Max Weber and the Ethics of Responsibility

The movement of methodology, as far as political science is concerned, ran to the end of its immanent logic in the person and work of Max Weber. A full characterization cannot be attempted in the present context. Only a few of the lines that mark him as a thinker between the end and a new beginning will be traced.

A value-free science meant to Weber the exploration of causes and effects, the construction of ideal types that would permit distinguishing regularities of institutions as well as deviations from them, and especially the construction of typical causal relations. Such a science would not be in a position to tell anybody whether he should be an economic liberal or a socialist, a democratic constitutionalist or a Marxist revolutionary, but it could tell him what the consequences would be if he tried to translate the values of his preference into political practice.

On the one side, there were the "values" of political order beyond critical evaluation; on the other side, there was a science of the structure of social reality that might be used as technical knowledge by a politician.

In sharpening the issue of a "value-free" science to this pragmatic point, Weber moved the debate beyond methodological squabbles again to the order of relevance. He wanted science because he wanted clarity about the world in which he passionately participated; he was headed again on the road toward essence. The search for truth, however, was cut short at the level of pragmatic action. In the intellectual climate of the methodological debate the "values" had to be accepted as unquestionable, and the search could not advance to the contemplation of order. The ratio of science extended, for Weber, not to the principles but only to the causality of action.

The new sense of theoretical relevance could express itself, therefore, only in the creation of the categories of "responsibility" and "demonism" in politics. Weber recognized the "values" for what they were, that is, as ordering ideas for political action, but he accorded them the status of "demonic" decisions beyond rational argument. Science could grapple with the demonism of politics only by making politicians aware of the consequences of their actions and awakening in them the sense of responsibility.

This Weberian "ethics of responsibility" is not at all negligible. It was calculated to put a damper on the revolutionary ardor of opinionated political intellectuals, especially after 1918; to bring it home that ideals justify neither the means nor the results of action, that action involves in guilt, and that the responsibility for political effects rests squarely on the man who makes himself a cause.

Moreover, by the diagnosis as "demonic" it revealed that unquestionable "values" cannot be traced to rational sources of order and that the politics of the age had indeed become a field of demonic disorder. The accomplished smoothness by which this aspect of Weber's work was, and is, ignored by those whom it might concern is perhaps the best proof of its importance.

If Weber had done nothing but revealed that a "value-free" political science is not a science of order and that "values" are demonic decisions, the grandeur of his work (that is more sensed than understood) might be open to doubt. The ascent toward essence would have stopped at the point at which the side road branches off which conventionally is marked as "existentialism"—an escape for the bewildered that in recent years has become internationally fashionable through the work of Sartre.

Weber, however, went much further—though the interpreter finds himself in the difficult position of extracting the achievement from the intellectual conflicts and contradictions in which Weber involved himself. . . .

The New Science of Politics
§3 pp 98-99.
[U.Chicago ed., p 13-15]