Politics and Ethics

  • Elizabeth S. OvermanEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2338-1


Code of right and wrong; Conduct; Decency; Functional government; Governance; Honesty; Honor; Integrity; Moral philosophy; Moral practice; Principles

In the popular imaginary, politics and ethics seem to be an oxymoron for all too many around the world. Cynicism, bias, partiality, and reckless passion may rule, squeezing out ethical considerations. Global polling shows that politics and politicians are often seen as selfish and corrupt power-players, defending special interests. Problems abound as humanity is exhausting the carrying capacity of the planet. Examples of the disregard for human ethics are evident in the widespread proliferation of military weapons, the lingering implementation of the death penalty, and the sometimes willful neglect of public services. Safeguards incentivizing corporate responsibility have been removed in the few places where they existed ushering in an era of rash and widespread monetization of public goods. Without trust in, and respect for, politics and politicians, the vitality for living together in democratic communities leaches out, and societies that are populist, fascist, or dictatorial can take root. This essay examines the fundamental premises of politics, the emergence of ethical considerations, and the thinking of modern theorists focusing on twenty-first century political ethics. To understand the deeply serious role of ethics, we need to understand the role of politics.

Formally or constitutionally, politics consists of five basic issues. First, because humanity clusters within states, the populous develops relationships with one another as citizens. This is the choice between equality and inequality. Second, functions are allocated to the state with the potential to be all encompassing or severely limited. This is the choice between a pluralist and a monistic state. Third, the state must have the authority/power to carry out its functions. The license originates with the state itself or with the citizenry. This is the choice between freedom and dictatorship. Fourth, the organization of the exercise of state power allows authority to be concentrated or dispersed. This is the choice between either a dispersion or a unification of powers. And, fifth, the magnitude of the state and its external relations vis-à-vis the governed population means there is a choice between a multitude of states and a universal state.

Lipson recognizes, as did Aristotle, that the state is a wholly human contrivance making it a form of self-analysis eliminating any possibility for complete detachment. To make sense of the chaos, politics has to be interpreted. This subjective feat allows each person to play the tripartite role of spectator, critic, and actor. Stone sees politics converging with policy to keep society together in a polis. Communities exercise collective will and apply collective efforts. The inevitably of conflict between and among citizens revolves around questions such as who is included and whether the goals are cooperative, consensus driven, or conflictual.

Politics are then the essential activity or master science which builds societies and communities premised on rules, laws, and a balance of conflicting interests. The human need for protection provided by organized force leads to the formation of communities and the monopolization of force by governments capable of controlling internal and external threats. States advanced from protection and order to justice and the good life. These advances can be contradictory and are of no small moment because, as Lipson pointed out, Hitler outdid Attila and a future tyrant could outdo him.

The body of ethical/moral values, virtues and visions, converge on the democratic ideal of the common good. Politics require a high level of responsibility and commitment from citizens, political parties, elected officials, government executives, the judiciary, the media, business, nongovernmental organizations, and religious and educational institutions. The world’s people are calling for greater transparency resting on the recognition that democratic accountability requires public officials not only to act in the public interest but also to reveal their processes.

Overtime societies developed functional bodies of obligations and duties required of its members. We know this as ethics. Sometimes individuals are encouraged to reflect on the intentions and consequences of their actions leading to the development of theories of conscience. Whether ethical sensibilities are innate, as postulated by Rousseau, or a power of discrimination acquired by experience as Mill contended, they all address ethical responsibility in politics. A canvass of the world’s political traditions carried out by Girardin reveals a global demand for a just politics. Although the relationship between politics and ethics oscillates between close alignment and almost complete mutual exclusiveness, thoughtful theorists have emerged whose contributions substantially delineate the link between politics and ethics.

All societies embrace difference and diversity because no two human beings are alike and desired resources are usually circumscribed. When divisions proliferate, competing perceptions and varying needs demand alternative outcomes. American, James Madison, recognized this when drawing up the US Constitution in the late 1700s. He saw “factions” as agents of disorganization violating the potential harmony imposed by the umbrella of the state. He did not imagine that they may be valuable contributors to a broader debate.

Public officials are larger than life in representative democracies, empowered to act on behalf of everyone in society. They assume rights and have obligations to a degree that surpasses those of ordinary citizens. Their duties may call for forceful transgressions, lying, keeping secrets, and breaking promises that would be wrong in private life. This is known as the problem of “dirty hands” rationalized as an ends-justifies-means argument that privileges doing wrong to get the right result.

Whether or not a person uses power to carry out harm may depend on whether or not the individual developed an internal locus of control or governor that helps them distinguish right from wrong, resist societal and authorial pressures to harm others, and take personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Others are willing to do anything to achieve desired results including deception, manipulation, using discretion when offering favored contracts to benefit themselves, failing to share credit, and practicing discrimination and/or disrespect. For some, there are no boundaries or societal norms and nothing short of getting caught could serve as an impediment.

