Why do historians reject moral presentism?

Contemporary historical research
Studies in Contemporary History

  1. archive
  2. Issue 1/2017
  3. Essays

Reflections on a history of the moral in the "long" 20th century

  1. "Morality": a definition
  2. Contemporary history and the moral
  3. Examination area I:
    The moral as a culture of knowledge
  4. Examination area II:
    The moral as a process of public negotiation
  5. Examination area III:
    The moral as an individual and social practice
  6. Summary


For some time now, topics such as "justice", "dignity" or the "right" life have enjoyed great popularity. [1] The study of morality is also flourishing in historical studies: "Human rights", "Transitional Justice" or "Humanitarianism" have been opened up as new subject areas. [2] In Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, larger research groups are concerned with the analysis of normative orders in modern societies. [3] The catchphrase "Nazi morality" deals with the content and validity of a particular morality of National Socialism. [4] Temporal overlapping representations of the history of "humanity" or the "West" even pursue the goal of justifying a certain (political) morality. [5]

Despite these approaches, which are part of a long tradition of work on the 18th and 19th centuries, morality as an object of research in historical studies quickly encounters reservations. The term appears fuzzy, is equated with moral philosophy, or an illustrative, anecdotal use of history for the discussion of moral principles is feared. [6] In this widespread skepticism, Max Weber's postulate of "value freedom" lives on. [7] It should be undisputed that in historical studies, too, morality requiring justification is always present through heuristic horizons of interpretation and a basic consensus in scientific discourse. Hayden White already argued that historical scholarship chooses its perspectives and modes of representation more aesthetically and morally than epistemologically. [8]

Against this background, we propose for three reasons, within the framework of a »moral history«, to examine more closely a subject area of ​​historical studies that is present in many ways but has so far been insufficiently conceptualized: Epistemological A definition of morality as a term and concept should contribute to a more precise analysis of semantic tools, basic assumptions and historical constructions of the relationship between norms, values ​​and rights. Systematically Moral History sees itself as an offer to think together recent studies or key questions from sub-areas of historical studies - in addition to the topics mentioned, for example, the history of emotions, religion or the environment - and to develop further subject areas.

In addition, we justify the special contemporary historical characteristic of the moral history outlined here historical with the thesis that since the 19th century, in the course of the stronger, but by no means teleological socialization of individual and collective fundamental rights, increasing tensions between legal, moral and social norms have been established. We consider their negotiation in the interplay of discourses, institutions and practices to be a historically new kind of moral sphere that arises from the fundamental challenge of determining the reasons for the obligation of individual or collective action in the process of social understanding beyond "natural", transcendental or conventional moral orders, to legitimize and to defend this possibility against its questioning through anti-liberal attitudes, regimes and actions.

In the following, after a brief definition of the term (1.), we will first situate the moral in contemporary history (2.), before we propose three areas of investigation of a moral history: the moral as a culture of knowledge (3.), the public negotiation of the moral (4. ) as well as the relationship between moral discourses and individual or collective action (5.).

1. "Morality": a definition

In a recent psychological study, respondents rated every third of their actions and experiences as "morally relevant". [9] The assignment of the events was based on the "Moral Foundations Theory": It is based on six universal emotional parameters in humans that determine the moral coordinate system. [10] Accordingly, actions according to oppositional categories such as "care" and "harm", "fairness" and "cheating" or "loyalty" and "betrayal" are rated as "right" or "wrong". Such psychological, biological or neuroscientific justifications of morality as a supra-historical, intercultural, anthropological property of human beings have been booming for some years. [11]

In contrast, we differentiate between norms and morality on the one hand, and between different dimensions of morality on the other. [12]Norms we understand them as comprehensive categories for internal societal guidelines for action, which range with varying degrees of validity from informal expectations and conventions through rules that are specifically applied to individuals and associated with social sanctions to legally stipulated prohibitions. [13] The early modern "moral studies" or "ethics" were primarily concerned with the formulation and communication of social norms as a binding "morality" that could be communicated through education and that was intended to improve the individual.

While norms and morals were in principle congruent here, as the Enlightenment progressed this increasingly came into conflict with the postulate of individual autonomy and an accompanying reflexive understanding of moral values. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was associated with distancing oneself from a purely heteronomously binding "custom", according to which, according to Ferdinand Tönnies in 1909, "only [...] need to be observed". Armin Nassehi described the detachment of morality from a socially monitored custom on the one hand and a religious foundation on the other as a specifically modern phenomenon of the "ethization of morality". [15] Philosophy-historical reference points of a moral history, the effect of which is to be historicized in the context of a socialization of fundamental rights and their limits, are the discovery of "moral feelings" by the British moralists in the 18th century [16] or Immanuel Kant's justification of the moral judgment of the human mind . [17] The shaping of fundamentally "restrictive" norms was thus set aside and at the same time opposed to the individual bond to "attractive" moral values. [18]

Thus, in modern times, three essential meanings of moral unfolds: firstly as a synonym for the totality of the social norms of a group, society or culture, secondly as the "good" related to these in the form of a reflective morality or ethics, thirdly as a motivating agreement with the practices and goals of collectives (in English »Morale«), as it is expressed in terms such as »fighting morale« or »work ethic«. We will not consider the third meaning any further here, but refer to the first two - more precisely to the increasing public negotiation processes since the 19th century between set norms on the one hand and reflective morality on the other, as well as the discursive and politically precarious empowerment of moral standards that goes along with it Reasons for obligation with universal claim.

