Ethics and politics
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Ethics and Politics Politics is the process of making and implementing decisions binding upon society Politics is about accumulating and using power Ethics is a set of beliefs and customs shared by members of society with regard to: what is right and what is wrong

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  • Politics is the process of making and implementing decisions binding upon society

  • Politics is about accumulating and using power

  • Ethics is a set of beliefs and customs shared by members of society with regard to:

    • what is right and what is wrong

    • how things ought to be

    • what one ought to be, how one should live

  • These beliefs are normative: people are expected to abide by them

  • Some of these norms become laws (that is, they are backed up by the power of the state)


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Relations between ethics and politics

THE CONFLICT IS OBVIOUS:

  • Use of power often violates ethical norms (rulers feel compelledor tempted to act in ways which cannot be morally justified).

    • Ethics constrains rulers.

    • What options do they have?

      • Ethical behaviour (power is legitimate only when it is just)

      • Open cynicism (power does not need moral justification: it justifies itself)

      • Hypocrisy

  • Ethics poses challenges to power, works like an engine of social change (reform or revolution)

  • JUSTICE! Is a great battle cry


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The “realist” argument:

  • Politics and ethics belong to different realms.

  • Ethics is primarily for private life.

  • In politics, what counts is power.

  • At best, ethics is useful to cover up the uglier faces of power.

  • Real rules of power have little to do with morality.

  • Therefore, if a ruler uses power only morally, he/she will be beaten by the others who don’t restrict themselves by moral norms. Nice guys finish last.


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  • The “idealist” response:

  • The very existence of the conflict between ethics and politics reflects a deeper reality:

  • Ethics and politics are inseparable. Politics must be ethical; ethics is a key mechanism which holds society together; power not bound by ethical rules can only damage the social fabricand undermine the state

  • Politics is supposed to be ethical; rulers are expected to be just

  • Since the state is an association, the rulers’ behaviour should reflect the dominant values held by the members of society

  • The rulers cannot effectively rule without at least some degree of consent of the ruled – however expressed

  • To be effective, power must be legitimate

  • Laws made and enforced by the rulers must be rooted in the ethical norms existing in society: otherwise they won’t be effective


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“REALIST” OBJECTION no.1

  • Don’t idealize the people: every nation has the kind of government it deserves

  • Yes, the state is an association, and as such, it does reflect the dominant customs and beliefs of its members

  • But why assume that human beings are necessarily good and virtuous?

  • People can be selfish, greedy and wicked bynature: why should their rulers be any different?

  • If people are naturally inclined to act in evil ways, their politics will be evil, too (Germans and Hitler)

  • So, politics can be unethical, while reflecting the qualities of the people who make it


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REALIST” OBJECTION no.2:

  • Who cares about the people?

  • The people may be virtuous and ethical, but the rulers may, and often do, act in highly unethical ways – and get away with it

  • They may be forced to act in such ways because of perceived necessity (desperate times call for desperate measures)

  • Or they may act in such ways, motivated by unethical goals (power aggrandizement, personal enrichment, etc.)

  • It is unrealistic to expect rulers to be ethical (Bismarck). Power corrupts (Acton)

  • And the people may tolerate this gap for long periods of time


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  • Argument No.1 recognizes that politics is inseparable from ethics (bad ethics produce bad politics)

  • Argument No.2 recognizes that ethical standards need to apply to the use of power, but considers this unrealistic

  • Human capacity for evil is obvious

  • Both rulers and the ruled may violate moral norms

  • But: historically, a key condition on which person would be vested with public authority (right to order others about) has been the belief that he/she was capable of justice, served as a model of ethical behaviour – and thus possessed moral authority


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There is nothing inherently immoral about power as such.

Why then the conflict between ethics and politics?

1. Society can be divided on basic moral norms (what some view as ethical, others may view as unethical)

2. Society can be divided on the meaning of the basic moral norms and their application in politics

3. Society may lack the tools to compel the rulers to behave ethically – can the rulers be compelled at all?

4. So, at issue is the organization of social power – at all levels

5. Social evolution is driven by the pursuit of justice

6. Democracy as a way of resolving the conflict

7. But democracy cannot eliminate this conflict: what it can do is channel its energy in the direction of social progress


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  • Every society needs a moral code

  • Moral codes are key instruments of social coordination and control, they keep societies together and give them purpose

  • Moral codes can have both religious and secular forms

  • Religion has traditionally provided the main forms of moral codification

  • Invoking a higher authority, a universal order which all humans must obey

  • Religion governing both personal and political behaviour

  • Religion and the state: from theocracy to militant atheism

  • Religion and society