders. Once the refugees have accomplished the quite difficult feat of getting here in the first place and have formally requested asylum, there simply is no legal way for the german authorities to get rid of them – despite the constant ramblings of conservative politicians – until their request has been formally evaluated and ultimately denied.
    A lot – if not most – of Mrs Merkel’s colleagues and coalition partners would have long done away with that annoying little remnant of post-Fascist german constitutional law if not for the constitutional court (rightfully!) declaring the respective article as one of those which must not, and never can be changed.

    Anyone who now claims that Germany and its government has shown exceptional leniency towards the refugees is in complete denial of the fact that by not deploying the army and having them shoot thousands of innocent people on sight for illegally crossing the german borders – which would have been the only way to stop them anyway – Mrs Merkel, ironically, has done nothing else but follow another set of iron rules – those of the German constitution.
    And if we start rewarding politicians with praise and admiration for not resorting to mass murder and for not breaking the laws they swore a holy oath to protect, then Europe is really lost.

    P.S.: As of yesterday afternoon, the German government has dropped its happy face and officially suspended the Schengen Treaty by reinstating controls at the Austrian border and ordering the state owned German railway company to cease all further traffic to and from the Federal Republic of Austria in order to stop the refugees coming in via Hungary and the Balkans. So much for that.

  2. … what did the “powerful” German leaders achieved so far? First of all, they were dragged by the US, together with the rest of the European leaders, in a dirty war in Ukraine, going so far that they were forced to support neo-nazis. They have sacrificed European democratic values from the first moment, just to align with the US imperialism. It has been proved also that the “powerful” German leadership was under NSA surveillance for years.

    These “powerful leaders” clearly failed to find a viable solution for the huge problem of migration of desperate people who try to escape from war zones. The explosive migration problem brings increasingly internal conflicts inside the EU, as each country tries to “throw away” these people from its territory. No solidarity, no sensitivity for human suffering, no will to sit down and find a real solution for both these poor people and Europe as a whole.

    But the most remarkable “achievement” of these “powerful leaders” is the “wonderful world” of their financial dictatorship, called eurozone. For five years they destroyed Greece through failed policies with the help of the IMF mafia and they insist now on the same catastrophic policies! It is too obvious.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s