The ethics of political institutions

The article underlines the specificity of political ethics with respect to personal ethics. For the former, the real problem is not the end to be achieved, but the means to be employed, with the resources available and taking into account the actual conditions.

Ángel Rodríguez Luño -December 30, 2016-Reading time: 10 minutes

Since I have been invited once again to write about the challenges facing moral theology today, I would like to propose some general considerations on political ethics, a branch of morality that is rather neglected.

Personal ethics and political ethics

In ordinary language, when we speak of ethics we usually think of a reflection that evaluates as good or bad the way of living of individual persons according to their conformity or opposition to the global good of human life. With this way of thinking we are really taking the part for the whole. The way of living of individuals is dealt with by personal ethics, but ethics also has other parts such as, for example, economic ethics, medical ethics, social ethics or political ethics.

Political ethics deals with the actions by which individuals gathered in a politically organized community (the State, the municipality, etc.) shape their life in common from the constitutional, legal, administrative, economic, educational, health, etc. point of view. These actions come from legislative or governmental bodies, or from individuals exercising a governmental function, but they are properly speaking actions of the political community, which, through its elected representatives, gives itself one form or another. Thus, for example, the laws that regulate university education, or the health system, or taxes, etc., are laws of the State, and not of the deputies John and Paul, although these have been their promoters.

The criterion by which political ethics values these actions of the community is their greater or lesser conformity with the end for which individuals wanted and still want to live together in an organized society. This end is called political common good (more simply, but much less accurately, it could also be called general welfare). In short, political ethics considers morally good those actions of the public apparatus (state, autonomous, municipal, etc.) that are in conformity with and promote the political common good, while it considers morally bad those that harm or oppose that good.

Naturally we now speak of political morality, which does not coincide exactly with the morality that personal ethics deals with, although it is related to it, sometimes very closely. Indeed, politically immoral actions sometimes stem from personal dishonesty... but not always. They can also be the consequence of simple incompetence, or of ideological categories, or of unsound economic conceptions that some people hold in good faith. For political ethics, the determining factor is not so much good (or bad) faith, but rather conformity and the promotion of the general welfare.

Some principles of distinction between personal ethics and political ethics can be deduced from the above. The most obvious one is that each of these branches of ethics is generally concerned with different kinds of actions: those of the individual and those of the politically organized community (legislative and governmental institutions). When one and the other seem to deal with the same type of actions, they actually consider two formally different dimensions of morality. Let us think, for example, that the deputies who vote for a law in parliament are sincerely convinced that the new law is in accordance with the general interest of their country. After a year and a half, experience shows with all evidence that the new law has been an evil. Can it be said that the approval of this law was a moral evil? Well, depends. From the point of view of the personal ethicsThose who, after having been informed, voted in good faith, lack personal guilt, and it cannot be said that they acted morally wrong. On the other hand, from the point of view of political ethics, an ethical evil has arisen: regardless of what happened in the conscience of those who voted in favor of that law, its contrary to the common good is a fact (and will continue to be so when, over the years, all the deputies who voted for it have passed away). The positive or negative moral quality of the form given to our life in common and to our collaboration - which is formally distinct from personal merit and moral guilt - is the specific object of political ethics.

The personal good and the political common good

The purpose of personal ethics is to teach people how to live well; or, in other words, to help each person to plan and live a good life. This immediately raises a few questions: by what authority can "ethics" enter into my existence to tell me how I should live; can an external body impose a way of living on me; can an external body impose a way of living on me?

In reality, ethics is not an external instance that wants to impose something on us, but it is within each one of us. Let us consider for a moment our own experience. We are constantly thinking about what we should do and what we should avoid; we draw up our plans; we plan our lives; we decide what profession we want to pursue, etc. Sometimes, a short or long time after having made a decision, one realizes that one has made a mistake, regrets it, and says to oneself that, if it were possible to go back, one would give one's life a quite different direction. The experience of regret makes us see the convenience of reflecting on the inner reasoning that precedes and prepares our decisions.

