Of ‘Gutmenschen’, the First ‘Openly A**hole President’, and the Moral Decline of the West

The current refugee crisis in Europe has led to a great deal of political discussions, journalistic commentary, and public debate. The quality of comments varies greatly; the low end of the scale can certainly be found among the online commentaries on various newspaper and media webpages. Nevertheless, I found very interesting one type of remarks made in the comments section of German-speaking online media webpages: Many commentators virulently attack people who advocate a lenient stance on immigration in the current crisis by referring to them as Gutmenschen or Weltverbesserer. Gutmensch is a contraction of ‘guter Mensch’, i.e. a ‘good person’, a ‘good human being’. While its origin is disputed, the term has become increasingly used in German since the mid-1980s. [1] Weltverbesserer, on the other hand, literally means ‘world improver’. Like the English ‘do-gooder’ neither of these terms are compliments though, but are used as insults. While online comments sections certainly rather capture the most extreme opinions in a society, a similar scornful and derisive attitude towards ‘good people’ and ‘world improvers’ is omnipresent in political discourses of many political parties in various Western countries. Indeed, to some extent this discourse has become very normal, but when one comes to think of it, the fact that being a ‘good person’ has become a bad thing and trying to ‘improve’ the world is worthy of derision does seem like a rather strange phenomenon.

In a related development, Comedy Central’s Daily Show recently declared – in its trademark blunt and provocative fashion – that Donald Trump, if elected, would be the USA’s first ‘openly a**hole president’ (audio is available here at 10’15”; in some countries with video here). Now, some might find this statement crass, but I think there is a kernel of truth to it: Certain politicians do not seem to deem necessary to respect standards of politeness, common decency, and political correctness anymore (which, I suppose, is what Jon Steward would consider – among other things – to distinguish an a**hole from another person, but I could not find a formal definition of the term).
Some politicians draw political capital from this newly-gained freedom, by making increasingly blunt and extreme statements that appeal to certain parts of the electorate. Partly, this trend – which is by no means limited to the USA – has been driven by the resurgence of far-right parties in many countries, which little by little have pushed back the limits of what it is acceptable to say out loud. This trend started on the fringes of the political spectrum, but has now also start entering the political mainstream. Political correctness – if taken to extreme – clearly is not without its problems (notably in terms of freedom of thought and speech); Yet, it does impose to some extend on powerful actors in society what Jon Elster called in a different context the ‘civilising force of hypocrisy’.[2] This civilising force is in rapid decline now; and politics in the Western world have become less civilised as a result.
One striking and very worrying, but not even the most extreme, example of this trend is the fact that increasing numbers of parties and governments in Europe openly consider to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), arguably a core achievement of European civilisation after the Second World War. Now, influential political actors in Europe, including the new conservative government in the UK and the largest party in Switzerland – a country that often prides itself with her long humanitarian tradition – raise the possibility of leaving the ECHR in the name of the superiority of national sovereignty over human rights. Another example is the idea to reintroduce the death penalty in European countries. Surely, such announcements would have been met with disbelieve and astonishment as recently as 20 years ago. Today, however, while being criticised by certain actors, such moves do not seem to surprise or shock that many people.

So, what has happened that being a ‘good person’ has become a bad thing, while being an ‘openly a**hole’ politician increasingly seems to become a viable political strategy in election campaigns?

