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UPSC ethics simplified: Politics plus or minus ethics


Political ethics, sometimes called political morality or public ethics, is the practice of making moral judgments about political action and the study of that practice. Ethics is usually defined as the set of moral principles that direct one’s behaviour and define what is considered to be right and wrong. Similarly, political ethics refers to making moral judgements to guide action and methods of decision-making for the public good.

‘Politics’ and ‘ethics’ don’t go together

It is often said that politics, ethics, and personal morality are not always aligned. There are different schools of thought on ethics in politics. Some would argue that politicians should stick to universal principles such as justice or fairness to rule better. On the other hand, political realists such as Machiavelli argued that there is no room for ethics in politics or that the ethical principles that govern citizens’ behaviour should not bind politicians. 

In fact, political leaders throughout history have often had to make unethical decisions to advance the interests of their nation or state. For realists, politics is an active pursuit of power and nation-states are engaged in constant struggle with one another to maximise their security in the anarchic world order. So if politicians and statesmen are to be effective in this anarchic system, they cannot be bound by some abstract ethical principles that would constrain this pursuit. Political realists like Machiavelli reject ethical principles as they constrain nations in the pursuit of power.

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Ethics is integral to politics

Mahatma Gandhi tried to make a bridge between politics and ethics. According to the Mahatma, the end goal of politics is to serve the people, not politics itself. Politics can’t be done without morality and ethics. As for morality and ethics, their meaning is to be compassionate and understand the feelings of others. In the same way, Aristotle also believed that ethics and politics are strongly related. Ethics examines the good of the individual, while politics examines the good of the state, which he considered to be the best type of community. Along these lines, there are codes of conduct for politicians in many countries, like the U., the US, Canada, and Germany. Also in India, there is a code of conduct for the members of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha.

Any discussion on an ethical framework for governance in a democracy must start with ethical values in politics, experts say. Politicians and those engaged in politics play a vital role in the legislative and executive wings of the state, whose acts of commission and omission in working the Constitution and the rule of law become the point of intervention for the judiciary. The standards set in politics profoundly influence many aspects of governance and the behaviour of the people at large.

Politics without ethics is disastrous

In the present scenario, experts say, politics is more about competition than doing good for the public and it is no longer about idealism and constructive criticism. They say that keeping the recent incidents at the international as well as the national level, like the Russia-Ukraine war and the Nupur Sharma case, respectively, in mind the lack of ethics in politics is palpable. The repercussions of these events have an impact on the country and the public at large. Experts point out that politicians are also public servants—their actions should be for the public good and their opinion should not be insensitive toward any community. 

They say it should be “we” rather than “they and us” and for a country like India, whose democracy is woven from the threads of different communities, castes, races, religions, and languages, ethical conduct is very essential to be followed to keep this nation bound together. As rightly said by Mahatma Gandhi, politics without principles and ethics would be disastrous.

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