Between three Dimensions To distinguish from morality - a prescriptive, a reflexive and a practical - is therefore itself the result of a modern development process. "Morality" rolled into one prescriptive Meaning means the demand for values ​​and their derivations for the behavior towards and with others with the claim to do the "good" and "right". [19] A particular origin and a universal claim to validity are not mutually exclusive - as in the case of "bourgeois" or "socialist" morality. A more reflective Use of morality occurs when the validity or ultimate justification of collective grounds for obligation becomes the object of social negotiation processes, which presupposes the fundamental possibility of such an exchange. Finally, morality can be found in theirs practical Identify manifestations as motivation or legitimation of actions in their relation to prescriptive or reflexive moral orders.

Begging war disabled with an "Iron Cross" and wounded badge, Berlin 1923. In the 20th century, practices, moralizations and mediations were closely iconographically linked and often alternated between national and universal, paternalistic and appreciative codes.
(Federal Archives, picture 146-1972-062-01, photo: not specified)

We regard the totality of the prescriptive, reflexive and practical dimensions of morality as the moral - a discursively, legally and socially anchored sphere of the confrontation of particular, heteronomous systems of norms with reflective moral concepts proclaimed as universal, which are based in particular on the postulate of individual autonomy and its guarantee through fundamental rights. [20] In the context of a moral history, however, it is not primarily about a normative defense of the right to moral autonomy, but about its historical genesis, its implementation and its limits - but also about the conditions that are to be historicized for the possibility of a reflective morality as an indispensable basis for a critical history itself.

2. Contemporary history and the moral

While Kant was still based on universal moral laws that humans carry within themselves and only have to recognize, morality in the reflexive sense established itself as a system of orientation for individual and collective action that was not based on transcendental principles until the course of the 19th and 20th centuries . Increasingly, past, present and future actions of individuals and collectives were judged for themselves and for an imagined totality of people in the light of standards whose reasons for legitimacy did not arise or did not arise solely from principles of faith, law or political power and which have now themselves become the subject of public negotiations. In essence, it was about the constitution, negotiation and appropriation of such fundamental principles as "dignity", "recognition" or "autonomy" through a certain form of communication that "carries with it indications of respect or disregard". [21]

Since the 19th century, the appeal to a reflective morality has gained a particular difference in value compared to other perspectives on social norms. But the history of the moral cannot be written as a success story. Rather, in addition to the threats to its possibility, it is always about the "ambivalence of the good" (Jan Eckel), the ambiguities of moral evaluations and their - often strategic or instrumental - forms of use, even if nothing at all or absolutely anything from them universal "good" followed. [22] Just one example: The plea of ​​the Swedish pedagogue and writer Ellen Key against corporal punishment and for a reform of education was based on the recognition of universal protective rights of children in 1900, but was shaped by a socially Darwinist-influenced approach of social optimization until the advocacy of "euthanasia" . [23]

The emergence and expansion of the moral were and are characterized in particular by the conflicting claims of social movements and individual protagonists to establish new, universally justified and transnationally valid norms with which individual and collective rights vis-à-vis existing institutions such as national communities, states, churches and economically The powerful were asserted - initially, for example, in the form of the anti-slavery and women's movements, in the wake of colonial scandals or the foundation of international humanitarian law, human rights and social protection rights. [24]

At the same time, in the western world there was a fundamental relativization of those absolute moral concepts that were based on religion, laws or conventions, customs and traditions. [25] Friedrich Nietzsche relativized and historicized the claim to absoluteness, especially of Christian morality, in his pamphlet "Zur Genealogie der Moral" from 1887. [26] A few years later, Emile Durkheim based his sociology on the finding of a fundamental moral crisis in modern society. According to him, the decline of traditional, collective regulatory systems and their binding values ​​went hand in hand with the spread of individualism and anomie. [27] This also paved the way for a scientification of morality beyond philosophy.

Like Nietzsche, Durkheim advocated a moral-sociological relativism, since he understood morality as something that could only occur historically in concrete terms in, through and for certain societies. The early American pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James or John Dewey also opposed any epistemological derivation of moral validity claims and saw these only legitimized by the practical interaction between people. [28] However, the growing skepticism towards transcendentally based moral systems since the last third of the 19th century by no means ended the public debate about the intersubjective validity of moral norms. [29] Rather, the recognition of a historical and cultural relativity of morality went hand in hand with an increased relevance and competition of moral concepts and semantics.