Well, I would argue that it has to do with a general moral decline in the Western world.
That’s a statement that does not go down well with most people. Indeed, resorting to moral arguments is usually perceived to be a sign of lack of realism, idealistic preaching, and/or a sense of moral superiority. Richard Posner’s attacks on moral legal philosophers like Ronald Dworkin illustrates this trend (see e.g. Posner 1997). Any suggestion that a human society is not to one big ‘chicken game’ or ‘prisoners dilemma’, played by perfectly selfish and rational actors is considered an attempt by moralists to impose their values and norms on other people. The mere suggestion that humans may behave ‘morally’, i.e. follow social norms that impose duties, is considered the first step towards attempting to restrict their individual liberty. A free, rational actor is not bound by norms and duties, but is purely determined by selfish utility maximisation. Such maximising behaviour is – so the argument runs –the natural behaviour for any human being in any situation that life has to offer. Gary Becker’s famous piece on how marriage is the result of rational choices about maximising one’s utility is probably one of the most extreme examples (Becker 1974). This view of man – the homo oeconomicus view – started to gain traction after the Second World War in Economics departments in certain universities and most importantly at the University of Chicago (see my related blog post). By the 1980s or 1990s the homo oeconomicus model of man had become dominant among economists and had spread into other fields of the social sciences and into public discourse. From that point onwards, to be taken seriously, any analysis and explanation of human behaviour in any area of life had to be based on the fundamental assumption of selfishness and utility maximisation. Arguing that a social phenomenon could be explained by non-selfish, non-maximising, moral behaviour was at best derided as a flawed analysis that confuses ‘enlightened selfishness’ (the capacity to restrain one’s selfishness in the short-run to increase the ‘pay off’ in the long-run) with moral behaviour, at worst it was considered outright lunacy.

An interesting example of the rejection of ‘morals’ as explanatory category of human behaviour is a paper on the Enron accounting scandal written by the law professor John C. Coffee from Columbia University (Coffee 2003). The paper starts off by virulently arguing against an interpretation of the scandal as a result of a decline in ‘business morality’ among the US business elite. Instead, what happened at Enron (i.e. an accounting fraud at unprecedented levels) should be explained – according to Coffee – by the ‘incentives’ that actors had. Managers, auditors, investment analysts, board members of Enron, all had rational, economic reasons to behave in the way they did, because the ‘incentive structure’ in place meant that behaving in the way maximised their individual utility.

I think this argument is wrong, and Enron – like many other scandals that followed it, including the recent Global Financial Crisis – had indeed everything to do with a moral decline. Coffee might be right that the actors he singles out as being responsible for the Enron scandal – namely what he calls the ‘gatekeepers’ such as auditors and analysts – only acted following their economic incentives. Yet, I will show below that the very fact that economic incentives is all that these actors cared about is precisely the result of a moral decline.

There are two reasons why the explanation based on the notion of moral decline is more convincing then Coffee’s ‘incentives story’: Firstly, the concept of moral decline becomes increasingly plausible based on recent scientific advances in fields such as psychology, sociology, and behavioural economics. Secondly, the notion of ‘moral decline’ allows us to understand the commonalities behind seemingly distinct phenomena such as corporate scandals, the terms of the debate in the current refugee crisis, and election campaigns across the Western world.

Regarding the first point, new empirical research in the areas of sociology, psychology, and even (behavioural) economics points towards the fact that the model of homo oeconomicus, on which Posner’s, Becker’s, Oliver Williamson’s (see below), and many other Chicago-based Nobel Prize Winners’ worldview is based, is wrong….Or at least, it is too limited to capture human nature in its full complexity. Indeed, while people do in certain situations behave in selfish, utility-maximising fashion (and are hence ‘rational’ in an economic sense), they are also capable of altruism and of behaviour that follows a logic of appropriateness (‘do the right thing!’). Moreover, people often act based on interiorised and taken-for-granted ‘rules’ or ‘scripts’ that are not questioned regarding the costs and benefits attached to them. Therefore, rather than being one-dimensional ‘utility maximisers’, people follow a variety of ‘logics of action’, which – moreover – are in complex ways related to emotions.
One of the most sophisticated theories explaining how human behaviour is shaped by a variety of goals comes from the Dutch sociologist Siegwart Lindenberg who developed a theory that conceives of human behaviour as being determined by three competing ‘goals’: norms, material gains, and emotions. According to this theory, rather than being alternative ways of explaining the world, morals and utility-maximisation are two competing but not mutually exclusive sources of human motivation[3].
Bruno Frey’s economic motivation crowding theory confirms this view and provides a nice illustration of this competition between normative (moral) goals and gain goals: The example he gives is that of a parent asking their children to mow the lawn. In all likelihood the kids will do this without resistance, for instance because they feel obliged to obey the parent, because they take pride in being in charge of this task, or because they like the activity as such. Now, if the parent decided one day to pay them for mowing the loan, Frey argues, it would virtually be impossible to get them to do it for free ever again. That’s what he calls the ‘crowding out’ of normative motives or of intrinsic motivation by monetary, extrinsic incentives. It provides a good illustration of how one ‘logic of action’ (doing something out of a feeling of obligation or pleasure) can be displaced by another one (doing it for the money).

