In “The Prince,” Niccolò Machiavelli (1532) famously wrote, “must learn how not to be good,” by which he meant, to act in a manner deemed unethical according to the ethical standards of his time. Cynics might claim that this is hardly something politicians need to learn. Machiavelli is certainly not alone in proposing that politics and ethics do not mix or, at any rate, do not mix well. If political ethics is to be anything other than an oxymoron or a pious wish, then it is necessary to examine critically such an assumption. We can distinguish at least three categories of reasons (there are doubtless many others) underlying the assumption that ethics and politics inevitably part company: The first concerns the prevalence of political corruption in one for m or another, self-seeking behavior by public officials that runs contrary to the obligations of their office; the second is the demands of representation; and the third, the demands of governance. The last category is commonly discussed as “the problem” (or “dilemma”) of political dirty hands.
Political ethics will be defined, for the purposes of this article, as the principles or criteria by which to judge the morality of the politically relevant actions of political agents (the terms moral and ethical, morality and ethics, will be used interchangeably). In a modern democratic society, political agents range from citizens to elected officials to cabinet appointees to government bureaucrats to lobbyists. The paradigmatic political agent in a modern representative democracy, the focus of most discussions of political ethics, is the politician, the individual who runs for, and is elected to, public office. Hence, my focus will be on the politician, although some of what is said here could clearly apply to all political agents. To focus on the politician as the subject of political ethics provides a useful analogy with other principles of what is termed “role ethics,” in particular, professional ethics. Political ethics concerns the principles by which to determine the morality of an officeholder’s (or office seeker’s) politically relevant actions, just as, for example, lawyers’ ethics provides principles by which to judge the morality of lawyers’ actions as they relate to their role as members of the legal profession.
Every practice, occupation, or profession is oriented toward the provision of some good: these are the ends of the occupation. In a representative democracy, political offices exist to realize not the good of the officeholder—“the power and glory of princes”—but rather the public good. That this is the end of public office in a representative democracy is reinforced by the fact that this is the reason officeholders are elected in the first place, that is, not for their personal enrichment but to serve the public. Election to office creates a fiduciary duty: the officeholder—the fiduciary—is elected to act on behalf of the public who elects him or her. Hence, it is the role-specific duty of officeholders to work to realize the public good, and the sine qua non of an ethical politician is that he or she will use his or her office for the realization of this good. In a modern, pluralist, democratic society with multiple political parties, it can be assumed that there will exist disagreement as to both what constitutes the public good and the means by which that good can best be advanced. In addition, officeholders may have obligations to different publics—as a member of Congress has obligations to his or her constituents and to the American people as a whole—as well as a range of more specific obligations, which may and commonly do conflict.
Self-Interest Versus Public Interest
To talk of the public interest sets up an obvious contrast with the private interest of the officeholder. Few expect public officials to be motivated in all they do, including running for office, solely by the public interest, and whether construed as a desire to wield power and influence or a desire for public recognition, the absence of such motivations cannot be the hallmark of a reasonable political ethics. But this recognition of the mixed motives of most officeholders should be distinguished from the view according to which self-interest is construed as the only possible motivation of political actors, a view not uncommon among students of political behavior. For example, David Mayhew (1974), construing the desire for reelection as a form of self-interest, works with a vision of Congress members as “single-minded seekers of reelection,” justified in part on the assumption that “politics is best studied as a struggle among men to gain and maintain power and the consequences of that struggle.” Similarly, Anthony Downs (1957) postulates that politicians are motivated solely by the desire “to attain the income, prestige, and power which come from being in office,” never seeking office as a way to carry out particular policies but rather as a means to the attainment of private ends, which they can attain only by being elected.
If the function of a legislature is to generate socially beneficial laws, then, in a process analogous to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, good laws—laws that advance the public interest—can be seen as the consequence of a self-interested competition for power and office, “in the same sense that economic production is incidental to the making of profits.” The problem with this formulation—besides its crudely reductionist view of motivation—is that it ignores the fact that the self-interest of politicians, including their interest in being reelected, can conflict in significant ways with the public good, including the good of the democratic process itself. It is for this very reason that a good deal of political ethics is concerned with so-called conflicts of interest.
Conflicts of interest are especially prominent in politics because politicians are often in the position to advance policies from which they themselves—or their friends or associates— stand to benefit in a self-interested manner, most commonly, although not exclusively, financially. The problem posed by a conflict of interest is that the existence of such a conflict is assumed to interfere with or distort a politician’s discharging his or her fiduciary obligations, that is, advancing the public good. Specifically, it interferes with the objectivity or impartiality of his or her judgment. If a politician takes a bribe or receives kickbacks from a company seeking a governmental contract or if he or she holds (or will hold after leaving office) a large financial interest in that company, then the assumption is that his or her support for this particular company is motivated not by his or her impartial and objective evaluation that this is the best company to do the job (i.e., serve the public interest), but rather by self-interest (or the interest of friends or family).
