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Rhetoric of 'no alternative' in public debates

The Corona crisis has shown us once again how difficult it has become in democratic societies to hold a sensible discussion on a complex issue. The increasing tendency to moralise is particularly problematic. By Professor Christian Thies

The Corona pandemic is affecting us all – in previously unknown ways. From time to time, in the new series 'Passau University Perspectives', researchers at the University of Passau will be taking a view of current developments as seen from their discipline. 

A person who is rich and in good health has a lot to lose. Modern crises these days take place at a higher level of prosperity. Fears of falling a long way down are rife. Anxieties roam the streets.

From that point of view, our modern societies, in all their complexity, have in fact become even more vulnerable. A variant of the safety paradox, with which we are familiar from other contexts, is developing: the safety precautions get higher and higher, but because people's fears of losing it all are so strong, the subjective feeling they have of being threatened also increases, above all in crisis situations. Apocalyptic scenarios rule our attention economy and conspiracy theories do the rounds.

Prof. Dr. Christian Thies

Professor Christian Thies

researches practical philosophy

What can classical philosophy contribute to the digital society?

What can classical philosophy contribute to the digital society?

Professor Christian Thies has been holder of the Teaching Professorship of Philosophy at the University of Passau since 2009. The emphasis in his research is on practical philosophy and, seen historically, in particular classical German philosophy.

How do liberal-democratic societies cope with this? The European crises of the last ten years, the European debt crisis of 2010, the refugee crisis of 2015 and the current Corona crisis provide enough illustrative material for this. My theory is that the public debates were insufficient in all three cases. We must learn to communicate with one another better in such strained situations. Philosophy can help. More about that later on.

The first thing one notices is that there was a very broad consensus in Germany in all three crises. This was seen most clearly in the refugee crisis. There were hardly any voices of dissent at all in the parliaments as regards the actions of the political decision-makers in the autumn of 2015.

This public consensus that there was no alternative to those measures enabled the party known as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to rise, at first as a neo-liberal party opposing the euro rescue measures, and then – having shifted to the right in the political spectrum – as a populist party opposing the refugee policy. As to what consequences the Corona crisis may have for the spectrum of political parties, that is still not clear.

Interplay of three agencies

This discursive union was reached in each case, although some very different protagonists were involved. As I see it, above all in the Corona crisis, there was an unintended interplay of three agencies: the executive, the media and the experts.

The executive always comes to the fore in crises. During the euro crisis the economic decisions made were only legitimised democratically to a very insufficient extent; that was one of the reasons why the catchword 'post-democracy' became popular. During the refugee crisis important decisions were clearly made by just a few people within only a few hours. During the Corona crisis, in the second half of March, there were hardly any critical voices of dissent at all.

Then there are the media, sometimes referred to as the 'fourth estate'. Media achieve their impact via images. In the refugee crisis it was the picture of that dead boy on the beach of a Greek island. More recent evidence of this was the pictures of George Floyd, killed by the police. In the Corona crisis it was pictures from hospitals in Lombardy: "We've got to prevent a situation arising here in Germany in which we have to look at pictures like the ones from Bergamo." I don't know how many times I heard that sentence in the middle of March 2020. But arguments that rely on images – however authentic those images may be – are weak. We are in danger of becoming a democracy of sentiment.

The democracy of sentiment is conducive to the rise of populism. That is not a new phenomenon: the power of rhetoric played a major role in the Attic democracy. On Sunday, Jesus was cheered into Jerusalem, but the following Friday he was executed. In Rome, panem et circenses were a must-have for the people; our football bundesliga corresponds to the horse races in Constantinople. The mass media of the 20th century and the multimedia networks of the 21st accelerate and intensify these trends.

Numbers – as seductive as images

Finally, the experts. They don't argue with images, but with numbers. If numbers were the only things we allowed ourselves to be guided by politically, we would be on the way to a technocracy, which is ruled by the inherent necessities identified by experts. Technocratic designs too can be followed a long way back into history, at least as far back as the technological Utopias of the renaissance.

Numbers are just as seductive as images. Numbers look as though they are objective and incontestable, but they too are constructs. The number of people infected with Corona depends on the test capacities; where there are no tests, noone is infected. Which number counts? The number of people who have died of or with Corona? The reproduction number, the number of new infections, the number of active cases or the number of free beds in intensive care wards? All these numbers need to be put in proportion and interpreted with a view to the whole. There is no way round this interpretation. Moreover, other sciences could cite numbers of a completely different kind. And finally, it should not be forgotten that not everything can be expressed in numbers; the measurable world is only a part of the whole.

