Comment on misconduct in politics - Two standards apply here, and rightly so

By Arnd Pollmann

Illustration of many people grouped in the form of two opposite direction arrows. (imago / agefotostock)
Arnd Pollmann believes that anyone who says where to go should meet high moral standards. He refers to Max Weber. (imago / agefotostock)

Mask deals, pre-vaccinations, plagiarism cases - the allegations against the political staff are increasing. But don't we all make mistakes? If you go into politics, you have to put up with higher standards, says Arnd Pollmann.

In January 1919 Max Weber gave the famous lecture “Politics as a Profession”. The First World War has only just ended and in the midst of revolutionary turmoil it is questionable which system of government will take the place of the abdicated monarchy in Germany. In this precarious situation Weber would like to see a new type of charismatic professional politician.

Character test for political personnel 

For them it should no longer just be about power, but also about morality. The “occupational disease” of vanity, which takes one's self more important than political concerns, must be overcome. Instead, it comes down to three central virtues: “Passion” for the cause, “responsibility” with a view to the consequences of one's own actions and the “sense of proportion” of prudent closeness to reality.

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With this ethical job description, the bar is set high for today's professional politicians. The election campaign of these days can hardly be compared with the orientation crisis of 1919. And yet a major pandemic crisis is not quite behind us - but a global climate crisis is ahead of us.

Why should one spare those who want to take over political crisis management in the near future an ethical character test? Especially since the staff like to raise their moral index finger themselves.

Better than average

In many places, there is an overwhelming criticism of character misconduct, which in private togetherness is more likely to be seen as venial sins. This in turn provokes counter-protest: After all, politicians are only human. Therefore it is duplicitous to apply higher ethical standards to them.

Arnd Pollmann looks friendly into the camera. (Private)Arnd Pollmann, Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences Berlin (private)

In fact, there are good reasons to measure this with double standards. First of all, let us remember that many politicians are not only elected to offices, but are often supported with taxpayers' money. So it makes sense to demand something more than just average commitment, also from an ethical point of view.

In fact, many politicians act very responsibly. And that is precisely why there must not be too many bad examples.

The rear of the state demands special duties

Secondly, this results in a civic role model function. Whoever aspires to or represents an office should, paradoxically, be a tad more representative than the person represented.

Anyone who jostles their way through vaccination or threads unfair mask deals misses this role model function. Likewise, those who are caught vainly prettifying up résumés or supposedly one's own publications.

Thirdly, this goes hand in hand with the expectation of crisis-proof credibility. In contrast to civil servants who are supposed to do their work silently and impartially, the credibility of politics results - as Max Weber already suggests - from a passionate and incorruptible responsibility for the cause.

Unbelievable or hypocritical, on the other hand, appears to be someone who merely pretends to have a firm mindset, but otherwise lets himself quickly be turned off course.

Keep your eyes open when choosing a career!

Weber has also already pointed out the fourth and decisive reason: Anyone who holds a state office can hope to be backed by the executive monopoly of force. In the name of the state, people are not only protected, but also harmed, imprisoned, kept in lockdown for months, ruined in their existence or sent to war. Above all, this potential risk gives rise to special obligations of the profession.

Even if it is currently difficult to differentiate between legitimate criticism and moralistic campaigns: Higher ethical standards are an occupational risk for those who are responsible for political violence. Anyone who complains about this - exceptionally justified - double standard should have listened to the advice when choosing a career: "So check whoever binds himself forever, whether there is something better!"

Arnd Pollmann writes books on integrity and immorality, human rights and human dignity. He is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at the Alice Salomon University in Berlin.