Officials who affiliate with public and nonprofit organizations will either take an oath agreeing to uphold moral and ethical standards or share professional ethical prohibitions such as to do no harm. Elected officials or politicians, by contrast, take an oath to uphold the constitution. Those with professional certification may be exposed to codes of conduct that could spill over into their actions as policy makers. Beyond that, the only tools available to build moral awareness, frame moral decision making, clarify moral intent, or encourage moral action have been developed through early socialization such as exposure to caregivers, teachers, religious institutions, the media, and peers. This could be coupled with prior study or life experiences. They have no reason to be concerned about ethical behavior unless they see themselves as persons of integrity who practice openness, accountability, and service. In the best of all scenarios, they would also practice charity. It has been suggested, as shorthand, that individuals may ask themselves three general questions about proposed actions:
  1. 1.

    Is it legal? Am I violating any laws or organizational policies?

  2. 2.

    Is it balanced and fair to all concerned? Is there a possibility that my action or vote can create a win-win situation for all concerned?

  3. 3.

    How will I feel about myself? Will I be proud of what I have done and will I openly tell others what I did?


In democratic settings, this may not be enough because of complexity, chaos, and noise generated in contemporary social settings. The scope and structure of modern politics magnify a bad behavior. The fault line for public officials lies in their representational and organizational capacity. It is often said that those elected are held to a higher standard and that they need not only avoid ethical infractions but also the appearance of such.

It may be helpful to consider an alternative perception of political ethics. Confucius, for example, cautioned that political figures represent government and must not lose the confidence of the people as this is the foundation of the state. He cautioned that the state will not persist without it. Derelict politics and politicians place the entire society in jeopardy.

Political theorists such as Amoureaux don’t accept the theory of “dirty hands” and instead call for the realization that modern life is complex, contingent, and undergoing constant construction and reconstruction as reform and revision. This calls for an ethical reflexivity that allows individuals, organizations, and communities to grow into ethical considerations through interrogation, recognition, and action. Moral beliefs come from successfully negotiating, constructing, and sustaining the rules of a moral community. Abstract principles represent an unsatisfactory basis for establishing an ethical policy. This places the onus on political actors and citizens who need to work to understand the particular circumstances and empathize with the views of others, while acting and observing to see that the results are compatible with ethical goals. Ethical actions are then in a continuous reassessment and adjustment to unfolding circumstances and introspective, self-critical interrogations. The centrality of ethics in a reflexive policy environment encompasses everyone which makes agency or action universal. Ethical actions, as imagined by Foucault, are developed through active interpretation. This engagement with one’s own identity calls for listening to others as the activity reaches across cultures and relies on human judgment.

Another alternative guide was developed by Girardin who calls for an ethics that strives for an optimal politics which secures fair treatment of political stakeholders, stresses equity, and fairness and reminds us that the limitation to power, effectiveness, accountability, and justice is essential in politics. He points out that impunity, arbitrariness, and cruelty are destabilizing as they cause regimes to lose support. Ethics in politics is measured by consequences which produce more justice, deeper fairness, more sustainability, and greater responsibility. Constitutions, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary, devolution, delegation, political competition, and mechanisms of accountability need to be in place and enforced. Power unchecked will remove or reduce limitations as it moves toward autocracy and dictatorship. The primary ethical value in politics is justice, interpreted as fairness and reciprocity. There are six values that articulate justice if they are supported with consistency. They include equity, freedom and responsibility, security and peace, unity and diversity, solidarity, and sustainability.

Is there more at stake today? Do we currently face dilemmas that were in the making but did not reach perilous fruition until now? The interests of the planet and of future generations are at stake. Today’s globalized world calls for the development of shared values that seek solutions beyond parochial or short-term interests. To Girardin, ethics is at the heart of a constructive tension between global values and global interests. Settling conflicts and shaping compromises into sustainable agreements are premised on finding common ground that elevates the common good for all. Like Amoureaux, Girardin sees the limitations imposed by principles and seeks consistency in consideration, allowing interests, which are under constant evaluation, to converge. Learning from experience and taking corrective measures that foster corrections encourage alertness and seeing questioning as a political advantage. Functional democracies have the elasticity to function while listening to the citizenry.

Girardin seeks the realization of economic limitations and resources as essential reference points if any political agenda is to be realistic. Sound choices need to reflect the true costs of any decisional polices. Ethics in politics is about consistent process and agency which matches values while encouraging the development of associational and stakeholder commitment to the development of shared platforms of values as government leads by setting the agenda, guiding the negotiations, and acting as leader. Trust is built incrementally through respectful processes open to dissent and joint assessment. Politics and ethics are only an oxymoron if we don’t come together and use the tools political theorists like Stone, Girardin, and Amoureaux provide. Ethical politics are possible.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Central OklahomaEdmondUSA