In a democracy there have to be images and numbers. The politicians of sentiment and the experts have to be able to express themselves in the public media, not only for reasons of the freedom of communication, but also in accordance with the criteria of balanced and circumspect reporting. But there can be no doubts that the political decisions must be made at a different place, i.e. primarily in parliament, with its democratic legitimation.

However, according to my theory, in all three major crises of the past decade that very parliament was one of the things most certain to retreat into the background. And as I see it, all three agencies have contributed to this: the executive leapfrogs the legislative assembly. The democracy of sentiment generates collective emotions, and these are fostered by the multimedia networks. Technocracy leads to action according to inherent necessities. That fits in with the phrase 'no alternative', often heard in all three crises. At certain times in the Corona crisis, representatives of the executive have sounded as if the government had to watch over the people like some old headmaster over his pubescent pupils.

Short circuits thanks to moralising

I have another point of criticism, and it concerns both the parliamentary debates and the public media discussions: for many years, according to my theory, there has been an ambivalent trend in Germany. On the one hand, the binding of politics to normative principles is, rightly, more heavily emphasised than it used to be, and more than it is elsewhere; no one pleads in favour of Machiavellianism any more, not even in foreign politics. On the other, that leads to a tabooing of topics, a sacralisation (canonisation) of values and an absolutisation of decisions. There is no more open discussion of some issues, although it is not actually prohibited at all; some values are viewed as sacred, although noone can decree that this should be so; some political decisions are regarded as irrevocable.

The increasing tendency to moralise is particularly problematic. It may seem surprising that I, as a moral philosopher, reject moralising, but perhaps a moral philosopher is in a better position to see the difference between moral arguments and moralising absolutisations. Moralising, I believe, is one of the causes of this 'contamination' of the public debates.

Moral arguments and moralising differ in two respects. Moralising derives instructions to act directly from sacralised normative principles such as human dignity. Moral, or rather normative discourses, on the other hand, are complex. In philosophy a distinction is often made today between the three levels of dicussion: the ideal, the non-ideal and the political-strategic. The moralisers do not accept such gradations; they say that something must follow directly from the principles. That is why people who moralise tend to short-circuit.

Arguments against people

The second difference is that moral arguments are directed against other arguments. The object of their critical examination is actions, norms or institutions, perhaps also (in classical virtue ethics) traits of character, but not people. Reference to a 'good' or 'bad' person is alien to philosophical ethics. Not so with moralising: moralising is aimed directly at other people and attributes a bad character to them; the arguments are ad personam. That is easy, because the other person is alleged to have infringed against the values which are more or less canonised.

This doesn't even have to be a matter of human dignity or life. Relatively concrete political objectives are absolutised too: the process of European unification, the uptake, if possible, of all refugees ('no upper limit'), and life-saving measures in the light of the Corona virus. In some political discussions certain comparisons are even forbidden: one is not allowed to mention Nazis in the same breath as Bolsheviks, Israel in the same breath as the South African apartheid regime or COVID-19 in the same breath as influenza.

In all three of the major crises of the past decade, people were eager to designate political opponents of European unification as reactionary nationalists, intellectual opponents of Merkel's refugee policy as right-wing radicals and the opponents of the general Corona policy as malicious, and thus exclude them from the discourses.

Please note that supporting the arguments of the positions referred to here is not what I am trying to do. But in a pluralistic society we need open discussions, in which the principle of tolerance has a high value. Tolerance means that other opinions are deemed admissible, in spite of the fact that one does not actually agree with them. But if people moralise all the time, those who advocate other attitudes are depicted as bad people. From there, it's only a short step to shitstorms and death threats.

The Greek philosopher Socrates showed how we can get talking in a different way: he held controversial talks in the marketplace with more or less prominent friends and contemporaries who had vastly differing attitudes. Ironically, indeed provocatively, he asked them about their opinions on important issues in life and sought the best reasons for his own actions.

That seems to me to be a good model for the role of the philosophers in the political consciousness of today: as a critical authority, a sharp thorn, or an annoying insect.   

Do you have any questions or ideas on this article? Are you a scientist at the University of Passau who would like to tell us how you see things from the point of view of your discipline? Write to us at : perspektiven@uni-passau.de