Human Dignity in Times of Change

Ours is a time of massive change and upheaval. The current pandemic is causing social disruption and existential crises. On top of that, digitalization is advancing rapidly, and climate change is becoming more and more noticeable. How can we protect and strengthen human qualities to continue to create a life worth living? This is the topic of our conversation with Dr. Christof Bosch, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, grandson of entrepreneur and founder Robert Bosch.

Karin Heinlein | January 2021
Porträt Christof Bosch
Björn Hänssler

“There is a strong movement toward taking global responsibility – despite all the setbacks,” says Christof Bosch.

The current situation is challenging for humankind on so many levels. How are you personally experiencing this time?

I am very fortunate to have a healthy family and to live in the countryside, where pandemic-related restrictions are not much of a burden. At the same time, I feel the intense force of change that has rather suddenly reached our societies here in Central Europe. Before, difficult issues often felt far removed – be it pandemics or the effects of climate change – which allowed many people to ignore the fact that our global civilization of seven billion people does not yet live sustainably. Now we are seeing great uncertainty, which manifests itself in polarization, frantic action, or apathy.

You are a shareholder and member of the supervisory board of the Bosch Group as well as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. How does the accelerated pace of change impact your views of the company and the Foundation? 

As the representative of the Bosch family, my focus is primarily on the connection between the old and the new, and on our values. In light of the dramatic changes we are currently experiencing, I think it is important to distinguish which values are merely habits and which are timeless. I believe the long-lasting success of the Bosch company and Foundation has a lot to do with sensible, timeless values, such as decency and respect – toward others, toward nature, and toward truth. 

The current situation has led to a feeling of uncertainty among many people. What would you tell them? 

I can relate to the feeling. For humankind in general, living in existential uncertainty isn’t anything new. But in Central Europe in particular, we have experienced a long phase of relative stability, and this massive change is hitting us hard. It helps to consciously ask ourselves: What exactly makes me feel anxious in the current situation? What are my real risks and possible courses of action? The more secure we feel within ourselves, the easier it is to deal with the actual uncertainty of our time.

Portrait Robert Bosch
Robert Bosch GmbH, Historical Communication

Entrepreneur and founder Robert Bosch.

“Be human and respect human dignity” is one of your grandfather’s most famous quotes. What idea of humankind is it based on? And what does it mean for us today? 

“Human dignity” has become a key concept since the Enlightenment, because we can no longer derive the meaning of being human from religion. It allows us to express, in a rational way, that human beings have a unique value – a value that is based on our consciousness, our self-responsibility, and our freedom of choice. My grandfather had a strong love of freedom, and at the same time he cared a lot about impartiality. His “realistic idealism” could best be illustrated with the principle of human dignity. That’s why the quote mattered so much to him. 

Even though human dignity shall be inviolable, as it says in Germany's Basic Law, it sometimes doesn't seem to be worth much on social media. How do you explain this phenomenon? 

Online anonymity and a feeling of “what needs to be said” among like-minded people removes the socially accepted barriers that make us behave responsibly in real life. This makes having an inner moral compass, the values of decency and respect, even more important. However, this requires a level of maturity we must all acquire first. Instead, people tend to simply vent emotions, much to the detriment of all. 

How do people and their human qualities fit into the digital world?

The digital space offers unlimited possibilities. In this way, it resembles human consciousness. However, information bits alone cannot help us distinguish between facts and fiction and therefore, “alternative facts” can spread just like real facts. This means people themselves have to choose truth as their guideline and ask what is really true. They must also decide which digital developments are beneficial to humankind and learn to apply these in a way that serves us all. This is also what the Bosch motto “Invented for Life” refers to. Of course, this requires an inner clarity that prevents us from being carried away by digital possibilities.

Long-lasting success has a lot to do with sensible, timeless values, such as decency and respect.

What should each of us and society as a whole do to ensure dignified life in the future? 

We must learn to better understand ourselves, our motives, our needs, and our fears. This is essential to better understand other people and cultures as well – which is crucial for building a sustainable global civilization. No government can force such a thing into existence; it requires people to work together by choice. Humans are social beings – so we are indeed capable of this kind of cooperation. But it also means we need to be mature enough to solve our inner conflicts ourselves, instead of using them to fuel social conflicts, which ultimately makes them unsolvable. 

How did you answer this for yourself? 

I have learned that we need to get to know our inner world just the way we learned to find our way around the external world when we were young. But how do you gain clarity about your innermost being? My personal journey led me to a spiritual school, the Ridhwan School, which teaches enlightened interfaith spirituality and is deeply interested in the mystery of human consciousness and the human soul. For several years now, I have also served there as a part-time teacher. 

So you are an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and a spiritual person all at the same time. How do you bring these three worlds together? 

I don’t need to bring these worlds together – they are already one! The separation into inner and outer reality is an illusion. Though admittedly, this can be hard to see, as our upbringing and education are not designed to support this view. And yet, all people are looking for deep experiences that reach their innermost selves – be it in nature, sports, fulfilling work, arts, or human relationships. 

The current crisis will pass, but change will continue. What do you hope for? What can we hope for? 

I agree with what the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant said: If hope goes hand in hand with knowledge and action, we will be able to grow in the face of the current challenge. This is a chance to understand that all of global humankind is in the same boat, that problems can only be solved together. There is a strong movement toward taking global responsibility – despite all the setbacks. I am convinced that we can join hands to continue to learn, see what is right, and act accordingly.