If the title of this blog grabbed you, it might be because you think those two words—politics and ethics—are mutually exclusive.
Political ethics is a loaded term that means different things to different people. Often, when we speak of ethics in politics, we’re referring to political morality which Oxford Dictionaries defines as “the ethics, or ethical standards, of public or political life.”
If you research the subject of political ethics or political morality, you’ll surely see many mentions of Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian diplomat whose classic book The Prince has been called “a handbook for unscrupulous politicians.” While The Prince has inspired countless people, from hip-hop stars to American presidents, it also frequently maligned. Case in point: If you call someone “Machiavellian” it is typically meant to be a disparaging reference, and that’s largely due to the themes of cunningness and deviousness with which The Prince has come to be synonymous. To be Machiavellian is to be wholly self-serving to the point of being amoral.
But some experts argue that we’ve got the Machiavelli connection to political ethics all wrong. Interviewed by Boston University’s BU Today, scientist and historian Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies:
“[Machiavelli] is frequently dismissed today as an amoral cynic who supposedly considered the end to justify the means [when he is, in fact] a crystal-clear realist who understands the limits and uses of power.”
No political figure is exempt from the “limits of power,” to borrow from Diamond’s words. Ethical practices begin in the campaign stage. “Ethical tone, ethical decision-making, ethical operations, and using campaign ethics to their advantage” are all important to campaigns, says government ethics expert Hana Callaghan who teaches at Santa Clara University in California.
Once politicians are in office, their positions are inherently challenging and characterized by making unprecedented decisions.
“The central question is the extent to which the ethical principles that govern political office differ from those that govern moral life more generally. To what extent are politicians permitted to take actions that would otherwise be wrong?” asks Dennis F. Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus at Harvard University and founder of the school’s Center for Ethics and the Professions.
Politics and ethics certainly aren’t at odds, and there needn’t be a conflict between the two.