Much that is legal in politics—for example, members of Congress advocating for legislation of dubitable public good but from which they themselves, or their families or friends, stand to reap considerable financial rewards or hiding special earmarks in funding bills to provide benefits for special interests from which they have received considerable campaign contributions—is simply institutionalized conflict of interest. Unethical practices such as these cannot be justified on the basis of the ends of the institution—serving the public good— since most commonly they subvert that interest.
The Demands of Representation
To make any sense of the claim that the ethical politician will view the primary obligation of political office as the advancement of the public good, we must say something more about what we mean by public good (or in more familiar parlance, public interest) and what we mean by advancement. Should the ethical politician view the public interest as equivalent to the actual existing preferences of those he or she represents and advancement as the fulfillment of those preferences? Note that in posing this question, we have drawn a distinction between interests on one hand and preferences on the other. Some may find such a distinction objectionable, although it seems obvious that people can have preferences that it is not in their best interest to have satisfied.
The answer to this question goes to the heart of the nature of representation. In attempting to answer this question, most political scientists rely on an influential distinction first set forth by Edmond Burke. According to the delegate model of representation, the ethical representative should act simply as the mouthpiece of his or her constituents, attempting through the political process to satisfy their preferences without letting his or her own views as to the merits of those preferences intervene. According to the trustee model of representation, the ethical representative must exercise a sufficient degree of autonomous judgment to enable him or her to act on behalf of the public interest of those he or she represents, even if this means going against the immediate preferences of his or her constituents. Burke (1999) was unambiguous in his support of the trustee model: “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Against the delegate view, it has often been noted that it may not be clear what a constituency, or even a majority, wants. Most of the individuals who constitute it either do not know enough or do not care enough (or both) about the issues on which their representative must vote to have clear opinions of their own, and even when their opinions are formed, it is unlikely that there will be a majority. Furthermore, perhaps what they want is incoherent, self-destructive, unjust, or shortsighted.
One of the more interesting uses of the trustee model has been to defend seemingly unethical conduct on the part of the ethical politician (i.e., the politician committed to advancing the public interest), specifically lying to his or her constituents to get elected. Carol Stokes, for example, has argued that it may be proper for politicians who want nothing more than to promote the welfare of their constituents to lie in campaigns and then switch upon being elected to unpopular opinions. Sisella Bok (1978) presents an example of this, although it is intended as a counterexample: a big-city mayor running for reelection has read a report recommending the removal of rent control, something he intends to do because he believes it is in the public interest, believing that if he makes his intention known, he will lose the election. At a news conference prior to the election, he denies, when asked, any awareness of the report and affirms his commitment to rent control. He believes that his election is very much in the public interest, as is the rent control policy he intends to pursue, and he may also believe that after the election he will be able to persuade voters of the merits of this policy. This final point is important, for the ability of a representative to engage in one or another form of rational persuasion to change the preferences of his or her constituents is seen as a way of preventing the trustee model from ultimately subverting representation altogether by allowing the representative to completely ignore the wishes of those he or she represents or ultimately act against their interests.
As Bok (1978) notes, “In all similar situations, the sizeable bias resulting from the self-serving element (the desire to be reelected, to stay in office, to exercise power) is often clearer to onlookers than to the liars themselves.” Such bias inflates one’s estimation of the justifications for the lie, the altruism of the liar, and the rightness of the cause. More important, lying of this sort precludes informed voting on the part of citizens and undermines citizens’ trust in the integrity of the political process. Stokes too is aware of this difficulty: ultimately, voters cannot make good choices unless they are informed, and politicians who mislead them about their choices may perpetuate misperceptions.
Yet we may still be left with a nagging doubt: could a politician who eschewed all falsehoods in elections ever get elected when even honest Abe Lincoln voiced contradictory opinions about the issue of white superiority depending on whether he was north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line?
