Can Politicians Be Moral?

Political morality should allow for rare dirty hands practices

We want our politicians to be good persons and act morally on our behalf. Yet they continually fail to live up to our expectations. We think of a great many of our politicians as corrupt, self-serving and, at best, amoral. They lie, obfuscate, and avoid answering important questions and rarely, if ever, accept responsibility for their errors or the bad things they do. Conversely, politicians are quick to claim credit for successes for which they were only tangentially responsible or if they happen to be the lucky recipient of a fortuitous series of events.  It is no wonder then that our faith in political institutions and the men and women who serve in them is very low. In the 2018 Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, only 19% of a representative sample of a 1001 British adults trusts politicians to tell the truth. (The one group who scored lower were advertising executives with 16% while nurses, in contrast scored, 96%.)

What is puzzling is that politicians, especially those in democratic societies who need to win elections to gain and retain power and who are subject to continual scrutiny by a free press, repeatedly act in ways that they know will erode their likeability, question their moral probity, and diminish our trust in them. For a great many people, the sentiments of Alvy Singer (the protagonist in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall) expresses a common view about the morality of politicians. 

‘Lyndon Johnson? Are you kidding? Lyndon Johnson is a politician. You know the ethics those guys have. It’s like a notch below child molester.’

Why are the reputations of politicians so low and why are they unable to rectify this?  There is no doubt that some politicians are reprehensible, selfish, egotistical, self-serving and even evil individuals. The lure of power and glory attracts persons who are not suitable for democratic politics, where the only legitimate use of political power ought to be to achieve good and worthwhile ends that serve the best interests of the electorate. Despite this, to claim that all, even the majority, of politicians in a country such as the UK are immoral and that they engage in politics for the purpose of self-aggrandisement and enrichment is to make a serious error.  Many (perhaps most) politicians enter politics to do good and serve their fellow citizens as best they are able, even if they fail to achieve this goal on many occasions. What is more, given that politicians are not stupid or unaware of the public’s views of them, why do they continue to act in ways that the general public perceive as deeply problematic?  In short, given the incentive to be liked, the scrutiny of the press and the need to act morally and transparently, why do politicians behave in a manner that undermines their credibility and trustworthiness?


"Engaging in dirty hands actions is always difficult, demanding, dangerous, and morally polluting. It should not be done lightly or flippantly but only when no alternative courses of action are possible."


One way of thinking about this problem is to examine what is required of a successful politician and whether this impacts on how we think of the moral standing of politicians. Politics is a domain of human interaction that tends to be morally messy.  Politicians face options where they must choose between many different evils rather than between good and bad possibilities. No matter how they decide to act in such a situation, politicians will unavoidably violate a cherished principle of value. Circumstances force them to act in a way that breaks a promise or requires deception and, sometimes, even necessitates the use of violence to achieve a lesser evil in pursuit of a worthy end. For example, a political policy to ensure economic and political stability may require that a politician lie and dissemble about her future plans and the real reason for so acting, or at least does not tell the whole truth.  The actions of Sir Stafford Cripps, (the British Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1947 -1950) is a case in point.  He deceived Parliament about his intention to decouple the British Pound from the Gold Standard. He lied to prevent unscrupulous speculators profiting from this economic policy and thereby undermining its intended benefit for the economy.  However, lying to Parliament is immoral and deeply problematic in a democratic society and politicians who do so need to be punished and removed from office. The reason is that we rely on honesty from our Government ministers to enable a proper evaluation of their actions so we can hold them to account. A lying politician undermines the democratic system, and makes the task of electing leaders we trust very difficult if not impossible. Yet Cripps, many argue, acted correctly in his role as Chancellor.  It was his duty to lie as it was in the best interests of the British people and it was necessary in his role as Chancellor to protect the economy.

The second problem with morally evaluating the actions of politicians is that success in politics demands a different set of virtues from those generally admired and praised in our personal everyday lives. Effective politicians need to be decisive, courageous, single-minded in the pursuit of power and ruthless. But most importantly, effective politicians need to accept that there will be many situations where unavoidable conflicts of duties require them to act even when there is no possibility of a decent outcome and where all the possible actions are dishonourable and blameworthy. We know this from experience of how great civilisations arose and survived in the past and how politics, both domestic and international, is conducted today. As the philosopher Stuart Hampshire notes:

‘Great civilisations of the past have not been created and sustained principally by quietly virtuous persons with a delicate sense of justice.  On the contrary they have generally been the products, or by-products, of overweening ambition and of a large appetite for power and glory.’

