#ethics21 Personal or not

I am still surprised how much arguing seems to be needed against the possibility of a universally valid ethics. For me, ethics has always been a personal thing, and I wonder if the term just had different connotations in my youth or/ and in my country. Although I have already mentioned some aspects in week 1 on Oct 14 (privileged professions, GDPR, and discretionary decision-making) I think I should expand on this a bit more.

Perhaps our personal ideas of ethics did not seem valid for everyone because sometimes they even opposed the common authoritative views and were allowed only as an exception. For example, there were discussions if a school subject called ethics should become a replacement for those who refused to attend the Religion lessons. And those who refused the military draft for ethical reasons were only allowed to do their replacement service after explaining their ‘conscience’ to a jury. (In the hearing, BTW, hypothetical situations comparable to the trolley problem were common questions, so we did have to think about such dilemmas a lot.)

By contrast, for our conduct within the professional work in the public service, the term ‘ethics’ was not used; it was simply the duty. Of course there would have been plenty of opportunity to abuse some discretionary leeway and get away with unnoticed tricks. But the obligation was founded by an oath of allegiance (mentioned before, which BTW was not theatrically done upon the bible or something, but instead by a handclasp with the principal director, but nevertheless it meant an equally binding relationship). The oath also contained the ‘FDGO’, the free democratic basic order, and as students, we often thought that we would probably not be permitted to the public service because people who participated in critical protest marches were suspected of disloyality (and the surveillance at the marches was a matter of course).

Perhaps the public service in Germany has some speciality that needs to be mentioned, although it did not directly apply to me and although its importance has now largely decreased: There is this special employment relationship of a “Beamter“, an officer who has a mutual special trust relationship with the state. This means that his or her employment can almost never be terminated (except for felony), and in turn, he/she was entrusted with certain tasks such as reliable infrastructure with Mail or Rail, or sensitive jobs such as teacher or administration officer. (The history of this status is related to the Prussians’ clever fight against bribery: by relocating the officer frequently, it was less easy for him to network with the locals to gain personal benefits.) This tradition may explain why some of what otherwise may be called ethical, is just seen as a professional obligation.

It has been amazing in this course how many terms don’t have a simple one-to-one translation. And particularly the word ‘care’ has so many different meanings. The image below shows one meaning that has been particularly important to my parents’ generation after the war.

CARE packet, see rich description at the linked source
CARE packet, CC BY-NC-SA by dc-r docu center ramstein

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