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Political Ethics is an Oxymoron

Public Policy Must Be Guided by Ethical Principles

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics defines “political ethics” as the practice of making moral judgments about political action, and the study of that practice. As a field of study, it is divided into two branches: the ethics of process and the ethics of public policy. The ethics of process focuses on public officials and the methods they use while the ethics of policy concentrates on judgments about policies and laws. Regardless of how they are defined, political ethics is at a low point in the U.S. because of self-serving decision-makers in our legislatures, the desire to remain in office by cozying up to outside interests, and avoiding the tough issues by “kicking the can down the road.”

Political ethics is a subset of ethics and, as such, can be analyzed using the traditional ethical reasoning methods of Deontology and Teleology. In Deontology, ethical decisions are those that satisfy the rights of the public and duties of public officials to honor and act on those rights. In this regard our legislators and politicians have failed miserably.

It seems for at least twenty years we have been dealing with the same problems: a national debt spiraling out of control; immigration reform; a decaying infrastructure; failing schools; minority unemployment; and so on. The reason these issues go untreated is we are a polarized nation. Legislators and politicians make promises to their constituents that are aimed at keeping them in office, not problem solving, even though most of these promises will never be met. The public good no longer is front and center in decision-making. Ethical decision-making has become too relativistic and not based on tried and true ethical standards, such as diligence, integrity, and responsibility.

For example, we all know Donald Trump will not be able to get Mexico to pay for the wall. The wall may never be built. Trump can’t do it alone, unless he uses his own money rather than get Congress to allocate the funds. Hillary Clinton makes promises to reduce or eliminate student debt; expand programs for the poor; expand environmental regulations, and so on. Will she be able to get Congress to approve funding for these and other public works projects? If she does the national debt will increase markedly, which also might happen in a Trump administration unless promised tax cuts stimulate the economy sufficiently to reduce the debt.

Teleological reasoning adds to the notion that legislators don’t really care anymore about the public good. The costs of delaying solving long-standing problems does no good except satisfy the narrow interests of one group or another; it increases the ultimate costs to solve the problems; and it provides no current benefits to the public. As in all ethical decision-making, the ends do not justify the means. Ethical decision making demands timely and consistent action aimed at satisfying short-term and long-term public needs and creating a sustainable model.

The fact that difficult problems get put on the back burner doesn’t surprise me as it reflects a societal norm these days of looking for instant gratification and instant results, rather than dealing with the realities of making long-term decisions born out of long-term commitments and the willingness to sacrifice now for the greater good of future generations.

It’s a shame we have morphed into a society that takes its cue from images and postings on social media and a cult of celebrity. The result has been that societal ethics have fallen by the waist side, replaced by a “what’s in it for me” attitude. The same is true of politicians and legislators. The truth is we no longer have statesman that put country ahead of self-interest. We no longer have leaders driven by a desire to meet their public interest obligations. We no longer are a “can do” nation as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

We have become complacent and blinded to the fact that other countries, such as China, have expanded their economic strength and we are literally in debt to them. We have lost our political muscle as Russia expands its territorial hold on countries of the former Soviet Union. We have opened the door for Russia and, excuse the pun, it is rushing in to take advantage in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Iran has enough money now that had been blocked to fund radical causes around the world and to expand their influence. No one is dealing with these geopolitical realities.

Ethics demands timely and consistent action aimed at serving the public interest. Delaying and procrastinating is antithetical to ethical norms. We need to regain our economic and political will if we are to remain a “shining city upon a hill.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 13, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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