What this means is that to achieve and maintain the political and social conditions found in stable and largely just societies may not be possible without, for example, deceit, manipulation and even violent coercion.  It may require politicians to act in ways that are the very opposite of justice and fairness in the pursuit of an ultimately noble and worthwhile goal. This is sometimes referred to as Machiavelli’s Problem, the difficult relationship between public ends and means. Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli famously advised Princes to ‘learn how not to be good’ and use this knowledge when necessary to achieve worthwhile ends. When the welfare of citizens is at stake, a politician who refuses to partake in unsavoury and immoral actions would be failing to fulfil her promise to protect and further the interests of those she represents.  This is not a noble act of refusing to do wrong but a form of moral self-indulgence and which likely would bring ruination to those the politician is duty bound to protect.

Conspiracy theories meaning and origin SUGGESTED READING What Are Conspiracy Theories? By Quassim Cassam This brings us back to the issue of how we ought to judge the actions of politicians. The standard moral theories for accessing political actions and the characters of the men and women who perform them typically offer a binary evaluation of their actions and characters.  Politicians can only act in one of two ways; either morally right or morally wrong and can only be either good or bad.  But there is a third way of thinking about political actions that require lying, manipulation and other immoral acts.  Here we find cases of ‘dirty hands’, morally conflictual situations where politicians do wrong in order to do right. Given the context of necessary political action, such actions, all things considered, are morally required yet, paradoxically, also leave the politician with ‘dirty hands’, and some amount of moral pollution.

Returning to the question of why politicians act in ways that undermine their credibility and our trust in them, one way to answer this is to note that the nature and demands of politics makes this inevitable. All too often we may be using an inappropriate moral standard, one that applies to our personal lives, to judge our politicians. This is a poor fit, and as a result we sometimes judge too harshly and at times not harshly enough.  Politicians are wrongly condemned for acts they are duty bound to do (lie, deceive, use manipulation and so on) and mistakenly praised when they fail to be resilient and get dirty hands in the face of dangers (both domestic and international). To put it another way, the role of politician is circumscribed by a political morality, which involves specific duties and obligations that are absent from a personal morality.  A political morality demands that politicians dirty their hands when there is a need to do so even if it violates their own personal moral prohibitions and concerns.  

hume collage SUGGESTED READING How Would Hume Explain Our Political Divisions? By Rachel Cohon To be clear, we do not want, and it is certainly not in our interests to have, vicious, immoral and self-serving persons represent us.  We want our politicians to be good and virtuous men and women. But as the political philosopher Michael Walzer points out, we also want and need our politicians not to be ‘too good for politics’ so that they undertake dirty hands actions when it is necessary to do so. We also want politicians who get dirty hands to feel the moral pollution from so acting as this indicates that they are good persons suitable to be our politicians. In short, our moral landscape is not a binary one and there is a distinction between the good, the bad and the dirty handed.

There are some important caveats that need to be stressed when arguing that it is sometimes necessary to get dirty hands in politics.  Although an effective politician will find it necessary to engage in such actions, there is always a high cost to doing so.  It is better to avoid, if at all possible, political actions that involve moral violations. However, when they are inevitable, there are special dangers of which everyone, especially politicians, ought to be aware and guard against. It is often far too easy to claim that an action was a case of dirty hands rather than straightforwardly the wrong thing to do. Politicians can fall prey to the inherent and subtle biases in their own motivations. The line between the use of immoral means and justified dirty hands scenarios, a line that is always a little fuzzy, can be easily lost leading to abuses and corruption which in turn propagates further moral violations to cover up the initial abuses. Engaging in dirty hands actions is always difficult, demanding, dangerous, and morally polluting.  It should not be done lightly or flippantly but only when no alternative courses of action are possible.

By understanding that politicians need, at times, to dirty their hands on our behalf due to the nature and demands of politics, we can begin to judge politicians and their actions more accurately and fairly. This will serve to counter the naïve view that all politicians are liars and self-serving individuals who disrespect and ignore the concerns and wishes of those they represent. Politicians need to be judged by a political ethic where they can legitimately dirty their hands in the pursuit of worthwhile and noble goals. However, allowing for dirty hands is not the same as arguing that politics is simply about brute power or that effective politicians can ignore moral prohibitions on the use of violence, deceit and manipulation.  Recognising the need for dirty hands allows for the proviso of a realistic framework for fairly judging politicians; this without falling prey to either a naïve moral view which results in political idiocy or a crude dismissal of important ethical restraints which leads to cynicism and despondency with our political class. We are, in short, able to understand why politicians sometimes must dissemble, obfuscate, lie, and act in other ways that is abhorrent to our personal moral values.

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