Politics > Government and Politics > Ethics in Politics

Ethics in Politics

Plus ça Change?

Views of sharp observers suggest that little has changed in the last few centuries.

Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745):Closed "Politicks as the word is commonly understood is nothing but Corruptions."

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910): Closed "No-one’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session."

HL Mencken (1880 – 1956): Closed "Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under."

George Orwell (1903 – 1950):Closed "Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Harry Truman (US President 1945-1953): Closed "My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse, or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference."

So what do we conclude from this? An obvious conclusion is that the cry for a «return to moral principles in politics» misses the point. There is nowhere to go back to!

Distinguishing Politics and Ethics

An individual is not a society and a society is not an individual.

An individual has ethical principles—indicating what is right and good in personal choices.

A society needs political principles—indicating what is right and good in societal choices and supporting relevant institutions.

Governments, being responsible for society’s good, have a duty to uphold and apply political principles and respect society's political institutions. The people within government, the politicians, must do this for the rest of us i.e. politicians are not elected to apply personal ethical discretion to choices in violation of society's institutions.

Exhorting politicians to be 'more ethical' or to 'return to moral principles' is futile if not worse, in that it displaces responsibility from where it belongs: the people.
ClosedMore on the futility of exhortation:

Any enduring social phenomenon like «corrupt politicians» is an emergent property of the social system, which is maintained by the populace. It is not a property of particular individuals who happen to be in government i.e. society and its political institutions contain powerful cultural assumptions, which actively select for unethical behaviour and then tolerate it.

So when one corrupt politician or sleazy political party is exposed or thrown out of office in disgust, another equally corrupt politician and sleazy political party promising moral renewal takes its place. There are few certainties in social life, but this probably one of them.

Corruption depends on Maturity

Corruption in political life is irrelevant to understanding how ethics relates to politics. Instead, it is relevant to understanding the maturity of society’s culture.

Maturity is measured in terms of the values and social institutions that its individual members assume and expect of themselves and their leaders. The state of a society in this regard is referred to here as its political ethos.

Individual members of society, seemingly unlike politicians-in-role, are free to use their own ethical principles. They should use them to choose politicians and to bring pressure to bear on the government in regard to its choices.

At a certain point, people may associate with others to alter, even overturn, existing political institutions and so change the ethos.

Exactly how and when this happens is a major focus of this inquiry.

There are some preliminary issues to clarify before considering how societies mature through changes in the political ethos.

Originally posted: July 2009; Last updated: 24-Feb-2014

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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