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The Ethics-Politics Nexus

An Intimate Relation

The intimate relation between ethics and politics has been frequently noted since propounded in ancient Greece more than two millennia ago.

Many naturally see politics as requiring a moral base, and focus on the power of ethics to elevate and bring benefit for all. However, when Machiavelli proposes that a ruler should be ready to do anything to remain in power, he is not divorcing politics from ethics. Just the reverse. He is perceiving ethics as intimately affecting ruling, dangerous to the state, and needing to be deliberately over-ridden.

Modern day real-politik, especially in the global arena, similarly affirms that ethical considerations are irrelevant. But that is a narrow theoretical view, even if bolstered by observations of political leaders. When the full picture is considered, moral agonies are soon revealed. Brutal oppression or war, for example, never occurs without some moral justification being invoked, even if hypocritically.

Some thinkers, notably Hobbes, suggest that good conduct is dependent on the state, which suggests that ethics might depend on politics. Certainly there have been political leaders and regimes who have tried to alter or control the moral outlook of the people. Theocratic states tend to function like this.

A final connection that must not be forgotten is the frequency of unjustifiable corruption in government that damages society unequivocally. Any conception of politics must confront this universal and quasi-normal ethical failure.

A Logical Relation

Ethics and politics have a logical relation which cannot be removed. Both are concerned with obligation. Both imply personal responsibility and the discharge of duties. Both are concerned with pursuit of the good and/or what is right.

In the case of ethics, the focus is on the individual person. In the case of politics the focus is on society (or other social group).

In regard to making ethical choices, it is unusual to cite political considerations. However, in making political choices, it is common to cite ethical considerations. This suggests that ethics is more fundamental, which fits with the notion that a person comes before the group.

A group can disappear if its members desert it. A person does not disappear if a group disintegrates. Persons create groups through association with like-minded others. Groups cannot create persons. Groups can increase size and power through coercion and enslavement, but such members are liable to feel little loyalty to the group.

The Practical-Taxonomic Relation

It is reasonable to ask whether a political choice is ethical. Just as it is reasonable to ask whether an ethical choice is political. That is because ethical criteria differ from political criteria.

But what are political criteria? That is a question which will be answered through the taxonomic inquiry in this Satellite.

The main point to recognize is that politics involves the use of power unavoidably and invariably. Confusion arises because of the refusal to recognize this characteristic in most definitions.

In this taxonomic inquiry, power and its management is identified as the quintessential feature of politics. The grounding of any society's politics in power via its government is explained simply here and developed more formally here.

Furthermore, power does not sever politics from ethics, but rather provides it with an ethical starting place. Every person has a moral obligation to use their power and autonomy so as to be self-reliant. Society could not function if helpless dependence were perfectly acceptable.

All posted material is part of a scientific project and should be regarded as provisional. Visitors are encouraged to think through the topics and propositions for themselves. Copyright © Warren Kinston 2009-2016.
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