Max Weber, the Ethics of Intention
and Value-Free Science

[Weber's conception of science] assumed a social relation between scientist and politician, activated in the institution of a university, where the scientist as teacher will inform his students, the prospective homines politici, about the structure of political reality. The question may be asked: What purpose should such information have? The science of Weber supposedly left the political values of the students untouched, since the values were beyond science. The political principles of the students could not be formed by a science that did not extend to principles of order.

Could it perhaps have the indirect effect of inviting the students to revise their values when they realized what unsuspected, and perhaps undesired, consequences their political ideas would have in practice? But in that case the values of the students would not be quite so demonically fixed. An appeal to judgment would be possible, and what could a judgment that resulted in reasoned preference of value over value be but a value-judgment? Were reasoned value-judgments possible after all?

The teaching of a value-free science of politics in a university would be a senseless enterprise unless it were calculated to influence the values of the students by putting at their disposition an objective knowledge of political reality. In so far as Weber was a great teacher, he gave the lie to his idea of values as demonic decisions.

To what extent his method of teaching could be effective is another matter. In the first place, it was a teaching by indirection because he shunned an explicit statement of positive principles of order; and, in the second place, the teaching even through direct elaboration of principles could not be effective if the student was indeed demonically fixed in his attitudes. Weber, as an educator, could rely only on shame (the Aristotelian aidos) in the student as the sentiment that would induce rational consideration.

But what if the student was beyond shame? If the appeal to his sense of responsibility would only make him uncomfortable without producing a change of attitude? Or if it would not even make him uncomfortable but rather fall back on what Weber called an "ethics of intention" (Gesinnungsethik), that is, on the thesis that his creed contained its own justification, that the consequences did not matter if the intention of action was right?

This question, again, was not clarified by Weber. As the model case for his "ethics of intention" he used a not-too-well-defined Christian "other-worldly" morality; he never touched the problem whether the demonic values were not perhaps demonic precisely because they partook of his "ethics of intention" rather than of his "ethics of responsibility," because they had arrogated the quality of a divine command to a human velleity.

A discussion of such questions would have been possible only on the level of a philosophical anthropology from which Weber shied away. Nevertheless, while he shied away from a discussion, he had made his decision for entering into rational conflict with values through the mere fact of his enterprise.

The rational conflict with the unquestionable values of political intellectuals was inherent in [Max Weber's] enterprise of an objective science of politics. The original conception of a value-free science was dissolving. To the methodologists preceding Max Weber, a historical or social science could be value-free because its object was constituted by "reference to a value" (weitbeziehende Methode); within the field thus constituted the scientist was then supposed to work without value-judgments. Weber recognized that there was a plurality of conflicting "values" current in the politics of his time; each of them might be used to constitute an "object."

The result would be the aforementioned relativism, and political science would be degraded to an apology for the dubious fancies of political intellectuals, as at the time it was and as to a very considerable extent it still is. How did he escape such degradation?—for escape he certainly did. If none of the conflicting values constituted for him the field of science, if he preserved his critical integrity against the current political values, what then were the values that constituted his science?

. . . . The "objectivity" of Weber's science, such as there was, could be derived only from the authentic principles of order as they had been discovered and elaborated in the history of mankind. Since in the intellectual situation of Weber the existence of a science of order could not be admitted, its content (or as much of it as was possible) had to be introduced by recognizing its historical expressions as facts and causal factors in history.

While Weber as a methodologist of value-free science would profess to have no argument against a political intellectual who had "demonically" settled on Marxism as the "value" of his preference, he could blandly engage in a study of Protestant ethics and show that certain religious convictions rather than the class struggle played an important role in the formation of capitalism.

The New Science of Politics
§3 pp 99-101.
[U.Chicago ed., p 15-18]