The role and place of morality in politics have been a tough question for philosophers for generations. Nowadays, it remains one of the most controversial topics, and it will cause disputes as long as society does not consist of a homogenous community with identical values. It is only natural for such debates to occur, yet the arguments vary significantly between time periods, countries, communities, and even within political parties. The role of the government has changed throughout humanity’s history by shifts in accepted values. At the same time, it was always apparent that the act of imposing one’s will onto others is often linked with violence, causes disharmony, and promotes hatred (Machiavelli, 2010). With the rise of democracy, it became clear that people strive for prosperity rather than life under others’ beliefs, and morality serves as a method to strive for fairness. In this essay, the nuances in the application of morality in politics will be discussed from the position of several philosophers, as well as mine. Moreover, one of the current political events will be a review of the moral values that lie at its core to provide an example of the role of morality in the United States.
Relationship between Politics and Morality
In modern politics, democracy has almost put a stop to imposing the norms of morality from the point of view of the few on the majority. However, it does not mean that decisions made by lawmakers became free of this assessment. Instead, the voice of the people is what dictates what moral obligations one has to the society one live in. It is undeniable that some actions can be deemed unacceptable on moral grounds, such as killings and discrimination. Under such a form of ruling, the role of the government is to prevent acts that the vast majority of people consider to be prohibited. In fact, politicians appear to play a role of a mediator of the voice of the majority regarding the acceptable. But it is not always so, and some aspects of politics may instead be detrimental to this notion.
I would like to review the positions of several prominent political philosophers, such as Niccolo Machiavelli, Thucydides, Bernard Mandeville, and Kenneth Waltz. Their perspectives assist in the depiction of the role of morality in politics of the past and lead to the modern-day theories and realities that stem from this evolution. The authors’ opinions may not align with the role of morality defined above, but they all assist in creating an argument in favor of linking morality with political matters.
Theory of International Politics by Kenneth Waltz
I chose to use this work because it presents a more recent analysis of the debates on the topic and uses modern theories that give better introspection into the country’s affairs. The author argues that the modern world consists of entirely interdependent entities that must respect the notions of domestic affairs for the benefit of everyone. In this light, morality is a necessary constraint upon states that prevents them from acting solely for their benefit with a complete disregard for the needs and wishes of others. The balance of power is in everyone’s interests, making international diplomacy a crucial requirement for moral politics (Waltz, 1979). The author also points out that equal rights are a position of morality, as the state of equilibrium is the only way to ensure that the wishes of each individual are taken into consideration fairly (Waltz, 1979). Waltz draws a list of variables that are universally applicable and allows the measurement of this balance. Waltz (1979) states that “the quality of international-political life” depends on both the inner structure of said entities and their cooperation (p. 70). These requirements cannot be reached without strong beliefs in fairness in accordance with a standard higher than one’s personal values.
The Fable of the Bees by Bernard Mandeville
The representation of society within Mandeville’s book takes a drastic turn that shows the inner drives of human society. While the work itself was controversial at that time, its understanding has changed over the years, and nowadays, it poses a picture that shows the place of morality in politics. People with strict morals stifle the progress of society due to their innate inability to accept the impulsive nature of others (Mandeville, 2010). The disintegration of society due to the moral values imposed by a higher power can be linked with a tyrannical rule by an individual whose values do not align with those of their subjects.
Machiavelli’s The Prince
Machiavelli presents a different point of view that is highly controversial by its nature, as his works can be considered as a guide for a tyrant. While his arguments are highly engaging, their contradictory nature presents an evident argument against the inclusion of morality in politics on any level other than country-wide voting. The author of The Prince defends the point that government figures are reliant on pre-existing morals, which they have to bend, force, and slowly reconstruct in order to maintain their position (Machiavelli, 2010). Machiavelli (2010) has argued that “one has always need of the goodwill” of their subjects (p. 22). Yet this goodwill is difficult to achieve without grand machinations and abuses of power, through which changes in the public perception will eventually lead to the creation of the desired public opinion. The author’s point is that noble methods may allow one to rise to power, but they will prohibit them from retaining it for an extended period (Machiavelli, 2010). Leaving morality to be decided by the politicians instead of the people they are supposed to serve is letting these figures play this dangerous game openly and with minor consequences.
The two works of fiction written by Thucydides show the culture of Athenians that the author recognized as exemplary. First, Pericles’s Funeral Oration shows the author’s genuine praise for the democracy established in Athens. Thucydides reveals that this form of government leads to greater freedoms and a higher quality of life (Thucydides, 2021). The ability of each Athenian to exhibit behavior based on moral virtues is what brought the city to its upbringing (Thucydides, 2021). Judging everyone in accordance with their merit is put at the centerpiece of this elevation.
However, the Melian dialogue presents two sides: Athenians and Melians, in their negotiation for the ceasing of aggression, where Athens is shown as a party only driven by its self-interest. In this work, it is clearly shown that the sides possess diametrically opposite notions of justice, as Melians relied on fairness while Athenians insisted on their wishes to be satisfied (Thucydides, 2021). The author appears to take the position of Athenians, as his admiration for the Athenian government model was clearly outlined before. However, by modern standards, it may appear unfair and totalitarian to impose such a harsh request upon a weaker opponent.