The Demands of Political Office
In a seminal essay, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Michael Walzer (1973) argues that the demands of office are such that occasions will arise in which the ethical political leader must engage in immoral acts to advance the public good. As an example, Walzer presents a variation of the ticking time bomb scenario: a political leader orders the torture of a captured rebel leader (nowadays he would be a terrorist) to discover the location of a number of bombs hidden around a city and set to go off in twenty-four hours. The political leader believes that torture is wrong—in fact, abominable—yet he orders it to save civilian lives. In Walzer’s intentionally paradoxical formulation, he has done wrong to do right. The ethical politician will not believe that preventing the deaths of potentially thousands of citizens somehow excuses the moral wrong he committed by licensing torture: he will experience appropriate moral guilt because he has dirtied his hands, albeit for a good end. Were the ethical politician unwilling to dirty his hands, he would not be a ethical politician, that is, he would be unable to meet the demand of political office; if he felt no moral guilt at dirtying his hands, he would not be an ethical politician, even though he acted to defend the public interest.
The conflict Walzer presents is not so much a conflict between morality and immorality (or amorality) as between two competing ethical approaches, which are commonly termed “deontological” and “utilitarian.” A deontological moral code tells us that certain means are intrinsically wrong, absolutely forbidden, and cannot be undertaken even for the sake of good ends. Utilitarianism tells us, essentially, that sufficiently good ends may justify means that violate deontological prohibitions. Hence, in approving the torture of a prisoner, the political leader violates a deontological prohibition against torture on the utilitarian grounds that torture is justified to save thousands of lives (although there can be equally strong utilitarian arguments made against the use of torture). Were he a thoroughgoing utilitarian, he would be assured that he did the morally right thing and have no reason to feel moral guilt. Were he a thoroughgoing deontologist, he would not have permitted the use of torture in the first place. Hence, the morally right consequentialist outcome does not excuse or erase the deontological wrong.
Many have argued that the proper political ethic should (at times, at any rate) be unapologetically utilitarian (in contrast to Walzer, who might be termed a “guilty utilitarian”). For better or worse, however, utilitarian reasoning is often used to justify political acts that most people, as a matter of everyday morality, would consider immoral, for example, political deceit and manipulation, torture, and the intentional targeting of civilian populations in war. The natural consequence of this focus is that debates concerning the utilitarian prerogative of political action often suffer from the assumption, implicit or explicit, that utilitarianism is not a moral point of view at all, even by those who make utilitarian arguments: utilitarianism is called “political expediency” by those who oppose utilitarian reasoning and “political necessity” by those who support it. And to the defenders of political necessity, deontologists who are unwilling to get their hands dirty are simply more concerned about upholding their own moral purity than protecting their fellow citizens.
Such assertions are merely confusion because one could be a utilitarian moral purist just as much as a deontological moral purist. A politician who was a utilitarian moral purist might well frighten us, for he or she could, in principle, decide that intentionally targeting a civilian population in war was the best way to preserve national security and, being a thoroughgoing utilitarian, have no reason to feel guilty about his or her actions (although there are also good utilitarian justifications as to why this would be the wrong thing to do).Yet a politician who was a deontological (specifically, Kantian) moral purist would be equally frightening, for example, someone who would not tell a lie even if the result would place the lives of thousands of his or her citizens in danger.
This said, is it true that an ethical political leader must engage in acts that most people, most of the time, would deem immoral for the sake of defending or promoting the public good? It is worth pointing out that if the validity of this proposition rests on as contrived a hypothetical as the ticking time bomb scenario, which David Luban (2005, 1425) has rightly called an “intellectual fraud,” then it seems doubtful. Perhaps more important, Walzer’s ethical politician is a figure of such rarity that if moral governance depends on such people, then it is likely that moral governance can never be achieved (which is certainly a possibility). Those political leaders who condone torture, for example, in violation of domestic and international law, are precisely those who are least likely to feel any guilt about their actions, least likely to publicly disclose them, and above all, least likely to seek to be held in any way accountable (but rather to take all means to avoid accountability). And they are also least likely to employ the powers they have abrogated to themselves wisely or with restraint.
- Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York:Vintage, 1978.
- Burke, Edmond. “Speech to the Electors of Bristol.” In Select Works of Edmond Burke, Miscellaneous Writings. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty, 1999.
- Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.
- Fleishman, Joel L., Lance Liebman, and Mark H. Moore. Public Duties:The Moral Obligations of Government Officials. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
- Ignatieff, Michael. Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.
- Luban, David. “Liberalism,Torture, and the Ticking Bomb.” Virginia Law Review 91 (2005): 1425–1461.
- Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, 1532. See any edition. Mayhew, David. Congress:The Electoral Connection. New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1974.
- Parrish, John M. Paradoxes of Political Ethics: From Dirty Hands to the Invisible Hand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Primoratz, David, ed. Politics and Morality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.
- Shugarman, David, and Paul Raynard, eds. Cruelty and Deception:The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 2000.
- Stokes, Carol. Mandates and Democracy: Neoliberalism by Surprise in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.
- Walzer, Michael. “Political Action:The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 160–180.