From The Economist:
The phrases “ethic of conviction” and “ethic of responsibility” mean little to most English-speakers. In Germany the equivalent terms—Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik—are household words. Pundits drop them casually during television talk shows. Hosts use them as conversation-starters at dinner parties. The concepts draw on the opposition between idealism and pragmatism that runs through politics everywhere. But they also capture a specific moral tension that is “very German”, says Manfred Güllner, a sociologist and pollster. Anyone interested in understanding German politics, on anything from the euro to refugees, would do well to get a handle on them.
The terms come from the sociologist Max Weber, who used them in a speech he gave in January 1919 to a group of leftist students at a Munich bookstore. Germany had just lost the first world war. The Kaiser had abdicated, the country was in the throes of revolution and Munich was about to become the capital of a short-lived “Bavarian Soviet Republic”. Armed with only eight index cards, Weber gave a talk that would become a classic of political science. (“Politics as a Vocation” was published in English only after the second world war.) The lecture ranged broadly through history, but its main purpose was to curb the Utopian romanticism then gripping the ideologues fighting over the direction of the new Germany, including those sitting in front of him.
Weber described an “abysmal opposition” between two types of ethics.