Social ethics

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Under social ethics (rare company ethics ) refers to the parts of the applied ethics , dealing with the social order and the social conditions of a good life deal. It is differentiated from individual ethics .

The most important expression is Christian social ethics . As theological ethics , it is either to be regarded as a branch of moral theology or stands next to it. There are close ties to political philosophy . Outside of Christian social ethics, there are scientific reflections on normative guidelines and objectives of social behavior in social philosophy as well as in social , political and economic theory .


Social ethics examines the position of the individual in society and asks about values (such as freedom , tolerance , justice or sustainability ), the right structures for social institutions (such as law, economy, business ethics, work, marriage, family, migration, culture, media or the health system), fair wages and the implementation of these issues in politics. It is related to moral practice, whereby only persons in the morally relevant sense can perform actions.

Social ethics is not about the actions of individuals, but about solidarity , subsidiarity and cooperation between responsible persons from different social areas. This will often only take place in a targeted manner when the public has been made aware of certain questions and sensitized to a certain subject (e.g. questions of environmental ethics ). The social in the proper sense presupposes a certain constancy. One speaks here of institutionalization insofar as it is about supra-individual commonalities which, in contrast to spontaneous and temporary acts of individuals, have a certain duration in temporal and spatial perspective.

Viktor Cathrein took the view that ethics is aimed directly at individuals and only indirectly or indirectly at society. Ethics should therefore be understood essentially as individual ethics. Arthur F. Utz , on the other hand, pointed out that social ethics was independent from individual ethics, both of which he derived from "personal ethics". The social ethical is always given "where between two or more people a superordinate unity is understood, in which no longer this or that in its separate relationship to one's own goal, but rather both together as a whole." Pursue completely separate purposes, since otherwise it would act senselessly, which is why Utz in a certain way grants social ethics a priority over individual ethics.


The term social ethics emerged in the context of social change processes in the 19th century and was first introduced by Alexander von Oettingen . He wanted to establish a new form of ethics, which should be an "inductive-numerical empirical science" of the "moral laws of motion".

While Oettingen's approach is primarily received by Protestant social conservatives, Catholicism is based on the “social doctrine” of the church. By neo-scholastic ethicists, principles of a “Christian society” were derived from “natural law”: “personal dignity”, solidarity, subsidiarity and social responsibility of private property.

Some Protestant theologians such as Christian Palmer and Franz Hermann Reinhold Frank reject the term social ethics because it is not social institutions (church, state, nation) but only the "individual" that can be considered a moral subject.

With the growing differentiation of society, socio-ethical concepts were increasingly given a unifying function. Social ethics is establishing itself as a discipline that is equivalent to individual and personal ethics. Since the Kulturkampf , it has been linked to competing socio-political concepts. The German Society for Ethical Culture , founded in 1892 , moral philosophers from the area of ​​Marburg Neo-Kantianism and sociologists such as Ferdinand Tönnies and Georg Simmel use the term social ethics for a moral criticism of the prevailing conditions, which, from their point of view, are shaped too much by economic factors.

In 1912, Ernst Troeltsch , in his work The Social Teachings of Christian Churches and Groups (1912), denies the possibility of deriving binding standards for the order of society from Christian tradition and of mastering the crises of modernity through a religiously inspired social reform. With this he started an intense debate, but with his skeptical view he was unable to assert himself in Protestant theology.

In the 1920s and 1930s, “social ethics” became the term used in broad Protestant circles to fight liberal individualism and “atomistic” concepts of society. This is also reflected in the controversies led by Karl Barth and Paul Althaus about the justification of social ethics through the Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms and the Reformed doctrine of the "royal rule of Jesus Christ". Heinz-Dietrich Wendland demands that social ethics be converted into a “social theology” which derives its own “social principle” from faith and declares the “ community of saints ” ( Communio sanctorum ) to be a binding model of political communalization.

Since 1945, in the theology of both denominations, approaches to making social ethics independent from a discipline have been increasingly evident. Reinhold Seeberg founded his own institute for social ethics at Berlin University in 1927 , which was followed by others. In addition, separate chairs for social ethics and social teaching will be set up. This also corresponds to the political needs of both major churches, which try to influence political decision-making processes and the moral culture of society through papal encyclicals and memoranda. The growing weight of social ethics was also strengthened after 1945 by the ecumenical movement.

Johannes Messner , Oswald von Nell-Breuning , Joseph Höffner , Anton Rauscher , Alfred Klose and Friedhelm Hengsbach are considered to be important representatives of current debates . A modern interpretation of social ethics is also provided by the “ economic ethics ” of the regulatory -oriented school of Ingo Pies and Karl Homann .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Andreas Lienkamp : Systematic introduction to Christian social ethics , in: F. Furger et al. (Ed.): Introduction to social ethics , Münster 1996, pp. 44–45
  2. ^ Ernst-Ulrich Huster: Social ethics , in: Hans Jörg Sandkühler (Ed.): Encyclopedia Philosophy . 2nd, revised and expanded edition. Meiner, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-7873-1999-2 , Vol. 3
  3. ^ Arthur F. Utz: Social ethics. Part 1: The principles of social theory (1958), Heidelberg et al. 2nd ed. 1964, pp. 85–89 (here p. 87)
  4. Alexander von Oettingen: lateral thinkers and charismatics in Protestantism of the empire. - Chapter 1, FU Berlin ;
    For a further history of the term cf. Friedrich Wilhelm Graf: Social ethics , in Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Vol. 9, Schwabe, Basel 1995, pp. 1134–1138
  5. Alexander von Oettingen: The moral statistics and the Christian moral doctrine. An attempt at social ethics on an empirical basis 1: The moral statistics. Inductive proof of the regularity of the moral movement of life in the human organism (1868)
  6. ^ Theodor Meyer: The worker question and the Christian-ethical social principles (1895); Heinrich Pesch: Liberalism, Socialism and the Christian Social Order (1891)
  7. Christian Palmer: Review of: Alexander von Oettingen: Die Moralstatistik der Christian Sittenlehre 1 (1868). Yearbooks for German Theology 14 (1869) 372–378; Franz Hermann Reinhold Frank: Ueber Socialethik , in: Journal for Protestantism and Church NF 60 (1870) 75-109.
  8. ^ Ferdinand Tönnies: Community and Society - Basic Concepts of Pure Sociology (8th edition 1935, ND 1979).
  9. Georg Simmel: Comments on social-ethical problems . Quarterly journal of scientific philosophy 12 (1888), pp. 32–49, in: H.-J. Dahme (Ed.): Gesamtausgabe 2 (1989), pp. 20-36.
  10. ^ Paul Althaus: Religious Socialism. Basic questions of Christian social ethics (1921); Karl Barth: Basic questions of Christian social ethics - discussion with Paul Althaus (1922), in: H. Finze (Ed.): Lectures and small works 1922-25 (1990), pp. 39-57
  11. Heinz Dietrich Wendland: On the foundation of Christian social ethics , in: Journal for systematic theology 7 (1929), pp. 22–56
  12. Homann, Karl / Pies, Ingo (1994a): “Business ethics in the modern age. On the economic theory of morality. ”In: Ethics and Social Sciences , Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 1–13 and Homann, Karl / Pies, Ingo (1994): “How is business ethics possible in modern times? On the theory-building strategy of modern business ethics. ”In: Ethics and Social Sciences , Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 93-108. Furthermore Petrick, Martin / Pies, Ingo (2007): “In search for rules that secure gains from cooperation. The heuristic value of social dilemmas for normative institutional economics ", in: European Journal of Law and Economics , Vol. 23, pp. 251-271.