This phenomenon is, in my view, the scientific equivalent to what every-day language describes as a ‘moral decline’: people’s behaviours are increasingly guided by an opportunistic, gain-orientated logic and less and less by moral considerations. From this perspective, Coffee’s above-mentioned point that Enron (and similar corporate scandals) was all about incentives – if correct –can itself be seen as the result of a moral decline: What caused the Enron scandal (and Lehman Brothers, RBS, etc. etc.), is precisely a historical change that pushed economic actors to increasingly focus on selfishness and economic utility maximisation and to abandon norms of self-restraint.

The question then becomes, what triggered this moral decline in the first place? Here, Wolfgang Streeck’s analysis of capitalism as a historical phenomenon is useful to consider.
According to Streeck selfish utility maximisation is the behaviour that is both assumed and encourage by core capitalist institutions. Indeed, capitalism is – according to Streeck – a system that legitimises greed (if everyone maximises their own material gain, the common good will be enhanced as a by-product of a multitude of selfish efforts) and institutionalises cynicism (the smart person acts in bad faith and tries to take advantage of rules and of other people). This is reflected in economic theory, which teaches us that people are necessarily behaving in ‘bad faith’, i.e. they will see such rules as a hindrance to their utility maximisation and hence as obstacles to be overcome rather than as morally binding prescriptions to be obeyed (Streeck 2011: 143/4).
The strongest formulation of this ‘bad faith model of man’ is probably captured in Oliver Williamson’s concept of ‘opportunism with guile’
. ‘Opportunism with guile’ is defined as behaviours that consist in ‘lying, stealing, cheating, and calculated efforts to mislead, distort, disguise, obfuscate, or otherwise confuse’ (Williamson’s 1985: 47; quoted in Streeck 2011). In Williamson’s influential Transaction Costs Economics approach, these behaviours are not condemned, however, but considered the default behaviour of any human being. They are hence ‘normal’.
Therefore, Homo oeconomicus, as conceptualised by Williamson, Becker, and others, is the ‘ungovernable man’ who will always try and circumvent the laws that govern him/her in pursuit of his/her own goals (incidentally this rebellious nature of homo oeconomicus is also why Michel Foucault may have had a certain sympathy for this neo-liberal conception of human nature; Lagasnerie 2012, in French).
By declaring anti-social and illegal behaviour normal and natural, this model implies that disobeying the law is not morally condemnable. Crimes are either worth the while (the smart thing to do) or not (a stupid thing to do). The legislator’s task is to design incentive structures through fines and controls that make sure crimes are not worthwhile, not to change or ‘educate’ people by morally condemning certain actions (trying to change ‘human nature’ is both dangerous and futile).

Conversely, ‘sentimentality is not envisaged and is in fact frowned upon, not only as individual stupidity but also a source of a distorted allocation of resources' (Streeck 2011: 146). In this situation a ‘moral deficit’ arises (Streeck 2011: 146) and any argument referring to moral categories and making normative claims is ‘vulnerable to being denounced as an expression of the resentment of losers, or as outdated, unsophisticated, and indeed irrational and 'unscientific'’. According to Streeck (2011) capitalism is the only social order in the history of humanity that is based on such an asocial behavioural assumption. I don’t necessarily share Streeck's pessimistic view that institutionalised cynicism and moral deficits are inevitable features of any brand of capitalism, I certainly agree that they are hallmarks of the currently dominant form of capitalism.

