Short essay on Morality and Politics

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Morality is often defined as the doctrine of actions, right or wrong; it is synonymous with ethics. What is wrong or merely expedient cannot be moral, just as what is right and just, or born of sound principles and designed to promote the social good, cannot be immoral.

Jeremy Bentham was certainly right when he said that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.

Generally, principles and convictions are in conflict with expediency; but what is expedient is not moral, and what is moral is almost always inexpedient”. Thus arises the conflict and a confrontation between morality and politics. While morality dictates justice and fair play, politics, as Sidney Hillman remarked, is the science of who gets what, when and why.

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Morality demands an equitable distribution of goods and commodities, while politics implies a policy of grab seize whatever you can get, regardless of the needs and claims of others. Moralists are selfless and preach justice in every sphere of life; injustice is anathema to them, since it is against their grain. But, politicians are generally selfish, self seeking and are out to make hay while the sun shines.

The contrast is indeed too glaring to escape notice and the quality of a State or society is to be judged by the extent to which morality pervades politics. If the people, especially the politicians, tend to observe morals, they constitute a healthy and sound society. If they mostly disregard morals and tend to be short sighted and self seeking, they constitute an unhealthy society, which will perish before long.

The million dollar question, a conscientious politician recently asked, is whether there can be a golden mean between these apparently irreconcilable poles of conduct?

Is it possible to chalk out a line between principles and expediency, or between pure morality and mundane politics?

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Morality knows nothing of geographical boundaries or distinctions of race or colour, while politics is essentially the same in the many continents if we allow for local variations and indigenous trends. In democratic countries, wherever they are situated, it would be the same story of a struggle for power, for perpetuating the safe citadel and keeping at bay the opponents or critics.

In such countries, the main aim of every political party is to seize power and oust its rivals. Few politicians attach importance to the means and methods so long as the objectives are duly achieved. Morals and morality, however, do not permit the adoption of any means. It is all a question of values.

In the modern age, the traditional values in themselves moral and symbols of rectitude, have been radically transformed. Most of the principles are in a flux and human convictions based on rich human experience are in the melting pot.

Obsessions with circumstances and the peculiar conditions prevailing in a region have proved so over powering that everything else is thrown overboard.

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The current political scene in many continents is so hopelessly lacking in moral ardour and sound convictions that sheer opportunism holds sway. As the years pass, more and more people, spread over vast continents, are being reminded of the inimitable Johnson’s denunciation of politics as the last resort of a scoundrel.

Butler, in his lively work “Miscellaneous Thoughts”, said all the politics of the great are like the cunning of cheats. For the sake of making a set of people comfortable and live in luxury, the interests of a vast section are sacrificed with a callousness that amazes the simpleton and the uninitiated.

Truth is just another facet of morality, and truth and politics are poles apart, being basically incompatible. A truthful and honest politician has almost become a contradiction in terms. Deceit and duplicity are writ large over the faces of most politicians, even though they swear by principles, ideologies and the high-sounding precepts of the Constitution. Indulgence in platitudes is their religion and breaking of promises their forte.

Morality just does not form a rule of the game known as politics. Instead, the keyword is corruption. Every man, it is said, has his price. If morality had been the basis of modern society, no one would have dared to indulge in such wholesale condemnation of politics and politicians.

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But it is not the modern age and all its ramifications alone that have taught politicians to sell their souls and their intellect for a mess of pottage. Such failings have existed for ages. Plato, the king among philosophers and philosopher among kings, wrestled with the same dilemma of morality and politics. It did not take him long to get disillusioned with politics.

In his historic “Letters VII and VIII” he recounts how in his younger years he entertained ambitions of a bright political career, and was quite confident of bringing about a revolutionary change when the famous batch of “Thirty Wise Men” were placed in power. “I expected that this government would bring about a change from corrupt to an upright administration. I found that it took these men no time at all to make the previous government look like an age of gold.”

Again, when Plato’s great teacher Socrates was put to death, he concluded that considering “the kind of men who were active in politics, and the principles on which things were managed, it was difficult to take part in public life and retain one’s integrity, and this feeling became stronger the more I observed and the older I became”.

Plato’s political wisdom has, in fact, enabled many political dictators to adopt ruthless means to attain their ends. Despite his disenchantment with politics, Plato never advocated the overthrow of the Constitution or of the government of his State. It was his disillusionment that led him to observe that the troubles of mankind will not be over until genuine philosophers attain political power.

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Political morality is not, however, a matter that can be decided by the dialectics of debate. If political leaders indulge in some honest introspection and search their hearts, they would realise that their public conduct leaves much to be desired, and falls far short of the objectives they set out to achieve.

The fact is that ultimately it is personal conduct and integrity which constitute the foundation of true morality in politics, as indeed in everything else in life. It follows that as long as the prominent leaders of a party follow the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of dual personality, posing to be what they are not, there can be no genuine social and moral progress. There is no gainsaying the fact that personal interests have to be sacrificed at the altar of public interest, which exclude deception, double dealing and subterfuge of any type.

A classic example of such falsehood and double-dealing was provided by President Richard Nixon in 1974. Watergate has in itself become a permanent stigma, as potent as the scarlet letter as a symbol.

The force of public opinion is, of course, a most potent weapon against corrupt persons who make a mess of both morality and politics.

Nothing can restore the lost morality to the public life of a democratic country more effectively than a determination to trust the right instincts of a free people, their capacity to distinguish, in course of time, if not immediately, the good from the bad, chalk from cheese, and then to act accordingly. This awareness and latent capacity can surely improve the conduct of politicians entrenched in the citadels of power.

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