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Legal does not mean morally right

March 3, 2012

German news are full of ex-president* Christian Wulff again. This time it’s about his pension. The Presidential Administration Office (or however you translate “Bundespräsidialamt“) has decided he should recieve the presidential pension of approximately 199 000 Euro/year. Most people think this is an outrage; he was president for 20 months only, and the reason he quit was that too many accusations of bribery were coming his way. (He’s under criminal investigation at the moment.) According to the law, a president who leaves office before the end of his term is to recieve the pension if he leaves for political or health reasons, but not otherwise. And Bundespräsidialamt has decided that Wulff’s reasons to quit were political. As they write in their decision: “Es waren objektive Umstände für eine erhebliche und dauerhafte Beeinträchtigung der Amtsausübung gegeben“, or in English, there were objective circumstances limiting the exercise of the office in a substantial and lasting way (my translation). Yeah. That’s what Wulff himself said when he quit, too. “I can’t do my job properly with all you people mistrusting me all the time!” (My paraphrase.)

Parlamentarian Norbert Barthle (conservative) defended the decision on German TV news. “So wie ich die Entscheidung des Bundespräsidialamtes einschätzen kann, ist die auf Grundlagen der gesetzlichen Bestimmungen erfolgt, und damit auch rechtens”, he says around the eight-minute-mark in this video. Or, in my translation to English, “as I understand it, the decision of the Presidential Administration Office has been made on the basis of legal regulation. Because of that, the decision is also morally right.”

I’m quite sure he means “morally right”. The German word “rechtens” translates both as “legally” and as “rightly”. Had he only said “die Entscheidung ist rechtens getroffen”, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt and assumed that he meant “the decision is the legally correct one”. Like in this Spiegel headline: they likely aren’t saying anything about the moral of the situation, at least not in the headline. Journalistic objectivity and all that. But as for Barthle, he already said that it was legal, in the previous clause! And the words he uses before “rechtens”: “damit” meaning “because of that” doesn’t preclude the usage of “rechtens” as “legally”, but it makes it quite unlikely. What idiot would stand there in front of the camera and say “the decision was made according to the law, and is therefore legal”? What really clinches it, of course, is the “auch” = “also”. He is definitely introducing a new concept. He really thinks that everything that is legal is morally right. Ouch.

And now I’m losing according to Godwin’s law again, but I just have to repeat myself. This in Germany, of all places! Where 70 years ago, it was legal to kill certain ethnicities, and illegal to protect them!

To take a less loaded example: cheating on your spouse is legal in Germany, but that doesn’t make it morally right. Only I’m afraid that if I could somehow confront Barthle with that example, he would demand that cheating be made illegal…

* According to the German constitution, the president is the formal head-of-state but doesn’t really have any political power, similar to the Swedish king or British queen. The actual power belongs to the chancellor.

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