Philosopher specialising in Business Ethics - ESSCA

Reference is often made to Max Weber’s famous distinction between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility – which, according to him, politicians should strive to reconcile. The distinction between these two maxims and their possible reconciliation is mentioned in this famous passage from Politics as a Vocation: “An ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’” Before this passage, Weber quotes the (even more famous) formula that Martin Luther is said to have pronounced at the end of his hearing at the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we understand that this phrase expresses the limits set by the ethics of conviction to the ethics of responsibility, it deserves to be examined in its own right. We report here on the philosophical interpretation put forward by Harry Frankfurt, for which Nathalie Maillard has provided an interesting analysis.

Illustration par Margaux Anquetil

We are familiar with the terms of Max Weber’s distinction between the two maxims of ethics (1). The ethics of conviction is an absolute ethics, which is based on intention and not just on the foreseeable consequences of the act we intend to perform, which rejects the use of evil means, which does not tolerate “the ethical irrationality of the world,” and which, as a result, leads us to impute to the world the evil consequences resulting from acts performed out of pure conviction. The ethics of responsibility presupposes that we carry out actions that enable us to achieve the goals we have set ourselves, which presupposes an assessment of the consequences and, if necessary, recourse to means that we would prefer to avoid – without, however, implying that we choose any means (2). As Max Weber wrote:

“[A]n ethics of conviction is [not] identical with irresponsibility or an ethics of responsibility with a lack of conviction. Needless to say, there can be no question of that. But there is a profound abyss between acting in accordance with the maxim governing an ethics of conviction and acting in tune with an ethics of responsibility. In the former case this means, to put it in religious terms: ‘A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God,’ while in the latter you must answer for the (foreseeable) consequences of your actions.”

Two points are worth emphasising. Firstly, as we saw in the introduction, the opposition between the two ethics does not rule out the possibility of reconciling them in decision-making and action, a reconciliation that Max Weber considers desirable in a man who claims a vocation for politics.

Secondly, Weber quotes the theologian Martin Luther from a lecture on the book of Genesis (“A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God”). This appeal to Luther comes as no surprise if we consider how important the sociology of religion is to Weber. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, for example, he analysed Luther’s notion of Beruf – according to David Owen and Tracy Strong, “the term has the everyday meaning of ‘profession’ but carries with it also the resonances from its religious origin as ‘calling’” (3) – to which he devoted a chapter. And in Politics as a Vocation, he prefaced the passage we quoted in the introduction with another quotation from Luther, in italics below:

“I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being – whether young or old in actual years is immaterial – who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’ That is authentically human and cannot fail to move us. […] In this sense an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’”

Weber chose to quote the words that Luther is said to have spoken at the Diet of Worms (4) because they express an essential limit to the implementation of the ethic of responsibility by political leaders – a maxim that Weber was almost leaning towards until this passage in Politics as a Vocation, and which Raymond Aron said “is the one that the man of action cannot fail to adopt” (5). This limit means that the politician must preserve his or her convictions if his or her action risks jeopardising them. In the words of the sociologist Jean-Hugues Déchaux, it is not a strict limit, but part of a dialectical movement, a movement that makes it possible to reach a compromise, a “radically contingent equilibrium that can be revised according to the tension between the polarities:”

“Weber illustrates this figure of compromise with the example of a politician for whom the ethic of conviction serves as a moral safeguard against the responsibility for consequences that drives him or her. Deliberating with himself or herself, he or she might declare, as Martin Luther did in his speech to the Diet of Worms (1521): ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ Weber sees this as the ethical mark of an ‘authentic’ human attitude. So the ethic of responsibility must not stifle the ethic of conviction. Compromise through complementarity is necessary.’” (6)

Luther’s formula could be understood as the decisive intervention, in the deliberation preceding action, of “certain deeply held convictions,” to use the words of the philosopher Wright Neely (7). This suggests a rationalist interpretation of the psychological and practical nature of the formula: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Reason demands that we choose option A over option B if the reasons for doing A are better than the reasons for doing B. This is also true when you are already committed to an action, like Socrates, who chose to stay in prison after being sentenced to death (an example from Neely). Crito, his friend, could have persuaded him to escape by putting forward reasons that he considered “good and sufficient” (8). If Socrates had also considered them “good and sufficient,” he would probably have chosen to escape:

“We have every reason to believe that Socrates would have escaped in a minute if he had been presented with what he took to be good and sufficient reason for doing so.” (9)

It could also be argued that Luther could have changed his mind by considering “good and sufficient” reasons, rather than asserting before the Diet: “I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience.” (10)

But the impossibility or necessity suggested by Luther’s formula can be explained in ways that are not based on reason. Max Weber himself saw in it the “moving” expression of an “authentic human attitude,” and Raymond Aron “the unconditional affirmation of a will, whatever the consequences” (11).