At the same time, not all scientific approaches of this time followed the principle of relativism: Neo-Kantianism sought to re-establish Kant's metaphysics with the help of modern natural science. The ethnologist Victor Cathrein wanted to prove through his field research before the First World War that certain ethical norms were very universal and anthropologically based. [30] Colonial racism and imperial "educational missions" were based on the assumption of absolute "white" superiority. [31] This anti-relativistic stance is also responsible for the broad culture-critical discourse under the sign of fears of decade, fear of degeneration and evocations of doom around 1900, whose deeply anti-liberal potential represented and continues to represent a permanent opponent to the possibility of reflective morality and its foundations in the 20th century.

After the First World War, calls for "moral guidance" for a supposedly "immoral society" became louder and louder. [32] The partly short-lived triumph of democratic systems and the vision of a transnational peace order in Europe in the interwar period were supported by a universal moral optimism, but initially could not assert themselves either against the absolute values ​​of fascism and National Socialism or those of socialism. The absolutization of particular, essentialist and community-mobilizing moral concepts found their extreme expression in the pseudo-religious charge and messianic expectation of an anti-democratic leadership, which went hand in hand with violently implemented ideas of exclusive and ethnicized societies. [33]

Poster for the collection of the Winterhilfswerk (WHW), Cologne 1934. While text and imagery refer to poster motifs from the First World War ("Lord Kitchener", "Uncle Sam"), they also form a hybrid ensemble of particular moral mobilization through traditional and National Socialist norm symbols from uniforms , dynamic graphics and youthful idealism.
(German Historical Museum, Berlin / I. Desnica, Inv.-No .: DHM 1990/532, Eisfeller art print, 120 cm x 80 cm)

Especially after 1945, the reflexive recourse to a universally understood morality became a central political and social argument and legitimation resource due to the previous fundamental questioning of its validity claims - for example for the demand for human rights, for emancipation claims or for the endeavor to achieve ecological sustainability. The middle phase of the 20th century in particular was characterized by the conflict between claims to expand the substance and validity of universal, liberal moral principles and legal claims, as well as the associated precarious expansion of democratic and liberal political orders on the one hand and their retarding negation by particular moral ones, in particular political totalitarian orders on the other hand. [34]

A further increase in public moral debates can be observed for the last third of the 20th century.New forms of civil society articulation of moral dissent, the politicization of lifestyles and the associated softening of the boundaries between political questions and moral fundamental conflicts as well as, not least, topics such as ecological future scenarios, subsequent problems of technical change and the processes of global economic interdependence have public disputes about in common shared moral principles generated in a new intensity. [35]

With this rise of the moral was connected, among other things, the emergence of a globally oriented moral discourse, consciousness and action. Luc Boltanski with his concept of »distant suffering« and Henning Ritter with his »attempt on compassion« thematized the chances and ambivalences of a perception of others, especially through audiovisual mass media. [36] With the spatial expansion of moral responsibility since the 1970s, for example in the environmental protection discourse or in a "future ethics" referring to "future generations". [37] Following on from this, Valentin Beck recently attempted to derive a philosophical "theory of global responsibility" from the fact that the entire world was politically, cultural and economic. [38]

However, as the perception and factual weighting of “one's own” suffering and the suffering of “others”, which are still pronounced in spite of everything, show, [39] the historical limits of moral relevance and attention must always be asked: which actors and areas of life became and by whom to the subject of public moralization, which forms of implementation and enforcement of moral demands were considered legitimate at the time, and how have the boundaries of moral and normative ideas shifted, by which individuals orientated themselves in their actions? Last but not least, a global history from a postcolonial perspective is linked here, which on the one hand emphasizes global interdependencies compared to national historiography, on the other hand questions the continuation of a story under the premises of a "western" morality. [40]

In order to historicize this process of establishing the moral, outlined here only in brief, we propose three areas of investigation: the culture of knowledge (3rd), public negotiation (4th) and the individual and social practice of the moral (5th). All three areas are always to be considered with regard to their embedding in the respective - especially political - order, which on the one hand opens up possibilities and leeway for the moral, but on the other hand has also fundamentally called them into question.

3. Research area I: The moral as a culture of knowledge

The first The area of ​​investigation is dedicated to diversifying production of knowledge and concepts of morality. With the relativization and politicization of social and moral norms, their scientification began. In addition to ethics, morality became the subject of research in various disciplines - from biology to social sciences and psychology to neuroscience. In response to the loss of legitimacy of normative ethics, behavioral research, for example, promised to concentrate on observable human behavior, but ultimately did not renounce normative setting itself. [41] Since the 1950s, attempts have been made to use economic models to break down moral motivations into individually rational motives for action. [42]

Scientific approaches to determining "morality" are therefore first to contextualize politically, economically and culturally. For example, the positions of Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel on discourse and procedural ethics do not only represent reactions to the delegitimization of essentialist moral concepts Context of a "democratization" of the Federal Republican society. [43] The reformulations of utilitarianism at the beginning of the 1970s can be classified in a similar way in contemporary globalization processes. For example, Peter Singer developed his "drowning child" argument, with which he accorded global humanitarian aid the same moral obligation as emergency aid for a child drowning before our eyes, in 1971 in direct response to the famine in Bangladesh. [44]

