Political ethics

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

Political ethics (also known as political morality or public ethics) is the practice of making moral judgements about political action and political agents.[1] It covers two areas. The first is the ethics of process (or the ethics of office), which deals with public officials and the methods they use.[2] The second area, the ethics of policy (or ethics and public policy) concerns judgments about policies and laws.[3]

Ethics of process

The Italian Niccolò Machiavelli is heralded as the founding father of the political ethics.[4] He believed that a political leader may be required to commit acts that would be wrong if done by private. In contemporary democracies, this idea has been reframed as the problem of dirty hands, described most influentially by Michael Walzer, who argues that the problem creates a paradox: the politician must sometimes do “wrong to do right”.[5] The politician uses violence to prevent greater violence, but his act is still wrong even if justified. Walzer’s view has been criticized.[6] Some critics object that either the politician is justified or not. If justified, there is nothing wrong, though he may feel guilty. Others say that some of the acts of violence that Walzer would allow are never justified, no matter what the ends. Dennis Thompson has argued that in a democracy citizens should hold the leader responsible, and therefore if the act is unjustified their hands are dirty too.[7] He also shows that in large political organizations it is often not possible to tell who is actually responsible for the outcomes—a problem known as the problem of many hands.[8]

Political ethics not only permits leaders to do things that would be wrong in private life, but also requires them to meet higher standards than would be necessary in private life. They may, for example, have less of a right of privacy than do ordinary citizens, and no right to use their office for personal profit. The major issues here concern conflict of interest.[9]

Ethics of policy

In the other area of political ethics, the key issues are not the conflict between means and ends but the conflicts among the ends themselves. For example, in the question of global justice, the conflict is between the claims of the nation state and citizens on one side and the claims of all citizens of the world.[10] Traditionally, priority has been given to the claims of nations, but in recent years thinkers known as cosmopolitans have pressed the claims of all citizens of the world.

Political ethics deals not mainly with ideal justice, however, but with realizing moral values in democratic societies where citizens (and philosophers) disagree about what ideal justice is. In a pluralist society, how if at all can governments justify a policy of progressive taxation, affirmative action, the right to abortion, universal healthcare, and the like?[11] Political ethics is also concerned with moral problems raised by the need for political compromise, whistleblowing, civil disobedience, and criminal punishment.


Some critics (so called political realists) argue that ethics has no place in politics.[12] If politicians are to be effective in the real world, they cannot be bound by moral rules. They have to pursue the national interest. However, Walzer points out that if the realists are asked to justify their claims, they will almost always appeal to moral principles of their own (for example, to show that ethics is harmful or counterproductive).[13]

Another kind of criticism comes from those who argue that we should not pay so much attention to politicians and policies but should instead look more closely at the larger structures of society where the most serious ethical problems lie.[14] Advocates of political ethics respond that while structural injustice should not be ignored, too much emphasis on structures neglects the human agents who are responsible for changing them.[15]

See also


  1. Thompson, Dennis F. “Political Ethics.” International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Blackwell Publishing, 2012).
  2. Hampshire, Stuart (ed.). Public and Private Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1978). ISBN 9780521293525; and Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987). ISBN 9780674686069
  3. Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments, 4th edition (Nelson-Hall, 2006). ISBN 978-0534626457; Bluhm, William T., and Robert A. Heineman. Ethics and Public Policy: Method and Cases (Prentice Hall, 2007). ISBN 978-0131893436; and Wolff, Jonathan. Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry (Routledge, 2011). ISBN 978-0-415-66853-8
  4. Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince and the Discourses (McGraw Hill, 1950). ISBN 978-0075535775.
  5. Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 2 (1973), pp. 160-80.
  6. Paul, Rynard, and David P. Shugarman (eds.). Cruelty & Deception: The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics (Broadview Press, 2000). ISBN 978-1864031072
  7. Thompson, Dennis F. “Democratic Dirty Hands,” in Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 11-39. ISBN 9780674686069
  8. Thompson, Dennis F. “The Problem of Many Hands,” in Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 11-32. ISBN 9780521547222
  9. Stark, Andrew. Conflict of Interest in American Public Life. (Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN 9780674012134
  10. Beitz, Charles. “Review Article: International Liberalism and Distributive Justice: A Survey of Recent Thought,” World Politics 51 (1999), pp. 269-296.
  11. For examples, see note 3 below.
  12. Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian. “Political Realism in International Relations,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  13. Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (Basic Books, 1977), pp. 4-13. ISBN 978-0465037070
  14. Barry, Brian. Why Social Justice Matters (Polity Press, 2005). ISBN 978-0745629933
  15. Thompson (1987), pp. 5-6.

Further reading

  • Applbaum, Arthur Isak. “Democratic Legitimacy and Official Discretion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 21 (1992), pp. 240–274.
  • Beerbohm, Eric. In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2012). ISBN 978-0691154619
  • Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage, 1999). ISBN 978-0375705281
  • Dworkin, Ronald. Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate (Princeton University Press, 2008). ISBN 978-0691138725
  • Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. The Spirit of Compromise (Princeton University Press, 2012). ISBN 978-0691153919
  • Fleishman, Joel, Lance Liebman, and Mark H. Moore, eds. Public Duties: The Moral Obligations of Government Officials (Harvard University Press, 1981). ISBN 978-0674722316
  • Margalit, Avishai. On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton University Press, 2009). ISBN 978-0691133171
  • Mendus, Susan. Politics and Morality (Polity Press, 2009). ISBN 978-0745629681
  • Parrish, John M. Paradoxes of Political Ethics: From Dirty Hands to the Invisible Hand (Cambridge University Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0521122924
  • Philip, Mark. Political Conduct (Harvard University Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0674024885
  • Sabl, Andrew. Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2002). ISBN 978-0691088310
  • Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987). ISBN 9780674686069
  • Thompson, Dennis F. Restoring Responsibility (Cambridge University Press, 2005). ISBN 9780521547222