The idea of an “unconditional affirmation of a will” introduces us to the interpretation of Luther’s formula, based on the will, that was proposed by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. The will is a power to act, an organizing faculty, which is linked both to “things we care about” and to our personal identity. Nathalie Maillard describes Frankfurt’s thesis as follows:

“Some things are [...] so important to us, so intimately bound up with our identity, that they impose themselves on our practical lives as ‘necessities,’ radically limiting the scope of what we can or cannot do [...] The necessity of which Frankfurt speaks does not refer to situations in which we are unable to act in a certain way, but to situations in which we are unable to will otherwise.” (12)

Sometimes we are incapable of acting in a certain way because we are subject to external or psychological constraints, such as an irrepressible desire, a strong emotion or insurmountable fatigue. But in the kind of case envisaged by Frankfurt, where a course of action is imposed on the individual, he or she cannot want to act otherwise, even if there are good reasons for doing so. They would even find it unthinkable to do otherwise, because it would go against both what they consider essential and what constitutes their own identity. This is how Frankfurt interprets Luther’s formula:

“What he meant to convey was not that those reasons [reasons to say: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’] left him with no reasonable alternative to the stand he had decided to take. Rather, he was trying to convey something about himself. I understand him to have meant to say about himself something like this: that he could not help being driven by the considerations supporting his stand; that even when he attempted to give countervailing weight to considerations tending to lead to a different stand, he found it impossible to do so; that whatever the objective logical or moral value of the considerations that moved him, he experienced them as irresistible.” (13)

This “necessity” to act, which Frankfurt calls “volitional necessity” because it arises from the will, is paradoxically involuntary. Frankfurt states that “a person who is subject to volitional necessity finds that he must act as he does” (14). This does not mean that volitional necessity acts in and on them as if they were under the control of an irresistible internal force. On the contrary, according to Frankfurt, people “may tend to regard [volitional necessity] as actually enhancing both their autonomy and their strength of will” (15), which has the effect of liberating them from what stands in the way of what they really want to do.

It may seem strange to act because of a self-imposed necessity (volitional necessity) which, moreover, is partly involuntary. But this assertion is based on Frankfurt’s conception of the role of the will, which not only guides the individual in the selection of their desires and interests, but also plays a part in their identification with certain of their psychic characteristics. And while the will is not necessarily under voluntary control (let’s not forget the “I can do no other” of Luther’s formula), it also plays a liberating role. Nathalie Maillard describes how this experience of liberation is linked to a person’s identity:

“The liberating character of the experience of necessity comes from the fact that the constraint is exercised by our own nature. The freedom experienced in the experience of volitional necessity – or in experiences that come close to this phenomenon – is not freedom in self-creation, but in self-certainty and the possible expression of what we are.” (16)

“Self-certainty and the possible expression of what we are:” these words could be added to the passage in which Max Weber quotes Martin Luther’s formula: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” They provide an explanation of the case in which a person, for example a political leader, “decides” to “stand here” in order to stick to his or her convictions – or, better still, his or her “own nature.”



(1) M. Weber, Politik als Beruf, 1919, Politics as a Vocation, edited and with an Introduction by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, translated by Rodney Livingstone, Hackett Publishing Company, 2004.

(2) On this point, see Raymond Aron, Les étapes de la pensée sociologique, Gallimard, 1976.

(3) See M. Weber, Politik als Beruf, op. cit.

(4) Considered not from a historical or biographical perspective, but, as Nathalie Maillard points out, “as illustrating a certain type of phenomenon – an experience of incapacity or necessity” expressed by this question: “what do we mean [...] when, in certain circumstances, we say that we are incapable of acting in such and such a way or that it is impossible for us to decide or do otherwise?” (N. Maillard, “‘Ici je me tiens. Je ne puis autrement’. Sur la notion de ‘nécessité volitive’ chez H. G. Frankfurt,” Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie, 146(1), 2014, pp. 75-93).

(5) R. Aron, op. cit.

(6) J.-H. Déchaux, “Parenté, ‘polythéisme des valeurs’ et délibération. Variations wébériennes,” Négociations, 25(1), 2016, pp. 23-37. Philosopher Philippe Raynaud expresses the way in which these two ethics can be combined: “Acting in the world [means] subjecting one’s convictions to the test of rational anticipation of the consequences, because we ourselves accept that we are partly responsible for the world. [And] the ethics of responsibility is led to self-limitation in order to recognise the irreducibility of conviction.” (P. Raynaud, “Max Weber,” in M. Canto-Sperber (ed.), Dictionnaire d’éthique et de philosophie morale, Paris, PUF, 1996.)

(7) W. Neely, “Freedom and desire,” The Philosophical Review, 83(1), 1974, pp. 32-54.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Source: The History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century by Jean-Henri Merle dAubigné, translated by David Dundas Scott. See Luthers Speech at the Diet of Worms, World History Encyclopedia.

(11) R. Aron, op. cit.

(12) N. Maillard, op. cit.

(13) H. G. Frankfurt, “On the necessity of ideals,” in Necessity, volition and love, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

(14) H. G. Frankfurt, The importance of what we care about, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

(15) Ibid.

(16) N. Maillard, op. cit.

To cite this article: Alain Anquetil, “Max Weber’s ethics of responsibility and Martin Luther’s 'Here I stand; I can do no other,'” The Philosophy and Business Ethics Blog, 7 February 2023.


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