Political ethics (also known as political morality or public ethics)
is the practice of making moral judgements about political action and
political agents. 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. The second area, the ethics of policy (or
ethics and public policy) concerns judgments about policies and
Ethics of process
Ethics of policy
4 See also
6 Further reading
Ethics of process
Niccolò Machiavelli is heralded as the founding father of
the political ethics. 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”. The politician uses violence
to prevent greater violence, but his act is still wrong even if
justified. Walzer’s view has been criticized. 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.
In large organizations it is often not possible to tell who is
actually responsible for the outcomes—a problem known as the problem
of many hands.
Political ethics not only permit 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.
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. 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?
Political ethics is also
concerned with moral problems raised by the need for political
compromise, whistleblowing, civil disobedience, and criminal
Some critics (so called political realists) argue that ethics has no
place in politics. 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
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. 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.
Natural and legal rights
^ Thompson, Dennis F. “Political Ethics.” International
Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Blackwell Publishing,
^ Hampshire, Stuart (ed.). Public and Private
University Press, 1978). ISBN 9780521293525; and Thompson, Dennis
Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press,
1987). ISBN 9780674686069
^ 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
Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry
(Routledge, 2011). ISBN 978-0-415-66853-8
^ Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince and the Discourses (McGraw Hill,
1950). ISBN 978-0075535775.
^ Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,”
Philosophy & Public Affairs 2 (1973), pp. 160-80.
^ Paul, Rynard, and David P. Shugarman (eds.). Cruelty &
Deception: The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics (Broadview
Press, 2000). ISBN 978-1864031072
^ Thompson, Dennis F. “Democratic Dirty Hands,” in Political
Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 11-39.
^ Thompson, Dennis F. (2005). "The Problem of Many Hands". Restoring
Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare.
Cambridge University Press. pp. 11–32.
^ Stark, Andrew. Conflict of Interest in American Public Life.
(Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN 9780674012134
^ Beitz, Charles. “Review Article: International
Distributive Justice: A Survey of Recent Thought,” World Politics 51
(1999), pp. 269-296.
^ For examples, see note 3 below.
^ Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian. “Political Realism in International
Relations,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 edition),
Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
^ Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with
Historical Illustrations (Basic Books, 1977), pp. 4-13.
^ Barry, Brian. Why Social
Justice Matters (Polity Press, 2005).
^ Thompson (1987), pp. 5-6.
Applbaum, Arthur Isak. “Democratic Legitimacy and Official
Discretion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 21 (1992),
Beerbohm, Eric. In Our Name: The
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).
Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. The Spirit of
University Press, 2012). [[Wikipedia:Book
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).
Parrish, John M. Paradoxes of Political Ethics: From Dirty Hands to
the Invisible Hand (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Philip, Mark. Political Conduct (Harvard University Press, 2007).
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
Ethics of care
Good and evil
Suffering or Pain
Augustine of Hippo
Georg W. F. Hegel
John Stuart Mill
G. E. Moore
J. L. Mackie
G. E. M. Anscombe
R. M. Hare
Robert Merrihew Adams
Ethics of eating meat
Ethics of technology
Ethics in religion
History of ethics
Philosophy of law
Social and political philosophy
Feminist political theory
Mandate of Heaven
Philosophy and economics
Philosophy of education
Philosophy of history
Philosophy of love
Philosophy of sex
Philosophy of social science