Saturday, December 19, 2009

Yglesias Reads Weber

Matt Yglesias, reflecting on the politics of the past few weeks, quotes from passages of Weber that I've quoted here many times.

However, there is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends–that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’–and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.

I would add just one point to Yglesias' reflections on this contrast. It is possible to harbor considerable doubt about the "foreseeable results of one's action." This uncertainty greatly complicates the commitment to an ethic of responsibility. Pascal's wager weighs the scale too heavily in favor of ultimate ends by positing an infinite reward for preferring the ultimate over the here and now. But the scales can be tipped in the same direction by attaching too low a probability to imminent (or immanent) success. As Tocqueville recognized, it is rather too easy to dissuade oneself from attempting that which is merely difficult but not necessarily impossible.

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