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Politics and Ethics: Which Comes First?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 03, 2009

Here’s an interesting conundrum for you: Which comes first, ethics or politics? Instinctively, I think, a Catholic would shout “ethics”. But not so fast. Consider another way of putting the question: Do we want our politics to be wholly determined by our ethical vision, or do we primarily want to apply ethical standards to political activities that are independently born from and shaped by many other concerns?

This second relationship tends to mirror how the real world usually works. Various concerns, pressures, and problems come to light in society, and those with a responsibility for governing attempt to address them in effective ways in accordance with the common good. In so doing, the effectiveness of various proposals is examined, and sometimes the morality of one proposal or another becomes an issue. Hopefully, the governing group, in pursuing its own legitimate ends, can be helped by the light of ethics to avoid adopting a course or procedure that is morally wrong.

But at various times, especially over the past several hundred years, there has been a tendency to displace politics as a study or activity in its own right with an increasing insistence that political power in toto must be exercised according to the dictates of an ethical vision, and necessarily from the top down. By this I mean that governmental power must be used to implement an ethical vision of an ideal world order rather than simply to apply practical wisdom to pressing social problems, within limits set by an understanding of right and wrong. In this view, politics ceases to be the art of the possible with respect to significant problems affecting the common good and instead becomes the science of the moral with respect to some vision of a perfect world, not infrequently a utopian vision.

When politics is considered primarily as a tool of ethics, strange things begin to happen. For example, it may become the preoccupation of government to remake society according to a particular ethical view of the relationship between the sexes; or it may become the driving purpose of government to achieve the ethical imperative of eliminating poverty everywhere and for all time; or it may become the very litmus test of political correctness that all programs must be designed by those who claim a superior ethical vision. In other words, when politics is nothing but the servant of ethical theory, government increasingly ignores the real problems of real people and devotes itself to reshaping the social order de novo.

This sort of politics must inevitably become totalitarian. Think of the French Revolution and the subsequent reign of terror, or Communism in the last century, or even the incessant social engineering of the U.S. Supreme Court or the European Union. When we demand ethical government, we have to be careful what we wish for. We don’t really want a government that feels bound to remake society from scratch according to the ethical vision of our social elites.

What we do want is politics that grows first and foremost out of the practical problems facing real people in real places and their attempts to solve those problems. We want politics that is independently justified in addressing these problems pragmatically, not politics that derives both its legitimacy and its programs from a handbook of steps to implement an ethical utopia. Certainly we want government to choose solutions that will promote the common good, and certainly ethics has much to say about the common good. But the purpose of politics is primarily to bring practical wisdom to bear on concrete problems, and not to enforce an abstract vision of perfection. In practice then, we mainly want ethics to intervene in politics not so much as its engine as its boundary, to oppose and ultimately block those ends and solutions which may, in fact, be unacceptable because they are unethical.

To put the matter another way, even if our ethical vision contained all the richness and exquisite balance of the moral patrimony of the Catholic Church, we would not want our politics to be a mere ethical tool, for it is not the purpose of politics to create heaven on earth. Politics is a natural human study and a natural human practice with its own justification and its own internal dynamism. With respect to this political dynamism, the purpose of ethics is not to provide a blank check for the political implementation of a particular vision, where anything that serves the Ideal must be implemented. Rather, the purpose of ethics is to operate within a larger political arena already independently focused on intensely practical matters, so that ethics might play its own critical but essentially independent role.

Perhaps a final way to express this is that the first purpose of ethics in politics is not to drive it but to circumscribe it, not to unleash power but to prevent its abuse.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - May. 04, 2018 4:34 PM ET USA

    The intimate connection between God and the individual praying the psalms has always seemed to me to be best expressed in the standard French translation, La Bible de Jérusalem. Psalm 22, verse 4, reads: "Et toi, le Saint, qui habites les louanges d'Israël!" Literally, "And you, the Holy One, who live in the praises of Israel!" To me, this has always meant that when we pray the psalms, "the praises of Israel," we become alive with the life of God Himself.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 05, 2009 6:59 PM ET USA

    The purpose of politics is primarily to bring practical wisdom to bear on concrete problems, and not to enforce an abstract vision of perfection. This could be taken to mean that Congress can ignore the Constitution of the US. I would be most happy with Congress if it simply followed the Constitution and let subsidiarity rule the day as our Founding Fathers wanted. Less government is a far better thing than is a heavy handed totalitarian leaning government.

  • Posted by: fisherman129 - Nov. 04, 2009 3:35 PM ET USA

    Excellent presentation... Thanks.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 04, 2009 2:45 AM ET USA

    A very appropriate time for your article to arrive. As political pundits are enlightening us as to how and why politicians have won and can in 2010 win by avoiding the "third rail" of politics today: "societal issues". Perhaps my idea of societal issues is in error, but vice and virtue qualify as "societal". Are not abortion and traditional, heterosexual marriage societal? Should we not want to know if a campaigner believes in these principles before we vote for them?

  • Posted by: - Nov. 03, 2009 11:37 PM ET USA

    Today, ethics are pliable. One has to be careful how others apply their own ethics to politics when their ethics are diametrically opposed to a Christian ethic. The battle is not even ethics vs. politics and how we apply either. The battle is between freedom and lack of it.