Secondly concrete actors and institutions are to be taken into account that have produced and popularized moral knowledge: institutions of the state and politics, churches and other religious communities, educational institutions such as schools and universities, media actors and multipliers as well as private communication spaces such as the family. Here, too, science played an important role as a mediator of morally relevant knowledge. Thus, in the context of deviance research, a sociological study of collective, mass media-fueled fears of "contagion" by "deviating" forms of behavior ("moral panic") emerged. [45] In the guise of financial studies on the "psychology of money", "tax morality" became the economic issue of social norm debates in the 1980s. [46]

Third The question is about the forms of communication and public production of morally relevant knowledge. Since the second half of the 20th century, social science experiments have increasingly contributed to the scientific plausibility check of anthropological moral concepts. [47] With the help of computer-based statistics - as in the case of the "Limits to Growth" report of the Club of Rome - moral responsibility should be based on supposedly objectively measurable data and future prognoses. [48] (Audio) visual representations have also acquired fundamental importance for collective moral consciousness in the 20th century with the rise of photography and film. [49]

"Buchenwald accuses!" KPD poster, Zwickau subdistrict, Dept. Agitprop, approx. 1945/49. In the immediate post-war period, images of the liberated concentration camps were supposed to arouse outrage and moral insight, but were scandalized by the German side as a questioning of moral sovereignty instead of promoting an examination of the Nazi crimes.
(Federal Archives, Plak 004-005-009)

4. Study area II:
The moral as a process of public negotiation

The second The area of ​​investigation of moral history forms the public negotiation of moral arguments, principles and norms. This is for the 20th century first an ambivalence and simultaneity of competing moral patterns of interpretation are characteristic. The history of modern violence must always be written as a tension between its moral legitimacy and delegitimization. The reference to war experiences could on the one hand serve as an evocation of a necessary "sacrifice for the fatherland" to justify wars; on the other hand, these experiences could be used to justify pacifist protests. In the 20th century, children in particular served as media globalized icons of defenselessness - from today's perspective often disregarding their dignity - both for political justification and for moral criticism of military interventions. [50]

The change in subject cultures and lifestyles was also associated with an intensive process of negotiating social conventions and individual room for maneuver, as shown by the history of the pill [51] or the term "culture wars", which was coined for the USA in the post-1960s. [52] And to give an example of the anti-authoritarian turn of this time: Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich not only criticized the ongoing "training towards morality" in 1967, but also called for an "education towards anti-morality" - but this precisely as the ability to critically and autonomously reflect socially established Morals. [53]

In this context, however, specific opposing positions to the expansion of moral validity claims must also be taken into account. Arnold Gehlen, for example, criticized an alleged "hyper-moralization" or "overstretching of morality" as early as the 1960s. [54] The debate initiated by the American right in the 1980s on »Political Correctness« or the business cycle terms characteristic of the German context such as »Moralkeule« or »Gutmenschentum« mediated an alleged boredom with morality and moralization that gave itself morally and served as derogatory instruments of political rhetoric. [55] In addition, universal moral proclamations were confronted with the charge of threatening moral plurality. [56]

Secondly the use of moral arguments is to be analyzed as an often conflictual negotiation of power resources that was accompanied by contradicting moral evaluations. Concepts such as "equality", "justice" or "freedom", in spite of and because of the objectivity postulates raised with them, formed "essentially contested concepts" [57] in which diverging images of society and people are reflected. Recourse to "rights" could - as in the case of human rights - contribute to the codification of certain moral concepts and - as in the case of particular moral concepts based on ideology - lead to the suspension of universal legal norms and legal systems. Even fundamental rights do not prove to be sufficiently reinforced by knowledge cultures, discourses or practices alone, but are dependent on political systems that guarantee their validity. In addition, non-transcendental foundations of moral values ​​with a universal claim - for example through persistent religious patterns of interpretation - had effective counter-supports, the analysis of which sharpens the view for the heterogeneity of moral concepts in a transnational and global perspective. [58]

Third the respective conjunctions of references, concepts and topics as well as discursive and symbolic forms of negotiating moral leading perspectives are to be worked out. Which development phases can be distinguished in the history of the transnational establishment of human rights? In addition to the cuts caused by world wars, experiences of mass violence or regime changes, there are not a few indications that speak for a considerable boost in the 1970s. [59]

Working material for the “Hunger for Peace and Justice” campaign, ed. vom Christlichen Friedensdienst, Frankfurt a.M. 1983. In addition to shock images of drastic realism, humanitarian visualizations often relied on reduced designs using natural metaphors such as hands, the sun or the wheat ear, here with reference to the "swords-to-plowshares" metaphor.
(German Historical Museum, Berlin, Inv.-No .: Do2 2016/3254)

