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Ethics and Politics: A Very Short Introduction

2016/1/9 — 20:06

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When people make a political decision, regardless of whether they are officials or non-state actors, ethical framework(s) is(are) somehow applied in an attempt to make a right decision, though they may not realize it or misapply it(them). Specifically, ethics supplements law in guiding the behaviour of individuals, especially when the legal system has loopholes or when the legal clauses are unspecified (Bonde et al. 2013). Ethics can be used to evaluate whether a political action or the obedience or disobedience of law is morally justified with reasons (Ibid.). It will be ideal that if a political decision is compatible with different approaches of ethics. However, the situations are rarely the ideal one, especially when people need to handle the controversial issues. This article will briefly explain how different ethical approaches, which are supposed to guide the behaviours of individuals, can also respond to political contexts.

Regardless of various twists and turns, the three board ethical frameworks are consequentialism or sometimes called “the dirty hands tradition”, deontology and virtue ethics respectively (Ibid.).

The consequentialist framework and the dirty hands tradition have the similar implication that it will be permissible for the political stakeholders to pursue better consequences at the expense of morality. They are often severely criticized by deontologists, who suggested that political stakeholders are obliged to do the right action regardless of whether the consequence is good. Yet if a political action has no effect or catastrophic consequences, the decision makers will most likely be blamed by the public. Taking the Syrian refugees as an example, the advocates of the dirty hands tradition or consequentialism tend to take precedence of security over the humanitarian concern. They will most likely calculate the benefits of receiving Syrian refugees versus the risks of suffering terrorist attacks due to the possibility that terrorists disguise as refugees in order to penetrate into another country. For them, if its benefits outweigh its costs, a country' s refusal of receiving Syrian refugees can be considered as the blameful right-doing. Nevertheless, it is possible for them to miscalculate the pros and cons of different options, and in some circumstances, it is hard to guarantee that a political action, such as war, nonviolent resistance and revolution must be successful. Some consequentialists will then suggest that a political action is justifiable if it has a reasonable chance of success in the ex-ante sense.

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Some deontologists, by contrast, argue that a country has a duty to receive the Syrian refugees if the humanitarian concern is a legitimate reason by its nature. Nonetheless, deontologists are divided in themselves. Kantians overwhelmingly suggest harming others because of the bad intentions is not permissible in all circumstances (Ibid.). Those who endorse with Virginia Held’s view will defend the appropriateness of a harmful political action which redistributes injustice (Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 116; Yeung 2015). Those who endorse with Uwe Steinhoff will criticize Held' s view that a harmful political action will only increase the total injustice rather than achieve the redistribution of injustice (Schwenkenbecher 2012, p. 123; Ibid.; Yeung 2015). Igor Primoratz (2013) criticized both views in his book Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation, because the former does not fulfil the principle of “separateness of persons”, while the latter cannot realize that Held' s view is both deontological and consequential. While Primoratz' s arguments are insightful, this article counter-argues that the principle of “separateness of persons” may cause the greater violation of human rights for each person in some situations. For example, if a government requires the airlines to cancel the flight for the sake of safety concern after it receives intelligence that a terrorist intend to launch a terrorist attack during the flight or at the airport, this measure will violate the “separateness of persons” because it also affects those non-terrorists, but it is somehow deontologically acceptable because it can safeguard people' s right to life and minimize the harm.

Virtue ethics is different with consequentialism and deontology, since it requires the political stakeholders to act virtuously rather than to maximize the net benefits or to fulfil the basic duties. Confucian ethics, which proposes the inner-sage-outer-king paradigm, is a good example, though it cannot fully represent the virtue ethics. Nonetheless, Confucian ethics and deontology are not mutually exclusive. It emphasized that a good ruler has a duty to ensure that his people can keep their property and tackle the poverty problem. It also claimed that an intellectual or gentleman is obliged to help the rulers to cultivate their excellent character. If a ruler is extremely fatuous and brutal, the right to revolution is granted to all other classes and it will be inappropriate for intellectuals or gentlemen to obey him or her continually.

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Anyway, it is noted that there is no absolute answer in most of the ethico-political issues, and each ethical approach has its limitations. Yet it is still worthwhile to engage into the endless ethical-political debates, not least because it helps individuals to excel themselves intellectually and introduces some rigorous frameworks to evaluate the rightness versus wrongness of the political actions, which is a very important pre-requisite for different political stakeholders to make some right decisions. Even if the political stakeholders ignore them either deliberately or unconsciously in practices, the ethical frameworks provide scholars and citizens a tool to identify the logical or/and the ethico-political problems made by them. In other words, ethical frameworks can be an informal check-and-balance system, while the legal system is a formal one. The former can also be a check-and-balance system of the latter, which helps various parties to identify the loopholes and injustice of the legal clauses if there is any. Even if some bad decisions had been made, political stakeholders could make reflection based on the ethical frameworks, or the public could realize what the problems are, so that they could learn from the mistakes. That' s why ethics and politics are somehow inseparable.

 

References:

Bonde, Sheila, Firenze, Paul, Green, James, Grinberg, Margot, Korijin, Josephine, Levoy, Emily, Naik, Alysha, Ucik, Laura & Weisberg, Liza. 2013. “A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions.” in Brown University, retrieved at 19 December 2015 from <http://www.brown.edu/academics/science-and-technology-studies/framework-making-ethical-decisions>

Primoratz, Igor.  2013. Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation. Cambridge: Polity Press

Schwenkenbecher, Anne. 2012. Terrorism: A Philosophical Enquiry. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York : Palgrave Macmillan

Yeung, Ting-fai. 2015. “Ethical Approaches to Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction.” in The Glocal, retrieved at 19 December 2015 from <http://www.glocal.org.hk/archives/41579>

 

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