on the relationship between ethics and politics

The basic ethical question is “What should I do?” Three prevalent ways of addressing that question are: 1) to universalize, asking what you’d want anyone to do who was similarly situated, 2) to maximize, asking how you can do the most good for the most people, given your resources and options, or 3) to exhibit and develop virtues, such as courage, generosity, and truthfulness. Philosophers love scenarios in which these methods yield conflicting answers, but in a vast range of ordinary circumstances, they concur.

The basic political question is “What should we do?” The verb is plural because politics exists once people belong to groups of any kind, from small voluntary associations to nation-states. To be sure, the ethical question never vanishes, because you can ask whether you should belong to a given group and what you personally should do in relation to it. But the plural question raises a new set of issues that are not directly addressed in individual ethics.

For one thing, we decide what we should do together—not necessarily democratically or equitably, but as a result of several people’s influence. Since each of us is fallible, and other perspectives have value, it may be wise to yield to a group’s judgment even if you would have done something different on your own. You may be especially inclined to go along with a group’s decisions if its processes were equitable and deliberative. The virtues of intellectual humility and civility argue for supporting the group’s decision. But that is the wrong choice if the group is misguided, and you retain the options of resistance or exit.

This means that issues of complicity arise in politics that are not salient in individual ethics. A group to which I belong acts in my name. Am I therefore complicit in the harm that it does? On the other hand, how do I know that what I would have decided alone is really better than what the group has decided by discussing?

The group has potential value. It can accomplish more than an individual can—whether for good or evil—as long as it holds together. To form and maintain a functioning group is an achievement, requiring individuals to coordinate their behaviors and often to sacrifice for the whole. Because groups have potential and are vulnerable, it can be wise to support less-than-ideal behavior in order to maintain the group for another day. In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen emphasizes that democracy always involves sacrifice, and the sacrifice is usually unequal. So the question “What should we do?” implies that all have given—and some may have given much more than others—to create the “we” and to act together. There comes a point when the sacrifice is too high or too unequal to sustain, but some sacrifice is necessary to create the conditions for politics in the first place.

Each of the prevalent methods for addressing individual ethical questions can be applied in politics, but with important modulations.

First, instead of universalizing in a hypothetical mode, we can create actual covenants that bind all. In ethics, a person asks, “What would I want anyone to do if she faced my situation?” In a group, however, we can ask, “What must everyone actually do in situations like this, and how will we set and enforce penalties for those who fail to do it?” Sometimes, actual covenants should differ from ethical norms, because it can be wise to overlook or even accept non-ideal behavior in order to preserve liberty or to maintain a group whose members would quit if the rules were too strict. That means that the logic of real covenants differs from the logic of hypotheticals.

Second, instead of maximizing the benefits of individual actions, we can maximize the benefits of what a group does together. The main difference is that we must consider the group’s future capacity to act effectively. In many cases, a group that maximizes net benefits for the world would dissolve, because the level of sacrifice expected of its members would be too great, and they would exit. Since the existence of a group permits deliberation and coordinated action, which are impossible for individuals, dissolution may be too high a price to pay.

Christopher Winship acknowledges that justice demands raising the quality of the schooling available to the least advantaged American students. However, he argues, “the best way to approach serving the interests of the least well off [may be] to avoid policies that decisively pit the interests of the less advantaged families against those of the more advantaged families.” He cites evidence that Scandinavian countries have achieved the highest levels of shared prosperity and economic equality in the world today not by directly pursuing equality but by negotiating policies that are attractive to business as well as labor. These compromises have created durable and accountable states that have been able to deliver high-quality services for all.* This is an example of how preserving the group (in this case, a Nordic democracy) can do more good than maximizing the benefits of the group’s actions at any given moment.

Third, we can consider the virtues of a group—virtues understood, in an Aristotelian way, as dispositions that are reflected in, and reinforced by, actions. In other words, virtues are habits that can be deliberately shaped. Groups as well as people can have virtues, such as courage, temperance, magnanimity, etc. Developing and maintaining virtues requires different strategies when a group instead of an individual is the thing that is virtuous or vicious.

This discussion has assumed a simple dichotomy of individuals and groups. That scheme must be complicated in two fundamental ways.

On one hand, individuals do not really precede groups. Anyone who thinks in a language is already part of a linguistic community. Anyone who asks of her nation “What should we do?” probably developed her opinions under the influence of that already-existing nation. These are examples of the ontological dependence of individuals on groups.

On the other hand, groups are rather like individuals in their interactions with one another. Robert O. Keohane and Elinor Ostrom co-edited a book that explored the close parallels between collective-action problems in small communities and among states. In both contexts, there is typically no single enforcer who can determine the behavior of the parties. There is plenty of room for disaster, yet sometimes the parties work out solutions, from rules for pasturing goats on common land to international arms treaties.

Furthermore, governments do not merely work “within their jurisdictions by imposing authoritative rules on their subjects” (p. 11) Even dictatorships cannot do that, because they cannot police and control their populations without a great deal of voluntary cooperation. A government is not a single actor that stands apart from society and directs it, but rather as a whole set of human actors (politicians, civil servants, front-line workers) who constantly interact with each other and with people outside the government. Not much is accomplished unless they are able to motivate voluntary compliance with agreements.

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their Bloomington School see governance as “polycentric.” At the local level, we are constantly interacting in game-like situations with other people who may either cooperate or not. There are islands of command-and-control in which some individuals tell others what to do, but their capacity to control usually depends on norms of willing compliance. Nation-states exist in a global anarchy, without any power above them, but they have managed to work out some arrangements for cooperation. And between nation-states and local communities are complex webs of arrangements involving intermediary organizations such as municipalities and regional governments, parties, interest groups, and media organizations. Cooperation, competition, and mutual destruction are all possible in all of these contexts.

I think that the categories of the ethical and the political constantly recur at all scales, and which one is most salient depends mainly on the perspective that seems most appropriate in the situation, that of an “I” or a “we.”

That said, scale matters, because it influences how we should think about agency and responsibility. We shoulder the most responsibility at the smallest scales, especially when we act alone. Agency is also most tangible at that scale: we can see what we accomplish by ourselves. However, we cannot accomplish much. At very large scales, agency is hard to detect because millions or billions of others are also at work, and it is unreasonable to expect the whole population to shift at anyone’s will. In the middle range (which I think is under-theorized), we can take part in effective action. That is politics. Politics is an ethical matter, in the broadest sense–there is a difference between right and wrong–but the ethical principles appropriate for individual action no longer suffice. A new set of considerations becomes important when we move from I to we.

*Christopher Winship, “From Principles to Practice and the Problem of Unintended Consequences,” in Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay, eds., Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 177-8.

See also: against methodological individualismis social science too anthropocentric? and two basic categories of problems.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.