The renaissance of the concept of “responsibility”, which is closely linked to Hans Jonas, points to a critical examination of the implications of technological and economic modernity. [60] The first ethics committees in the Federal Republic of Germany also go back to the 1970s. Transnational references gained in importance and were expressed not least in solidarity campaigns [61] and anti-war demonstrations. Such long-term negotiation processes have established a moral reflexivity as the core of the modern self-concept - as has the discursive availability of moral figures of legitimation up to their moralizing instrumentalization. [62]

5. Study area III:
The moral as an individual and social practice

The third The area of ​​investigation forms that Relationship between moral legitimation figures and individual or collective action. For both the knowledge cultures of morality and the conjunctions of public moral debates were and are closely linked to the concepts, justifications and practices of a "good" or "right" life. From the Marxist-inspired paradigm of the “alienation” of the subject by the world of work and consumer society to the communitarian reconstruction of a specifically modern “culture of authenticity” of the self in Charles Taylor, the twentieth century is pervaded by an unresolved tension between structural constraints, subjective obstinacy and moral reflexivity. [63]

A clear dividing line between public negotiations and individual reasons for action or their emotional correlate can hardly be drawn, especially since the latter are largely shaped by social expectations and routine. The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills argued as early as 1940 that a reference to moral motives only becomes meaningful when one's own actions are questioned by other people. Motives do not appear here as triggering factors of human action, but as its retrospective legitimation and rationalization. [64]

This is why moral history is not about subsequent moral qualifications of individual action in a prescriptive sense. Rather is first to show more precisely how individuals and collectives imagined and justified their own actions within the horizon of moral orders and arguments. [65] The clarification postulate of morally autonomous decision-making authority is contrasted, for example, with the justification figure of "obedience to orders" that grew with the state crimes of the 20th century. It denied not only the scope for one's own decisions, but also - as with the appeal to heteronomously set principles such as "honor" or "loyalty" - their action-relevant assessability according to moral criteria in general. [66]

Secondly The question is how emotions became historically relevant in connection with moral postulates - for example, to mobilize certain behaviors, or when they are cited as a motive for action: The action effect of moral emotions cannot be explained from their representations themselves. Nevertheless, psychological and sociological research offer important points of contact, even if the question of what role moral emotions play in relation to moral judgments cannot be solved by a moral-historical approach - it can, however, be historicized as an axis of interpretation of the moral.

Anti-war demonstration on Winterfeldtplatz in Berlin-Schöneberg, 1981. Since the 1960s in particular, public spaces have been the stage for the performative affirmation of universal moral validity claims, which at the same time served a spatial communalization.
(Photo: Christian Schulz)

If the moral justifications of historical actors are to be critically reflected on, interpretive approaches that do not even take such justifications into account fall short. Therefore third to analyze when and why a certain action is qualified and individualized by the actors as "moral". The consumer practices that have emerged in the context of “fair trade” or “ecological sustainability” since the 1970s cannot be derived from the logic of supply and demand alone. Rather, it needs to be explained why a commitment understood as "moral" focused so much on the field of consumption and how it behaved towards competing moralizations or prevailed against them. [67]

6. Summary

Moral history is interested in phenomena in which something is communicated as moral in the sense of certain reciprocal, supra-individual obligations and is presented as valid and superior for the purpose of an evaluative creation of difference. [68] She doesn't aim at one Moralization through historybut on one Historicizing the moral: How did the rise of moral founding figures since the 19th century that were not absorbed into legal and economic systems, religions or political action, but instead gained their own permanent quality as a reference system and mobilization authority, but at the same time were neither undisputed nor universally valid are?

There is also moral history first as a Synthesis offer to understand, with which current research fields are put into dialogue with one another with regard to common theoretical-methodological questions. In this way, questions can be asked about the mechanisms of individual and collective moral mobilizations across established thematic boundaries - such as human rights history, bourgeoisie and nationalism research. This draws attention to the public negotiation and medialization of morality and calls for explanations for moral paradigm shifts and their interdependencies with political, social, economic or technological transformation processes.

Secondly opens up moral history new subject areas and perspectives established questions in a new way.Current discussions about a supposedly dawning »Anthropocene«, for example, offer numerous contemporary historical points of contact in order to combine environmental and social history with moral history issues. [69] In this context, a research approach inspired by moral history focuses on the question of when and under what social and political conditions it became attractive at all to charge the "environment" with a moral sense. Likewise, newer approaches to integrating cultural and economic-historical research approaches can be productively further developed if, instead of a self-normative sympathy for a "moral economy", the normative conflicts and reciprocal moral expectations within economic systems are made the starting point of the analysis. [70] Ultimately, the chances of a systematic analysis of morality and its limits are also obvious for historical research on violence, especially since Hannah Arendt remains to be asked whether perhaps the only innovation in moral history is the "negation" of morality through the genocide of the 20th century. Century. [71]

Moral History References third on the need for one Reflection on basic theoretical and methodological questions the science of history. Similar to the history of emotions, the question of the dependence of moral attitudes and motives on a socially constructed vocabulary arises. Individual moral concepts can only be understood in the context of contemporary conventions of the ability to say and represent morality. Linked to this is to rethink the possibilities of a historical preoccupation with individual motives for action beyond the analysis of the history of discourse. Ultimately, this also applies to moral assumptions and values ​​that flow into historical research itself.