And that reflection is ethics. This, in fact, is nothing other than a reflection that seeks to objectify our inner deliberations, examining them as objectively as possible, critically controlling our inferences, evaluating past experiences and trying to foresee the consequences that a certain behavior can have for us and for those around us. Personal ethics is, therefore, a reflection that is born in a free conscience, and its findings are propose to other equally free consciences.

Returning to the question we are analyzing, this raises a difficult question for political ethics. If, as we have already said, its fundamental point of reference is the political common good, what is the relationship between this and the good life to which personal ethics looks? We will not stop now to review the various answers that have been given throughout history. We will only highlight a kind of antinomy that this relationship raises.

On the one hand, if the good life is the end that ethics proposes to freedom, and can only be realized insofar as it is freely willed, how could it also be the regulating principle of a set of instances, such as political institutions, which use coercion, and which have a monopoly on coercion? If the good life of citizens were also the aim of political institutions, would it not be the case that the State could consider obligatory all that is good, and forbidden all that is bad? And if among citizens there were different conceptions of the good life, would it be up to the State to determine which of them is true and therefore obligatory?

On the other hand, given that we live together to make possible through social collaboration our living and our living well, not certainly our living badly, can political institutions not consider at all what is good for us? If our good were to be disregarded, what other criteria could inspire the life of politically organized society? Moreover, the idea of an "ethically neutral" state does not seem realistic or accurate, simply because it is not possible. Indeed, the legal systems of civilized States prohibit murder, fraud, discrimination on the grounds of race, sex or religion, etc. They therefore have an ethical content. Another thing is that it is not considered lawful for political coercion to invade conscience and intimate convictions, but this is a substantial ethical requirement, linked to the freedom characteristic of the human condition, and not an absence of ethics. For this reason, a political environment from which all ethical considerations have been expelled in the name of freedom would turn against freedom itself, since the "ethical vacuum" would generate in citizens a set of anti-social and anti-solidarity habits that would end up making it impossible to respect the freedom of others and to abide by the rules of justice that make it possible to resolve in a civil manner the conflicts that inevitably arise between free persons. In the end, the strongest would prevail. Historical examples are not lacking.

How, then, is the relationship between the good life and the political common good to be understood? We do not have the space here to give a complete answer. But it is possible to propose two considerations. The first is that the political common good neither coincides completely with the good life, nor is it totally heterogeneous with respect to it. The second is that political institutions (the State) are at the service of social collaboration (society), and the latter exists so that people may freely attain their good (I am not saying that they actually attain it, but rather that can freely to achieve it). To live poorly and make ourselves miserable we would not seek the help of others.

Important consequences follow from these two considerations. In the first place, they make it possible to understand that some requirements of the personal good are absolutely binding for political ethics. Thus, for example, it would never be admissible, from a political point of view, a law that declares positively in accordance with the law an action considered by the majority of society as ethically negative (something quite different is "de facto tolerance" or "legal silence", which in certain circumstances may be convenient). Still less would a law be admissible that explicitly forbids a personal behavior that is commonly considered ethically obligatory, or that declares obligatory one that the generality of citizens think cannot be carried out without committing a moral fault.

At the same time, the fact that the good life and the political common good do not fully coincide means that, when one wants to argue that a certain act should be prohibited and punished by law, it is of little use to show that it constitutes a moral fault. Indeed, it is generally accepted that not everything that is morally wrong for the individual must be prohibited by the State. In short, not every sin is - nor should it be - a crime. Only those behaviors should be prohibited by the State that have a notable negative impact on the common good. This is what must be demonstrated if one wants to argue that this or that way of acting should be prohibited.

Third, good organization and the proper functioning of the public apparatus are necessary, but not sufficient. Good politics establishes instances and instruments of control, divides power among various bodies so that the exercise of power is always limited. However, these measures -which we could call structural- need the complement of personal virtue. It is not difficult to understand why: no matter how many systems of control and division of power are established, if corruption is introduced massively at all levels of a political structure, corruption prevails, and in such a case, as St. Augustine said, it would be impossible to distinguish the State from a gang of thieves.

