Political ethics (also known as political morality or public ethics) is the practice of making moral judgements about political action and political agents.[1] 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.[2] The second area, the ethics of policy (or ethics and public policy) concerns judgments about policies and laws.[3]

The concept political morality can be easily understood when knowing what the roots of the term are and the gradual development. The values and expectations of political morality are derived from the principles of justice. John Rawls defends the proposed idea that political conception of justice is ultimately based on not only the values those are expected to follow, but most importantly, the common good of an individual. [4]

Ethics of process

Niccolò Machiavelli is one of the most famous (or infamous) political theorists that spoke on, and later subverted, the matters of political ethics. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that a political leader may be required to behave in evil ways if necessary to maintain his authority.[5]

In contemporary democracies, a variant of 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”.[6] The politician uses violence to prevent greater violence, but his act is still wrong even if justified. Walzer’s view has been criticized.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

Political ethics not only permits leaders to do things that would be wrong in private life, but requires them to meet higher standards than would be necessary in private life. For example, they may 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 ultimately concern the concept of conflict of interest.[10]

As stated above, personal or private morality and political morality is often viewed as a conflict of interest. However, it is important to know that these two concepts of morality can also maintain a common positive relationship between the two. Whether an individual is involved in the political domain as an authority or as an active civic participant, these values bleed through to the personal sector of morality as well. An individual that learned the skills necessary in the political sector may apply these learned qualities in a setting outside of politics, often viewed as a private every day setting. In contrast, one that is entering the political setting may have already held the qualities and virtues that are expected in the professional setting. Therefore the values and skills already held will then be applied to the new political setting, as anticipated. Reciprocity, as in the context of deriving those traits are commonly present when entering the field, if the qualities were not already learned. Both concepts of morality include different expectations, but to say the least, there is a correlation present between the two. Whether the virtues and values were acquired or previously held, they simply factor in and apply to both settings. Those that have emerged into the intense political sphere, knowing that virtues and morals can certainly be an influence, but building one’s character can be substantially beneficial prior to the entrance. [11]

Ethics of policy

Personal morality is also factored into public morality as discussed in the previous section. However, given the Liberal democracy present in the United States, public morality is often referred to as 'formal'. Abiding by the order of law, in addition maintaining respect are simply two critical factors in order to achieve the concept of public morality. These elements are expected when an individual is actively participating in the political sphere, and ultimately required for the behavior of political authorities.[12] Each citizen has their own belief and morals toward a particular controversial topic, nonetheless it is the political authorities' duty to respect others' belief and advocate for their constituents beliefs while following the law and constitution. [13]

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.[14] 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?[15] Political ethics is also concerned with moral problems raised by the need for political compromise, whistleblowing, civil disobedience, and criminal punishment.


Some critics (so called political realists) argue that ethics has no place in politics.[16] 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 or counterproductive).[17]

Another kind of criticism comes from those who argue that we[who?] 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.[18] 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.[19]

See also


  1. ^ Thompson, Dennis F. “Political Ethics.” International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Blackwell Publishing, 2012).
  2. ^ Hampshire, Stuart (ed.). Public and Private Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1978). ISBN 9780521293525; and Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987). ISBN 9780674686069
  3. ^ 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 Wolff, Jonathan. Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry (Routledge, 2011). ISBN 978-0-415-66853-8
  4. ^ Leung, Cheuk-Hang (2016-02-08). "Cultivating Political Morality for Deliberative Citizens — Rawls and Callan Revisited". Educational Philosophy and Theory. 48 (14): 1426–1441. doi:10.1080/00131857.2016.1138393. ISSN 0013-1857.
  5. ^ Strauss, Leo (2014-07-04). Thoughts on Machiavelli. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226230979.
  6. ^ Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 2 (1973), pp. 160-80.
  7. ^ Paul, Rynard, and David P. Shugarman (eds.). Cruelty & Deception: The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics (Broadview Press, 2000). ISBN 978-1864031072
  8. ^ Thompson, Dennis F. “Democratic Dirty Hands,” in Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 11-39. ISBN 9780674686069
  9. ^ Thompson, Dennis F. (2005). "The Problem of Many Hands". Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare. Cambridge University Press. pp. 11–32. ISBN 9780521547222
  10. ^ Stark, Andrew. Conflict of Interest in American Public Life. (Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN 9780674012134
  11. ^ Mendeluk, Paulina (2018-06-29). "Public Sphere and the Political Morality in a Liberal Democracy". Analele Universităţii din Oradea, Seria Geografie. 29 (1). doi:10.30892/auog.24. ISSN 1221-1273.
  12. ^ Deveaux, Monique (2002). "Political Morality and Culture". Social Theory and Practice. 28 (3): 503–518. doi:10.5840/soctheorpract200228322. ISSN 0037-802X.
  13. ^ Mendeluk, Paulina (2018-06-29). "Public Sphere and the Political Morality in a Liberal Democracy". Analele Universităţii din Oradea, Seria Geografie. 29 (1). doi:10.30892/auog.24. ISSN 1221-1273.
  14. ^ Beitz, Charles. “Review Article: International Liberalism and Distributive Justice: A Survey of Recent Thought,” World Politics 51 (1999), pp. 269-296.
  15. ^ For examples, see note 3 below.
  16. ^ Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian. “Political Realism in International Relations,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  17. ^ Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (Basic Books, 1977), pp. 4-13. ISBN 978-0465037070
  18. ^ Barry, Brian. Why Social Justice Matters (Polity Press, 2005). ISBN 978-0745629933
  19. ^ Thompson (1987), pp. 5-6.

Further reading