So far, historical studies have not had a comparably fine sensorium for the moral as for the analysis of political decision-making processes, economic interests, social inequalities, cultural manifestations or religious motives. Moral history can and does not want to bring to light - in the words of Kant - either an absolute morality as a "starry sky above me" or the "moral law in me". For the increase in the meaning of the moral follows neither laws, nor is it teleological or even irreversible. His historical analysis is therefore extremely topical - especially if Zygmunt Bauman's observation is correct that precisely those areas of activity are shrinking again at the present time, which in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries were considered morally relevant for the first time and increasingly in the sense of a universal mutual obligation were. [72]


[1] Cf. Michael Sandel, Gerechtigkeit. How we do the right thing, Berlin 2013; Peter Bieri, A Way of Life. On the Diversity of Human Dignity, Munich 2013; Rainer Erlinger, morals. How to live really well, Frankfurt a.M. 2011; Hartmut Rosa, resonance. A Sociology of World Relationship, Berlin 2016. - We would like to thank the members of the editorial team of this journal, especially our Cologne colleague Nina Verheyen, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this text.

[2] In the context of this essay, we have to limit ourselves to exemplary references to research literature. See Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.), Moralpolitik. History of Human Rights in the 20th Century, Göttingen 2010; Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity. A History of Humanitarianism, Ithaca 2011; Samuel Moyn, Die neue Historiographie der Menschenrechte, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 38 (2012), pp. 545-572; Jan Eckel, The Ambivalence of the Good. Human rights in international politics since the 1940s, Göttingen 2015. Editor's note: For articles on the topic of »human rights« in this journal see .

[4] Raphael Gross / Werner Konitzer (eds.), Morality of Evil. Ethics and National Socialist Crimes, Frankfurt a.M. 2009.

[5] See Jared Diamond, Poor and Rich. The fates of human societies, Frankfurt a.M. 1999; Heinrich August Winkler, History of the West, 4 vols., Munich 2009–2015.

[6] Exemplary for the purely illustrative use of historical case studies: Steven M. Cahn / Peter Markie, Ethics. History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, New York 1998, 6th edition 2015. However, worthy of discussion: Jonathan Glover, Humanity. A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, New Haven 2001.

[7] Cf. Max Weber, The sense of the "freedom of values" of the sociological and economic sciences [1917], in: ders., Collected essays on the theory of science, ed. by Johannes Winckelmann, Tübingen 1988, pp. 489-540.

[8] Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore 1973, p. Xii.

[9] Wilhelm Hofmann et al., Morality in Everyday Life, in: Science 345 (2014), pp. 1340-1343.

[10] See Jesse Graham et al., Moral Foundations Theory. The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism, in: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2013), pp. 55-130.

[11] Cf. Jan Verplaetse, The moral instinct. About the natural origin of our morality, Göttingen 2011; Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality, Berlin 2016.

[12] Cf. Bernard Gert, The moral rules. A new rational justification of morality, Frankfurt a.M. 1983; Micha H. Werner, Moral, in: Jean-Pierre Wils / Christoph Hübenthal (eds.), Lexikon der Ethik, Paderborn 2006, pp. 239-248.

[13] For a much broader understanding of norms as a mode of distancing oneself from the world, see Christoph Möllers, The possibility of norms. On a practice beyond morality and causality, Berlin 2015.

[14] Ferdinand Tönnies, Die Sitte, Frankfurt a.M. 1909, p. 63.

[15] Armin Nassehi, unity and openness. Studies on the theory of modern society, Frankfurt a.M. 2003, pp. 264-283.

[16] See Francis Hutcheson, An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. With Illustrations on the Moral Sense, London 1728; David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, London 1751; Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, London 1759. "Moral emotions" have only been examined more intensively for a few years in contrast to Lawrence Kohlberg's cognitivist approach. See also, Stage and Sequence. The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Socialization, in: David A. Goslin (ed.), Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research, Chicago 1969, pp. 347-480; Jonathan Haidt, The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail. A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment, in: Psychological Review 108 (2001), pp. 814-834; Joshua D. Greene et al., The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment, in: Neuron 44 (2004), pp. 389-400.

[17] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Riga 1788.

[18] See this distinction in Hans Joas, The emergence of values, Frankfurt a.M. 1997.

[19] The question of when something is considered to be "good" and "right" has been subject to controversial provisions in the 20th century, not least from the point of view of virtue ethics and the philosophy of language, which cannot be understood here. With the underlying conception of morality as an utterance system of individually reflected, self-binding and at the same time universal validity of behavioral demands, we are methodologically based, among other things, on the "universal prescriptivism" of Richard M. Hare, first developed in The Language of Morals, Oxford 1952.

