Three dead Germans

by | Jul 8, 2024 | 0 comments

Three dead Germans. And a living one. 

Ideas about effective, sustainable actions

By Huib Wursten & Fernando Lanzer

The conclusion of a previous blog was that despite the different values and ways of thinking all over the world, there is a need for all of Humanity to cope jointly with certain enormous global challenges that have become part of our reality. The new narrative should be that we are in it together. (1)

Change dynamics needs to be framed according to what Lanzer has called The Change Triangle: identifying and describing where we are, agreeing on a description of a desired state or where we want to go, and then forming consensus on concrete actions or how to get there in order to bridge the gaps. (2) This frame can be applied to changes large and small: it can be used for personal change, and equally for changing large social systems as teams, organizations, communities, nations and the world as a whole.

The larger the systems that you want to change, the more difficult it will be to change them. Huge and instant transformational change does not happen outside of Harry Potter books. As Herbert Shepard said in his classic set of Rules of Thumb for Change Agents: “Start where the system is”! And go forward lighting many fires and taking small incremental steps. (3) If we want our actions to be acceptable and effective, they should take the shape of incrementalism.

To develop sustainable solutions (the how), we need to build bridges between diverse ideas (when we describe the now and where we want to go). To build bridges, there should be more awareness of where the shorelines are. Cultural and personality characteristics gravitationally influence what is considered right and wrong. To go ahead, the consequences of these differences should be acknowledged and accepted, since they affect all three angles of change dynamics.

This is not easy at all

Several philosophers have engaged with the question of what constitutes morally correct action.

Three dead German philosophers can help us here. A living one has provided solutions in the context of sustainability.


A famous answer to the issue of taking action was given by Immanuel Kant with his categorical imperative“Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time want it to become a general law.“

The criticism is that this maxim assumes that we all think the same way. It assumes that everyone would come to the same conclusions about what should become a general law and what should be done.

However, people involved in empirical studies of culture, like Geert Hofstede, showed that there is no common idea of what is good or bad across cultures.

What is necessary for effective actions is the correction of abstract ideals by real-life consequential analysis. (4)

Max Weber

Ther second dead German is Max Weber.

In his book Politik als Beruf, Max Weber introduced his famous distinction between two types of ethics:

The Ethics of conviction: people act according to principles and tend to disregard potential consequences.

The Ethics of Responsibility: people leave aside principles and act according to what they believe will be the likely consequences of those actions.

In the ethics of conviction, one is bound solely to do the morally correct action

If one guides one’s action by an ethics of responsibility, one “… must answer for the foreseeable consequences of [one’s] actions”.

Both poles are important. Values can reduce the complexity of today’s world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a framework here.

The Weber” pole “conviction” is to be used in that way. The “responsibility” focus is, however, a necessary second step. So, as an example,  Angela Merkel’s statement “Wir schaffen das” is a morally just value statement. However, to avoid some of the possibly negative practical consequences, a necessary second step, according to Weber’s framework, is an analysis of the influence on social cohesion and hate crimes.


Applying Hegel’s conceptual framework to describe the choices to be made in a world full of value diversity goes a step further.

Frequently, Hegel is confused with another philosopher of his time, Fichte, who described change dynamics in the formula thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

Hegel’s terms, however, were Abstract-Negative-Concrete.

The formula abstract-negative-concrete implies that any initial principle has flaws or incompleteness. It is too abstract and lacks experience of how it works. 

For Hegel, the concrete must always pass through a reality check.

According to Hegel, “truth emerges from error” during historical development. In previous blogs, the policy advice of this three-step sequence has been labeled as “the need for incrementalism.”

Applying this to global developments provides a narrative that prevents polarization.   

And a living one 

Christina Röttgers, a German philosopher, addressed some of these issues in a recent paper in the Culture Impact Journal: “How to take responsibility in today’s world: What does it mean for the individual, group, and global society? Looking for a multidisciplinary answer.”

The article aims to present practical avenues for addressing the perceived dilemma of feeling responsible yet powerless and to provide tentative answers to the pressing question that resonates with all responsible individuals: What can we do?

Rǒttgers writes that, with the rising importance of intercultural theories, thinkers need to switch from the pursuit of a last undeniable truth about the right acting to embracing the relativity of all values andpromoting understanding of different ways of thinking. 

Hence, the follow-up question to the earlier mentioned Hofstede statement is “How”.  

How to act together despite thinking differently.

Rǒttgers highlights the increased complexity and disparity between the world individuals can influence or impact, the so-called Wirkwelt (world of impact) and the world individuals perceive, the Merkwelt (world of perception) (Husserl, 1936). These two worlds used to be almost congruent for the longest time in history. The news our ancestors received were usually ones they could act on or deal with directly. Nowadays though, all information is available almost instantly and the challenge is to choose the information we want to receive as it has become impossible to deal with all available information. At the same time, our zone of influence is usually much smaller than the zone where we can take effect (figure 1). We are, for example, informed about developments in the world far out of our personal reach. This means that we perceive much more than we are capable of having impact on; and that is what creates in some individuals a feeling of being overwhelmed, powerless or helpless.

In answering this dilemma, Röttgers points at philosopher Hans Jonas in his 1979 book Das Prinzip Verantwortung (The Principle of Responsibility); it represented a switch from older ideas of ethics, solely focusing on the individual and being anthropocentric, to focusing on the impact of ideas on Humanity and its technological developments.

His imperative reads:

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of real human life on earth.”

This includes the idea of sustainability of our actions within our personal responsibility. Is this workable within the complexity of modern global dynamics? Rǒttgers’ answer to that question was:“Our personal responsibility might not be to solve all the problems, but addressing one issue by every individual would already be a huge step forward. A conclusion for individuals could be to strive to make a difference within their sphere of influence, their Wirkwelt, where they can exert tangible impact. It’s advisable to concentrate on one problem or issue that resonates most with us, rather than attempting to address too many at once. If every individual embraces this approach, collectively, we can make a significant impact.”

The conclusion as formulated by Röttgers: 

“Leadership is taking responsibility for your own world,” Karen and Henry Kimsey-House say. “Let‘s all be leaders.”


  • One of the three essential stances of true leadership, according to Erik van Praag: “We are in it together; here is my vision; and I will be honest with you.”
  • Shepard’s rules are still a reference for change agents, even 50 years after they were written.
  • Reznal Odnanref has further synthesized this approach as Now, Go and How.
  • Na prática, a teoria é outra. In practice, theory is different (Brazilian popular saying).


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