Years ago, I liked writing about ethics. For me, it was a very simple topic. It was primarily about virtues and the question which virtues are primary and secondary virtues. Then this sort of ethics started to get boring.
Now, what happens around brown coal in the Hambacher Forest makes me more concerned. In fact, I am not just concerned, I am appalled.
And I believe it is about time that we again talk about primary and secondary virtues.
When I was a child, I was taught many virtues. Well, it was more than just teaching, I was literally trained in them. It started with the demand that I should always be nice. I was to be washed clean at all times and my (short) hair had to be combed nicely. When adults were in a conversation, children had to shut up. I was admonished to be obedient, nice and never recalcitrant. However, the worst sins were if you lied or – God forbid – steal. Respecting the property of others and telling the truth at all times were the highest virtues of all.
As I grew up, I started to have my own ideas. And I understood very early on that there were quite a few glitches to my education. And that, for example, the categorical demands that you must not lie and must not steal will not hold after a thorough ethical test.
Later, I studied the philosophers and I remember reading the letters exchanged between the older Kant and a younger French philosopher. Well, the Frenchman with his arguments caused quite some sweat on the forehead of the then so famous and well-liked Kant. Kant’s reaction was very irrational and, in my opinion, very emotional.
This is how I learned that categorically sticking by the Eighth Commandment will certainly cause a lot of damage and thus can only be a secondary virtue. In fact, in normal life there are many situations where ethical behaviour actually forces us to lie in order to prevent damage to ourselves or others.
I also saw very quickly that the Seventh Commandment is not much better. I do not even have to mention Robin Hood and the questionability of a society that is dominated by property. It will suffice the imagine a child that might die from hunger but could be saved by theft.
This is why the Hambacher Forst Activists are definitely not criminals, even if they are not necessarily heroes.
Because they act upon virtues that I consider primary virtues. They are autonomous and they study the situation. They live up to virtues that I consider primary virtues, such as civil courage and constructive disobedience. They even do it in a very responsible and peaceful way.
The only thing I could ethically hold against these people in their tree houses is that they cultivate a martyrdom and that their actions in favour of a “good cause“ will eventually have negative consequences for their own lives. Because it is an important – and for me also a primary – virtue that your self-esteem is high and that you do not ruin yourself. Especially not for others!
Because, basically, we all know that matters cannot continue as they are, just like we also know that, when all is said and done, we will all suffer under the destruction of the world.
As opposed to an omniscient minister, I do not know what is the “mother of all problems“. All I can say is that I believe our system practices a very questionable approach on how to treat humans and nature.
We have several problems. The source of these problems are probably weaknesses in our approach to poverty, education, climate protection and mobility. The reason why our social system has these problems is probably that values, priorities and power structures have changed in our country and its politics.
For instance, we know that a polarization into poor and rich parts of the population can have quite unpleasant consequences. We also know that our social welfare state tumbles towards a future full of crises. We also know that our mobility with big cars and the combustion motor has no future. We also know that stricter speed limits on motorways, other streets and also in the cities are more than necessary. We also know that subsidies granted to the motorized traffic in general and to the Diesel engines in particular are total nonsense.
To be honest, we also know that electricity-powered vehicles will not improve the situation at all. On the contrary, they will have an even worse environmental footprint, especially if the electricity they need is produced from brown coal.
Incidentally, this is not only true for brown coal, but also for higher-quality coal that is processed by overexploitation in Australia, then driven to the coast, then loaded onto huge container ships and thus brought to Hamburg. In Hamburg, the coal will be distributed to various means of transportation – and later it will be used up somewhere in Germany. Well, this is certainly not a solution.
Most of the electricity we consume world-wide is made from coal. This is still true today! Regardless of the fact that there is now a social consensus that says we must not produce electricity from coal for many well-known reasons. However, we cannot manage the exit because of “economic interests“. Yet we need this exit very soon if we want to replace all those combustion motors by electrical solutions.
The opposing party for the activists at the Hambacher Forest is an industrial sector. Or rather: it is a concern the domineering and driving factor of which was the shareholder value over many decades. And it used all the legally possible – and sometimes even borderline legal – means to achieve a sensational shareholder value. Few sectors were able to make their shareholders as rich as the EVUs over a long period of time. It all happened at the cost of our environment and – as with (not only) nuclear energy – at the cost of our country. And it was all achieved through legal procedures, thanks to great lobbyism and soft blackmail.
Now more and more people want to change this, and for good reasons, too. Because they understand that it has to end. And soon. I mean people who show civil courage and who put the virtue of constructive disobedience over obedience. Even though they know that, in the end, they will stand no chance against the omnipotence of the country and business. Which is why their actions are detrimental to their own lives.
In my book, these people are not criminals but people who live important primary virtues. The only thing I regret is that they do not have the slightest chance of success – and that they should actually be aware of this. But then, this has always been the problem with idealism and idealists. Which opens yet another, totally different discussion.
(Translated by EG)