[20] Detlev Peukert has taken up this ambivalent dynamic of modernity in numerous writings. As one of his last and unfinished projects, he worked on a contribution to "History as a historical moral science", which was intended to give this ambivalence a historical-theoretical foundation. Cf. Frank Bajohr, Detlev Peukert's contributions to the social history of modernity, in: ders./Werner Johe / Uwe Lohalm (eds.), Zivilisation und Barbarei. The contradicting potentials of modernity. Detlev Peukert commemorating, Hamburg 1991, pp. 7-16, here p. 13.

[21] Niklas Luhmann, Paradigm lost, Frankfurt a.M. 1990, pp. 17f. Compare the discourse on "dignity" and "recognition"; i.a. Avishai Margalit, Politics of Dignity. About Respect and Contempt, Frankfurt a.M. 1999; Judith Butler, Critique of Ethical Violence, Frankfurt a.M. 2002; Axel Honneth, The I in We. Studies on the theory of recognition, Berlin 2010.

[22] For a criticism of a teleological reading of human rights see Samuel Moyn, On the Genealogy of Morals, in: ders., Human Rights and the Uses of History, London 2014, pp. 1-18.

[23] Ellen Key, The Century of the Child [1900], Berlin 1902.

[24] As a representative, also for the now broad empirical research literature, see the "affirmative genealogy" of human rights represented by Hans Joas: ders., Die Sakralität der Person. A new genealogy of human rights, Berlin 2011; ders., Are human rights western ?, Munich 2015.

[25] On "ethical relativism" in contemporary philosophy, see Steven Lukes, Moral Relativism, London 2008.

[26] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. A pamphlet, Leipzig 1887. Cf. Lars Niehaus, The problem of morality. On the relationship between criticism and historical considerations in Nietzsche's late work, Würzburg 2009.

[27] Emile Durkheim, Le suicide. Étude de sociologie, Paris 1897.

[28] See William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, in: ders., The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, London 1896, pp. 184-215; John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, New York 1920, pp. 161-186.

[29] For an example of the moral debates at the turn of the century, see Detlef Briesen, Warenhaus, Massen Konsum und Sozialmoral. On the history of consumer criticism in the 20th century, Frankfurt a.M. 2001; Habbo Knoch, Grand Hotels. Luxury rooms and social change in New York, London and Berlin around 1900, Göttingen 2016.

[30] Victor Cathrein, The Unity of the Moral Consciousness of Humanity. An ethnographic study, Freiburg 1914.

[31] Cf., for example, Alexander Lion, Die Kulturbarkeit des Negers and the educational tasks of the cultural nations, Berlin 1908.

[32] Reinhold Niebuhr, Reflections of an End of an Era, New York 1932, pp. Ix. See also, Moral Man and Immoral Society, New York 1934.

[33] Cf. Fritz Stern, cultural pessimism as a political danger. An analysis of national ideology in Germany, Bern 1963; Harald Welzer, Mass Murder and Morality. Some considerations on a subject that can be misunderstood, in: Kristin Platt (ed.), Genozid und Moderne, Vol. 1: Structures of collective violence in the 20th century, Opladen 1998, pp. 254-272; Raphael Gross, remained decent. National Socialist Morality, Frankfurt a.M. 2010.

[34] See Moyn, Human Rights and the Uses of History (note 22), pp. 87-98.

[35] In this way, "neoliberalism" can be understood as the release of economic competition from morally reflective regulations. See Ralph Jessen (ed.), Competition in History. Practices - Values ​​- Institutionalizations, Frankfurt a.M. 2014.

[36] Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering. Morality, Media, and Politics, Cambridge 1999; Henning Ritter, Misfortunes near and far. Experiment about compassion, Munich 2004; ders., The screams of the wounded. Attempt on cruelty, Munich 2013; Susan Sontag, Looking at the suffering of others, Munich 2003.

[37] Dieter Birnbacher, Responsibility for Future Generations, Stuttgart 1988.

[38] Valentin Beck, A Theory of Global Responsibility. What we owe people in extreme poverty, Berlin 2016.

[39] Cf. Martin Pfaffenzeller, Airplane crash in Africa? I don't care !, in: Spiegel Online, October 12, 2016; Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue. How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, London 1999; Judith Butler, War and Affect, Zurich 2009.

[42] See Gary S. Becker, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, Chicago 1976.

[43] Cf. Jürgen Habermas, facticity and validity. Contributions to the discourse theory of law and the democratic constitutional state, Frankfurt a.M. 1992, pp. 349-397; Nina Verheyen, willingness to discuss. A cultural history of the »better argument« in West Germany, Göttingen 2010.

[45] See Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London 1972.

[46] Cf. Günter Schmölders, Psychologie des Geldes, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1966; Stephan Burgdorff, Economy in the Underground, Reinbek near Hamburg 1983.

