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Questions of Conscience

Since February 2002, the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s magazine has published a column under the heading “Gewissensfrage” or “Questions of Conscience.” Since then, readers have submitted questions about the ethical dilemmas that arise in their everyday lives, and each Friday Rainer Erlinger answers one of them in the magazine. To date, the magazine has published more than 500 of these columns, with a new one appearing in print each Friday.

Letters stream in without pause: Each month between 50-100 readers submit questions addressing a broad spectrum of everyday moral issues. Past columns have explored the sensitivity around organ donation and death; the ethical aspects of shopping and choosing a profession; and the moral quandaries that emerge at home, at school, at the office, in traffic and on the train.

Over the years, Erlinger has released three collections of his columns (in German): “Gewissensfragen,” “Wenn Sie mich fragen,” and “Gewissensbisse,” as well as an audio book of columns, “Guten Gewissens.”

The question often comes up: Are the questions that appear in the column actually submitted by real readers or are they just dreamed up by the magazine’s editorial staff? The answer is plain and simple: All the questions are real and submitted by real readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. You’re invited to submit your own questions of conscience using the form on the left.


Questions of Conscience


Die Gewissenfrage    SZ MAGAZIN HEFT 10/2013

Is it ok to combine several wishes for a happy birthday and greetings from vacation on one postcard?

While he was on vacation my brother-in-law sent us a postcard like he does every year. I have always looked forward to these, but this time around, after describing how the vacation was going, he belatedly wished my husband a happy birthday and then prematurely wished me a happy birthday. It felt to me like he was trying too kill too many birds with the same stone, and now I’m annoyed. Am I wrong to feel that way? (Anna F., Berlin)

To what end to do we send postcards from vacation? In past times, ostensibly they were a good way to pass along intel about the vacation spot and activities and to let one’s friends or family know that the sender was doing well. These days the cards usually arrive after the traveler has already returned home and, in the meantime, sender and recipient have already talked on the phone. Therefore the cards transmit one message above all: I thought about you guys. The same might be true for happy birthday wishes. If you can set aside superstitious or supernatural thinking — according to which, good wishes will either ward off misfortune or bring happiness — the main point here as well is the transmission of the message: I thought about you. When this message, as is the case here, is transmitted by means of a postcard, a further aspect must be considered: The thoughts have been materialized and this materialization requires effort — including financial expense. How much effort one exerts to a given end will generally be seen as a measuring stick for how much that thing is worth to him. And in turn this is tied up with appreciation; with which we would be at the decisive point. The bundling of three seperate messages into one demonstrates, to some extent, a rational measure to increase efficiency and, in blunter turns, an effort to reduce trouble and costs — and, commensurately, your value to him. If you look at things this way, you’re right to feel the way you do. I cannot, however, agree with you. In general I’m no friend of demands and expectations in the arena of interpersonal relationships. I think they’re corrosive. And there’s something else: If you feel belitted by your brother-in-law’s bundling of regards, then you are the one who is letting the price tag overshadow the good wishes behind the card. Instead of just being happy to be in his thoughts, you appraise the card and set off on some comparative analysis between the effort exerted and what you consider appropriate. Internally you reject the regards because they’re too cheap. By appraising interpersonal gestures this way, you devalue them — and a great deal more at that than through the bundling of regards on a vacation postcard. Sources: On the topic of the economization of life, in particular its limits from the standpoint of moral philosophy, Michael Sandel’s book „What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets“ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) is worth reading, even if one can’t agree with Sandel on every point.

Die Gewissenfrage    SZ MAGAZIN HEFT 09/2013

Is it legitimate or exploiting other people to use their facebook accounts to search for old friends while not having an own account due to privacy reasons?

With deep-seated and unshakeable conviction, I am not on Facebook. I am uncomfortable with the idea of forfeiting control over my personal information: how much of it is collected and stored and to which commercial ends it’s used. I am, however, fascinated by the idea of being able to find friends and acquaintances who I thought were long gone and to pick up old relationships where they left off. When I’m with friends or my son, sometimes I ask to use their Facebook accounts to look for certain people. Is this legitimate or am I abusing my friends and my son? (Georg S., Ingolstadt)

