Sperling’s Reasons of Conscience

Reasons of Conscience:
The Bioethics Debate in Germany

University of Chicago Press, 2013, 344 pages

by Stefan Sperling

Sperling’s Reasons of Conscience is an ethnographic study of two German Bioethics commissions – the Enquete Kommission and the Nationaler Ethikrat. His particular focus is on the way that the national, political and cultural context influences the democratic and bureaucratic processes involved in the production of bioethical regulations. These influences can be summarized in terms of the Kantian moral character of German culture, the structural and procedural transparency of German politics, and the enduring legacy of the Holocaust in the ethico-political imaginary of the German nationstate. This latter influence can be contrasted with the distinct absence of influence that, Sperling suggests, can be accorded to the former GDR (East German) in the political life of a post-reunification Germany. Whilst this absence of influence is interesting, the very fact it is an absence makes this section of the book its least relevant part. Consequentially my review focuses on the importance Sperling accords to transparency, Kant, and the Holocaust in the bioethical discourses of the German nation-state.

In his pretext Sperling discusses various aspects of German cultural life that can be read as supporting his main thesis: that the principle of transparency that informs German political life produces a concomitant responsibility on the part of citizens–they must be politically literate. This means that, in the context of specific debates or policy-making processes, citizens must be given the opportunity to acquire the relevant literacies. As with the 19 Articles of Basic Law, etched into glass plates and on public display near the Reichstag in Berlin, transparency is not aperspectival. Political transparency does not result in the practices of government being comprehensible from anywhere and everywhere, it does not result from the simple removal of opacity or obstacles to our vision, rather it requires the observer to look from a particular vantage point and to engage actively in the task of perception. Thus, Sperling argues that public meetings – or ‘citizen conferences’ – are not simply occasions at which the ethics commissions could present their work nor are they fora for collecting the views of ‘the public.’ Rather they are occasions for the performance of democracy and the creation of citizens. In order that the public might fully appreciate and understand the issues at hand they needed to be educated, something that is achieved by exposure to experts in a democratic context, at least in part.

In this way the issues addressed, and the development of the commissions’ views, are rendered transparent through their engagement with a process of public reasoning. The idea and ideal of ‘public reason’ is a vital, and Kantian, part of German culture and politics. However, it is important to note what is meant by its counterpart: ‘private reason.’ This is not to be understood as the reason one uses in one’s private or ‘non-public’ life, but is the reasoning one uses when ‘under orders’ or when one is in some way carrying out a mandated action or activity (p.157). Private reason is what is used when one acts or is commissioned to act on behalf of a collective, particularly the state but also other organizations whose perspective, framework or world-view is accepted and adopted by its delegates, those who join and work for such organizations. The primary example of this are the Beamte, German civil servants who, on condition of giving up some of their liberties and constitutional rights, including the right to engage actively in political organizations (p.162), collectively embody the state and its infrastructure. In aligning themselves with the private reason of the state there is a sense in which the Beamte are required to set their own moral conscience to one side in favor of acting in accordance with the bureaucratic and procedural dictates of the collective hierarchy. This same requirement is placed on those who worked for the commissions. Their personal views were to be considered subordinate to the task delegated to them and the processes through which they were to carry it out. Thus Kantian ideals result in a compartmentalisation and division of labor where the private reasons of the state and its organs structure the way it makes use of public reason and, therefore, the kind of public reasoning it is capable of recognizing.

Depending on one’s perspective such arguments – that the politics of transparency engenders a particular co-constitution of citizen and democracy and the private reason of the state limits the recognition it can offer to the public reason of the polity – can lead one to despair or to rejoice. If one has faith in democratic proceduralism and the arrangements that have been made for it, then one will be confident in the ability of bioethics commissions to not only get to the heart of the matters they address but to resolve them in a laudable manner. If one is more sceptical about the Kantian moral project, and Habermas’ ethico-political reconstruction, then concerns will remain. Given that most do not hold one or the other of these positions but, instead, accord the state both confidence and concern, then we might take the Holocaust as representative of the ambivalence we, and not just Germany, have in regards the role of procedure in the political philosophy of modernity. On the one hand we are enjoined not to forget, to never again let such a thing happen and to see the products of procedure – such as the conclusions of the ethics commissions studied by Sperling and, one might add, the moral notion and legal actuality of universal human rights – as ensuring it never can. However, pace Bauman’s (1989) analysis, we cannot but acknowledge that it was this same proceduralism, and the associated division of labor embedded in the distinction between public/ private reason, that not only set the conditions for the Holocaust but, ultimately, facilitated its conduct. Thus when Sperling suggest that remembering the Holocaust, and a desire to ‘learn its lessons,’ plays a significant role in Germany’s bioethical debates, it cannot be because such a thing could never again happen. It must be because it very well could. Modernity does not merely have ends, it has an end. It is a project to be completed or perfected and, as such, it is imbued with an idea of finality. Just as in Kant we have the Kingdom of Ends so in Nazi Germany we had the Final Solution. And were the ends of The Enlightenment to be achieved we would find ourselves at the end of history. Whilst were are attracted to such utopias because we consider them morally superior to contemporary society it is not clear that there is a path we can take to reach such places, or that any such path could be ethically traversed. Thus we must remain ambivalent about what the politics of transparency has to offer. Sperling’s ethnographic experience and analysis leads him to conclude that:

“The State displays itself with the goal of making its transparent workings open to critique, but with the purpose that citizens understand, and adopt its governing logic. … The transparency of government acts to shut down alternative readings.” (p.280)

Whilst transparency is designed to make critique possible, the structural arrangements it requires means that perspectives that do not adopt the governing logic are delegitimized. An unavoidable consequence of bureaucracy, a form of government named for a piece of office furniture (Kafka 2012:77), is a dehumanising rationalisation of life and experience. The realities and practices of government are not neutral with respect to the governed, citizens are not born, but made, and Sperling’s analysis of bioethical regulation in the making offers a compelling illumination of the democratic process.

Nathan Emmerich is Visiting Research Fellow, School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast.


Works Cited

Bauman, Z. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge, UK. Polity.

Kafka, B. 2012. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Papwerwork. Zone Books.