The importance of the political point of view

Experience teaches that sometimes political problems are posed and attempted to be solved without having succeeded in framing them properly in what is the specific point of view of political ethics. Often one or another solution is proposed on the basis of reasoning that might be appropriate to personal ethics, but which does not even touch the political substance of the problem under study. Even more frequently, the need to achieve certain goals is insisted upon, which are presented as the banner of an ideological position, without realizing that there is no problem with them. And there is not, simply because we all agree on most of the goals that come up in public debates: we all want unemployment to disappear, we all want no citizen to lack quality health care, we all want economic growth, we all want the standard of living of the economically weak classes to improve, we all want the average level of education to improve, not to mention the desire for peace in the most conflictive regions of the world, for a solution to be found to the problem of migrants and refugees from war-torn countries, etc. What we do not agree on so much is the mode to achieve these goals.

In short, the real problem that the policy must solve is not that of the end to be achieved, but that of the media The company's strategy is based on concrete solutions to these sensitive issues, within the available resources, and taking into account the real conditions in which we find ourselves.

Therefore, as long as no reasonable concrete solutions to the media problem are proposed, both the decision-makers and the citizens who have to give or deny them their vote, will find themselves at the moment of truth without knowing what to do. It is as if the pilot of an airplane does not know where he has to take the passengers or, even worse, if the passengers do not even know where they have to go.

Political ethics and social processes

We have already said that political ethics deals with the activity of political institutions at various levels (state, community, municipal). These institutions have the typical characteristics of organizations: they have a hierarchical structure and are regulated by a set of precise rules according to the ends they pursue. However, the latter must be well defined, and it must not be lost sight of the fact that, in the final analysis, they consist of serving society and citizens. Otherwise, what was a means (the organization) will become something important in its own right. This is what happens when, instead of favoring social collaboration, political institutions give in to the temptation of the self-referentialityThe tendency to feed themselves and increase in size, to turn the useless into the necessary, and to bureaucratically hinder social processes.

Political processes and social processes are very different. In the former, there is a mind (it can also be a group of experts) that directs them according to the end sought: an order is conceived and coercion is used to enforce it. Social processes, on the other hand, are born of free collaboration among men and, moreover, generally do not respond to an intentional design. In contrast to the coercion and millimetric foresight typical of political processes, social processes are characterized by their spontaneity. Both the spheres and the instruments of these processes - such as the market, money and language itself - have arisen without responding to the order imposed by a directive mind. Likewise, the knowledge that regulates them is formed in the minds of millions of men as they interact. For this reason, it is a dispersed knowledge, difficult to formalize. In these processes, people who do not know each other, with different interests, but who at a given moment can reciprocally benefit from each other, interact.

From the point of view of political ethics, it is very important not only to know, but above all to respect this difference between political processes and social processes. It is not desirable to politically control the latter. And it is not desirable, above all, because it is not possible. No expert or group of experts can possess the necessary knowledge to do so. Attempts to social engineering end in complete failure, damage freedom, inhibit creativity and waste human and material resources. The idea of social order as spontaneous order, brilliantly proposed by F.A. Hayek, still seems to me to be fully valid, although it may require some slight refinement.

Even in the strictly political sphere, which we have already considered more akin to an organization, the idea of an engineering project raises doubts and fears. Wanting to alter secular institutions without due reflection, without preceding a calm, calm and profound social debate, without taking into account the sensitivity and convictions of a good part of the citizens, as well as the spontaneous dynamics of freedom, only because one has the parliamentary majority to do so, is a sign of the presumption that usually accompanies low intelligence and ideological blindness. Two phenomena that, unfortunately, almost always go together. Politics must respect and favor free social collaboration, without trying to corset it or adapt it to the intuitions of the "expert" in power. Submitting collective and secular knowledge to the ideas of a ruler or group of rulers will always mean, at the very least, a great impoverishment of social life and, many times, a disrespectful and unjust trampling, whatever the intention behind it. To run over and impoverish is precisely what good politics never does.

The authorÁngel Rodríguez Luño 

Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome)

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