Yes, this could constitute an abuse of your friends or your son, especially if you’re contacting them only because you want to take advantage of their Facebook access. It’s also the case if you only seek them out or endear yourself to them for this reason, like so: „I’ve missed you so much and wanted to talk to you again for so long. But there’s time for that later. Where is the computer, and are you logged in to Facebook?“ I don’t want to assume this is the case, so we can rule out direct abuse. But there is still a remnant of something that could be perhaps more aptly described as „exploitation.“ This would include, in it’s most harmless form, something along the lines of „exploiting the opportunity,“ but it could also include someting uglier: „exploting the stupidity or mistakes of others.“ This would be the case if you’re not simply against using Facebook yourself — because you just don’t like it, the way some people peronsally don’t like being photographed, without injuring the medium of photography — but if you believe generally that nobody should have an account because it exposes personal data. Then however you would exploit not only those whose Facebook accounts you use to log on to the site, but also those who you can find through social networks thanks to their willful placement of personal data on the internet. But is what you do immoral? At the very least, it’s inconsistent and a little ambiguous on top of the exploitation, which seems to entail almost a bit of insincerity. Some people, especially teenagers, need to be clued into the dangers of exposing information online and to the idea that the internet doesn’t forget — the more often the better. Furthermore, society should decide politically to which extent it will allow companies to collect and analyse data. But otherwise everyone has to consider carefully for him or herself which information he or she want to put on the internet and which platforms to trust. Everyone has to bear the consquences of his and her own choices.  For one person, this might mean a company knows his or her personal profile and the person’s private sphere gets smaller and increasingly transparent to the outside world. And, in your case, it means that nobody can gain access to you in the same way you gained access to them.

Die Gewissenfrage    SZ MAGAZIN HEFT 08/2013

Do I act morally or selfish if I try to live a morally upstanding life but do it with the only reason to feel better?

I try to live a morally upstanding life. For me, this involves veganism and keeping my carbon footprint as small as possible. But there’s one thing that unsettles my conscience: Living this way makes me feel better. My supposedly moral actions are all ultimately just selfish impulses driven by my own interests and not by concern for my environment. What do you think? (Hartmut L., Tübingen)

At first thought, one might think think we’re once again making the distinction between actions driven by inclination and actions driven by duty. But, as you said yourself, you haven’t chosen a vegan lifestyle because vegetables taste good, and you don’t avoid driving because you enjoy walking so much. You’ve made the decision to live this way because you want to lead a morally correct life. Which implies that you do it from  duty, in the Kantian sense of the word. Now, however, it gets interesting: You write that you enjoy performing these duties because it makes you feel better, which in turn you think is indirectly selfish. Therefore you think your moral actions aren’t from duty at all but from inclination.  This is a variation of a problem that emerges in moral philosophy called „psychological egoism,“ the idea that motives that may not seem egocentric at first glance are, or at least could be on closer inspection, totally self-serving. If you behaved morally or altruistically only because of sanctions that made you afraid to do otherwise, egoism would be at play, because all you intend is not to suffer from punishment.  This distinction seems easy as long as we are talking about punishments from the government or your parents. But as soon as the idea of internalized punishments is called into play, the distinction becomes more difficult. If you assign importance to moral action because you’re afraid of being ostracized or somehow closed out of society because of unmoral behaviour, you do so for egocentric reasons. And it gets even more complicated, if you consider conscience according to Freud as superego or internalized parental authority. In this interpretation, he who behaves ethically also does so ultimately to avoid punishment. The only difference is that the punishment in this case is called pangs of conscience. Even if there’s room for debate within these points, I think this approach is basically correct: Ultimately someone behaves morally — helps his neighbor or protects the environment — because he or she thinks it’s better to do so than not and thus once again becuase of reasons that have to do with him or herself. But, in my opinion, this duality is inherent in the nature of things or in human nature. By accepting that the aims of moral actions serve both the self and, in your case, the environment at once, we don’t have to subtract from the worth of your objectively good motivations. On the contrary: we can see that you don’t just behave morally but that your basic attitudes are moral. Literature: Dieter Birnbacher, Analytische Einführung in die Ethik, Walter de Gruyter Verlag, Berlin 2. Auflage 2007. Dort Kapitel 7. Moralische Motivation und moralischer Wert, insbesondere ab 7.6 Die Herausforderungen des psychologischen Egoismus, S. 312ff. Bernard Williams, Egoism and altruismus, in: Bernard Williams, Problem of the Self. Philosophical Papers 1956-1972. London Cambridge University Press 1973, pp. 250-265 Robert Shaver, "Egoism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Online here Stephen Stich, John M. Doris, Erica Roedder, "Altruism," in John M. Doris (ed.), The Moral Psychology Handbook, New York: Oxford 2010, S. 147-205 Elliott Sober, What is psychological egoism. In: The blackwell guide to ethical theory. Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2000, S. 129-148. To the differnce between acting from duty and conforming to duty ("Handeln aus Pflicht und pflichtgemäßes Handeln") see the well known parargrah in: Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Akademie Ausgabe S. 397 English translation by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott online here