My Opinion on the Subject
It is undeniable that morality plays a role in politics and will continue to do so, but the choice of whom should represent it is the real question. Throughout this course, I came to believe that morality is inseparable from politics, but the application of this notion should not ever lie in the hand of the few. While some people may express their agreement with the perceived fairness of the decision-making processes of these few, it may be improperly weighted by its effect on the majority due to the propaganda or emotional response rather than rationale.
Morality should be upheld in politics in the form of people controlling the actions of their governments. I understand that the question remains as to whose moral values should be upheld. This is where the problem appears, as the answer is somewhere between no one and everyone since the only solution to this issue is a fair compromise. This issue can be viewed as two-fold since people may argue against government-imposed morality or politician-promoted morality. In modern society, it is believed that politicians should represent the will of the people, act, and make decisions on their behalf. In turn, a government has the role in upholding these nationally voted and agreed upon moral codes, and these laws are the only vision that the government should ever promote. The concepts of right and wrong may vary within the population, as can be seen in the current two-party rift in the United States. However, the decisions that led to the creation of these concepts were made through compromises from all participating sides, meaning that fairness is reached not through the power of the stronger side but through peaceful negotiations.
In fact, it is up to the word of the law that was established within any given country to be the final indicator of what is considered to be moral or immoral. It can be safely assumed that this instance of morality has been accepted by the people who live under it, which is valid for many modern countries. Every political group has its own set of morals it wants to impose upon others. It is within the role of the government to prevent this from happening, preferably through peaceful dialogue, compromise, and public voting. Therefore, the issue is not whether morality has a role in politics or not, since it always will have. Instead, society needs to understand how and why politicians should be limited in decisions on what should be considered morally right to avoid giving priority to their affiliated group. Only through such restrictions could it be possible to combine morality and politics in a peaceful tone.
Example of the Current Event
For this assignment, I chose to highlight one of the most recent political events in the United States: Joe Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) bill and its setback. This bill has been in the planning stage for almost a year, with numerous critical concerns for an entire planet and the United States, in particular, being taken into consideration. The decision of Senator Joseph Manchin to oppose its approval was met with a harsh reaction from both society and his political affiliates (Plumer & Popovich, 2021). As the outcome of the vote, the bill was postponed after a close call in a 50-50 split of voters (Duehren, 2021). It is essential to briefly analyze the contents of this bill to highlight how morality played its role in the decision-making process for both its proponents and opponents. The question arose among the Democratic party: is this bill beneficial to the people of the United States in its current form and considering the current situation in society?
The rejection of this proposition does not imply that the bill itself is somehow wrong or focuses on topics that are of no concern. In fact, climate change and education are some of the most critical issues for modern society on a global scale. President Biden’s proposition to invest vast sums into these spheres is based on clearly outlined scientific evidence that shows the need to take drastic measures (Plumer & Popovich, 2021). Such actions indeed were included in the $2 trillion funding of BBB (Plumer & Popovich, 2021). However, their coverage may be prematurely too extended, perhaps, to the point where more immediate issues, such as spikes in inflation rates and surmounting debts, are being unjustly ignored (Duehren, 2021). The choice that was made by the politicians, and especially by Senator Manchen, was not about right or wrong.
In this situation, morality is involved in the decision-making process of both sides. By looking from the position of the supporters of BBB, it is immoral to reject the funding of preschool educational facilities, improvements to the environment people live in, and alleviating some of the healthcare-related issues. However, its opponents have a point as well, as the ever-increasing national debt may not withstand the impact of this bill and turn into a new financial crisis for the United States (Duehren, 2021). The risk it imposed would have been laid upon the citizens of the country, whom the senate voters represent. As these consequences would be dramatic for the majority, I agree with the vote since it could be seen as a disregard for the current, barely upheld stability within society. The issues this bill covers are essential, and their resolution would improve the lives of many people, yet its financial consequences could ruin the lives of an even higher number of U.S. citizens.
In conclusion, there is no definite answer to the question of whether politics should rely on the morality of the chosen government representatives or not. However, it is clear that the direction in which these people move should first and foremost consider the will of the people. By striving for the fairest outcome possible, politicians can fulfill their role as the representatives of the voice of the majority. Many philosophers argue that morals are an inseparable part of politics, yet whose role in defining these values is constantly being argued upon. However, with dishonest politicians that bend morality to their whims, the only outcome to be expected is the rise of a Machiavellian tyrant. In modern days, democracy can fail due to the pressure from governments that aim to impose views that are not aligned with the needs of the many. Ideally, the people are the only ones who are in power to establish such norms, and the progressive communities should be able to internalize this notion and keep it as the foundation of society.
Duehren, A. (2021). Manchin long raised concerns about ‘Build back better.’ can Democrats address them now? WSJ. Web.
Machiavelli, N. (2010). The prince. Microsoft Press.
Mandeville, B. (2010). The fable of the bees: Or, private vices, publick benefits. Online Library of Liberty.
Plumer, B., & Popovich, N. (2021). What the stalled build back better bill means for climate, in one chart. The New York Times. Web.
Thucydides. (2021). On justice, power, and human nature: Selections from the history of the Peloponnesian War. P. Woodruff (Ed.). Hackett Publishing.
Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of international politics. Addison-Wesley Publishing.