[49] As part of the research project "The Moral Iconography of the 20th Century", an image database is being created at the University of Cologne. See Habbo Knoch, Cruel Pictures. Violence in 20th Century Photography, in: Martin Sabrow (ed.), The Century of Violence, Leipzig 2014, pp. 65-92; ders., Shocking pictures. 1945 and the moral iconography of the 20th century, in: Neue Politische Literatur 61 (2016), pp. 63-77; Heide Fehrenbach / Davide Rodogno (eds.), Humanitarian Photography. A History, Cambridge 2014.

[51] Cf. Eva-Maria Silies, Liebe, Lust und Last. The pill as a female generation experience in the Federal Republic, 1960–1980, Göttingen 2010.

[52] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars. The Struggle to Define America, New York 1991.

[53] Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn. Basics of collective behavior, Munich 1967, pp. 158-224.

[54] Arnold Gehlen, Morality and Hypermorality. A pluralistic ethics, Frankfurt a.M. 1969, especially pp. 79-94.

[55] See Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, New York 1987; Geoffrey Hughes, Political Correctness. A History of Semantics and Culture, Chichester 2009; Gerd Wiegel / Johannes Klotz (eds.), Spiritual arson? The Walser-Bubis Debate, Cologne 1999; Gerhard Müller, good person - and good person. Comments on a current stimulus word, in: Sprachspiegel 67 (2011), pp. 2-9.

[56] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge 1989, pp. 189-198.

[57] See Walter Bryce Gallie, Essentially Contested Concepts, in: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1956), pp. 167-198.

[58] Cf. Henning Hahn, Globale Gerechtigkeit. A philosophical introduction, Frankfurt a.M. 2009; Karen M. Sykes, Ethnographies of Moral Reasoning. Living Paradoxes of a Global Age, New York 2009.

[59] Cf. Jan Eckel / Samuel Moyn (eds.), Moral for the World? Human rights policy in the 1970s, Göttingen 2012.

[60] Hans Jonas, The principle of responsibility. An attempt at ethics for technical civilization, Frankfurt a.M. 1979; Ulrich Beck, Risk Society. On the way to a different modern age, Frankfurt a.M. 1986; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge 2000.

[62] Cf. Pascal Eitler / Jens Elberfeld (eds.), Zeitgeschichte des Selbst. Therapeutization - Politicization - Emotionalization, Bielefeld 2015; Maik Tellers, The Therapeutic Decade. The psycho boom in the seventies, Göttingen 2016; Uffa Jensen / Maik Tellers (eds.), The Self between Adjustment and Liberation. Psychological Knowledge and Politics in the 20th Century, Göttingen 2012.

[63] Cf. Rahel Jaeggi, Alienation. On the topicality of a socio-philosophical problem, Frankfurt a.M. 2005; Charles Taylor, Das Unbehagen an der Moderne, Frankfurt a.M. 1995; ders., sources of the self. The emergence of the modern identity, Frankfurt a.M. 1996.

[65] Cf. Heinz D. Kittsteiner, The emergence of modern conscience, Frankfurt a.M. 1991.

[66] Cf. Rainer E. Wiedemann, Faith and Loyalty in the Process of Social Change. A sociological sketch, in: Nikolaus Buschmann / Karl Murr (ed.), Treue. Political loyalty and military allegiance in the modern age, Göttingen 2008, pp. 36-71.

[67] Cf. Benjamin Möckel, Against the »Plastic World of Supermarkets«. Criticism of consumption and capitalism in the genesis of »fair trade«, in: Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 56 (2016), pp. 335-352; David Cake Book, "One World". Global awareness of interdependence and the moralization of everyday life in the 1970s and 1980s, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 38 (2012), pp. 158-184.

[68] Cf. Ernst Tugendhat, On the Concept and Grounds of Morality [1989], in: ders., Philosophische Aufzüge, Frankfurt a.M. 1992, pp. 315-333.

[70] Cf. Hartmut Berghoff / Jakob Vogel (eds.), Economic history as cultural history. Dimensions of a change of perspective, Frankfurt a.M. 2004; Christof Dejung / Monika Dommann / Daniel Speich Chassé (eds.), In search of the economy. Historical approaches, Tübingen 2014; Norbert Götz, Moral Economy. Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects, in: Journal of Global Ethics 11 (2015), pp. 147-162.

[71] Hannah Arendt, About Evil. A lecture on questions of ethics, Munich 2006, p. 13. Cf. Bettina Stangneth, Böses Denk, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2016; Susan Neiman, Thinking Evil. Another history of philosophy, Frankfurt a.M. 2004.

[72] Zygmunt Bauman, The Fear of Others. An essay on migration and scaremongering, Frankfurt a.M. 2016, pp. 77f.


Copyright © Clio-online - Historisches Fachinformationssystem e.V. and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial purposes. However, republication can only be granted with prior written consent of the above-named rights holders. For permission to republish this work (including translations) please contact: .

For the use of photographs, audio and video material included in the articles note the stated terms of license and the rights holders.