Moral narcissism

I call it moral narcissism: the tendency to think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather in terms of their consequences for others. I argued in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that German foreign policy debates, for example about the Kosovo and Iraq wars, tend to be narcissistic in this way – they focused, it seems to me, on German identity rather than on the fate of the people in the places where the crises were happening. So I was interested to see that my colleague José Ignacio Torreblanca made a similar point – but in Weberian terms – about Germany’s response to the euro crisis in an op-ed in the FT recently. He suggested that current German foreign policy was gesinnungsethisch rather than verantwortungsethisch – that is, it is based on Max Weber’s concept of an “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right – regardless of the effects.

If German foreign policy tends to be narcisisstic, it seems to me that we all tend to approach certain foreign policy issues – above all the Middle East – in a narcissistic way. The Middle East tends to be what the Germans call a Projektionsfläche, or projection screen, onto which we project our own collective memories. Thus, I would argue, Germans tend to look at the Israeli-Palestinian issue through the prism of the Nazi past (e.g. comparisons between Israelis and Nazis); Britons, on the other hand, tend to look at it through the prism of our own colonial history (e.g. comparisons between Israel and apartheid in South Africa, which it seems to me are particularly prevalent in Britain). Unsurprisingly, Germans’ attitudes to the Middle East can be particularly narcissistic. For example, according to an attitude survey published last week, 57 per cent of Germans think “Israel is conducting a war of extermination [Vernichtungskrieg] against the Palestinians” – surely a classic example of what Dan Diner has called “exonerating projection”.

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5 thoughts on “Moral narcissism

  1. Pingback: Germany’s economic narcissism « Hans Kundnani

  2. Pingback: D-Day The Sixth Of June | Witch's Will

  3. Very astute…I could not agree more.Thank you for sharing your clarity on this very troubling situation with the Middle East. I have struggled with understanding why Europeans and Americans on the left are demonizing Israel and the Jews when the history of the Holocaust is still so fresh and recent…this sheds light.

    • Sure there are some Americans (on both sides of the aisle) that demonize Israel. But this is more the exception than the rule.The lines of demarcation that were instituted by non-middle easterners have faded over time and Israel has grabbed Palestinian land in a “manifest destiny” style since the early 50’s.

      A royal commission was appointed in Britain in 1936 to investigate the Palestine situation. The Peel Commission recommended the partition of the country between Arabs and Jews (sound familiar? this was the solution to unrest applied to many former British colonial governments). It’s easier to push ones agenda when you divide and conquer (Sun Tzu knew this millennia before the Europeans perfected it during their colonial eras). The Arabs rejected the idea while the Jews accepted the principle of partition.

      The question(s) to ask is why did the Arabs reject the idea, and why weren’t they more involved and allowed to voice their concerns at the table?

      Another question I ask myself is why is Israel America’s bedfellow? It’s almost as if America’s can eat proverbial pie, and Israel then burps and belches in satisfaction. Why do they seem tied at the hip so to speak?

  4. “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right – regardless of the effects.

    This describes quite clearly and accurately the argument surrounding the second amendment and firearms posession generally in the US. Both the left and the right are consumed with being right rather than being responisble. The concept of moral narcissism is not confined to Germany!

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