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Political Ethics

Political ethics covers two areas, the first being the ethics process that deals with public officials and the methods that they use. The second area that it covers is the ethics of policy that covers judgments about policies and laws.

Niccolo Machiavelli is often considered the founding father of the first areas of political ethics¹. He believed that a political leader may be required to commit acts that would be wrong if done in public¹. In today’s political world, this phenomenon is called the problem of dirty hands, where politicians must sometimes do wrong in order to do right.

Some critics of this dirty hands theory object that politicians are either justified or not. In this sense, if the politician is justified then there is nothing wrong. In a broader sense, if the act is justified and still considered morally wrong by the populace, the populace’s hands are dirty too². It has also been noted that it is very hard to determine who is responsible for outcomes in government decisions, and this a problem known as ‘many hands’².

In global justice the conflict is between the claims of the nation state and citizens on one side and the claims of all citizens of the world on the other side. Traditionally, priority has been given to the claims of nation states, but this has started to shift in recent times². Political ethics is also concerned with the moral problems raised by the need for political compromise, whistleblowing, civil disobedience, and criminal punishment².



1. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince and the Discourses. (McGraw Hill, 1950).

2. Thompson, Dennis F. “Democratic Dirty Hands.” Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University press, 1987). p. 11-39. 

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