The concept of moral decline is powerful, because it is consistent with recent advances in various fields of study and it allows us to explain a large variety of recent social phenomena. Thus, it explains both the hateful comments against ‘do-gooders’ and the fact that politicians do not have to care about political correctness anymore. We now live in a world where politeness, decency, and self-restraint are perceived as signs of weakness (winners are ‘wolves’, ‘predators’, ‘alpha males’, i.e. bullies), not as a liberating triumph of human reason over our more animalistic inclinations, as Immanuel Kant probably would have argued. The current paradigm reminds one more of Nietzsche’s world view, where the strong does care about social conventions and following norms is an attribute of the slave not the master.

The reason why this evolution is worrying is – at least – twofold: it leads – somewhat paradoxically – to a decline of individual liberty; and it increases intolerance and sectarianism.

1) The war against ‘morals’ is fought in the name of individual liberty and moral relativism (norms and values are incommensurable and none should hence impose their ‘morals’ on anyone else). Paradoxically this has led to a society that limits individual liberty in a much more fundamental and perfidious way than any previous social order. While previous social orders accepted a variety of legitimate logics of action, in the modern world only the rational utility maximising logic is considered legitimate. Anyone deviating from the norm of cost-benefit calculation is either old fashioned, hopelessly idealistic, or simply stupid. We are told that markets – that epitomise the economic logic – increase our individual liberty by increasing our ‘freedom of choice’. At the most fundamental level, however, we do not get to choose anymore at all. This most fundamental level is the choice of the rules and principles by which we want to be governed. The ability to make this fundamental choice of determining the guiding principles that govern our lives constitutes what Immanuel Kant called ‘moral autonomy’. The choices that our ‘brave new world’ provides us with, however, are not of this kind. The logic of action is given as rational utility maximisation. What we get to choose is how to maximise our individual utility, which products we buy, not whether we want to participate in the maximising game in the first place. In my view, this is the greatest decline in individual liberty Western societies have seen in a long time and leads to a situation where liberty – defined following Kant as living according to ones self-imposed principles – is seriously jeopardised.

2) The problem with this evolution, however,  is not just that it leaves us living in a completely cynical world – which cannot be a basis for individuals to live the ‘good life’ that liberals are striving for – but also that this cynical world leaves increasing numbers of people receptive to what could be called a ‘moral backlash’. People are increasingly seeking shelter in what could be called the last bastions of moralism. Unfortunately, these are not enlightened, civic moral institutions anymore, which are necessary for a democratic open society, but increasingly sectarian, exclusionary, and reactionary types of organisations that further undermine a free and democratic society. The most extreme examples in the Western world is the rise of Christian extremism in the US, whose morals are characterised by a large degree of intolerance towards the weakest parts of society (i.e. ethnical minorities, homosexuals, women seeking abortion, immigrants etc.); but arguably even the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere is at least partly a product of this world.

Fortunately, the scientific advances mentioned above do suggest that the fatalistic view of human nature that economic theory will eventually be proven wrong and hence not dominate our societies forever. Indeed, it appears increasingly clearly that people are not invariably selfish and opportunistic, but become so if they are taught that it is acceptable, and indeed the normal way to behave. They can equally well be taught – or ‘nudged’ towards - pro-social behaviours. Selfishness is not an inevitably dominant trait of humans, but a part of human nature that we choose to act on or not. Therefore, what this world needs are more people who reject the purely instrumental rationality we are forced to choose, and embrace maybe not so much the irrational and sentimental, but the moral and take pride in trying to be Gutmenschen.


[1] Some argue that already the Nazis used it to attack people who disagreed with their policies and methods, while others dispute this. What is clear, however, is that the term only became commonly used in the 1980s and 1990s. An interesting article (in German) on the origin of the word is here.

[2] Jon Elster, “Arguing and Bargaining in Two Constituent Assemblies,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 2, no. 2 (2000).

[3] Siegwart Lindenberg, “ Utility and Morality,” Kyklos 36, no. 3 (August, 1983)