Political ethics (also known as political morality or public ethics) is the practice of making moral judgements about political action and political agents. It covers two areas. The first is the ethics of process (or the ethics of office), which deals with public officials and the methods they use. The second area, the ethics of policy (or ethics and public policy) concerns judgments about policies and laws.
Niccolò Machiavelli is one of the most famous (or infamous) political theorists that spoke on, and later subverted, the matters of political ethics. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that a political leader may be required to behave in evil ways if necessary to maintain his authority.
In contemporary democracies, a variant of this idea has been reframed as the problem of dirty hands, described most influentially by Michael Walzer, who argues that the problem creates a paradox: the politician must sometimes do “wrong to do right”. The politician uses violence to prevent greater violence, but his act is still wrong even if justified. Walzer’s view has been criticized. Some critics object that either the politician is justified or not. If justified, there is nothing wrong, though he may feel guilty. Others say that some of the acts of violence that Walzer would allow are never justified, no matter what the ends. Dennis Thompson has argued that in a democracy citizens should hold the leader responsible, and therefore if the act is unjustified their hands are dirty too.
In large organizations it is often not possible to tell who is actually responsible for the outcomes—a problem known as the problem of many hands.
Political ethics not only permits leaders to do things that would be wrong in private life, but also requires them to meet higher standards than would be necessary in private life. They may, for example, have less of a right of privacy than do ordinary citizens, and no right to use their office for personal profit. The major issues here concern conflict of interest.
In the other area of political ethics, the key issues are not the conflict between means and ends but the conflicts among the ends themselves. For example, in the question of 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. Traditionally, priority has been given to the claims of nations, but in recent years thinkers known as cosmopolitans have pressed the claims of all citizens of the world.
Political ethics deals not mainly with ideal justice, however, but with realizing moral values in democratic societies where citizens (and philosophers) disagree about what ideal justice is. In a pluralist society, how if at all can governments justify a policy of progressive taxation, affirmative action, the right to abortion, universal healthcare, and the like? Political ethics is also concerned with moral problems raised by the need for political compromise, whistleblowing, civil disobedience, and criminal punishment.
Some critics (so called political realists) argue that ethics has no place in politics. If politicians are to be effective in the real world, they cannot be bound by moral rules. They have to pursue the national interest. However, Walzer points out that if the realists are asked to justify their claims, they will almost always appeal to moral principles of their own (for example, to show that ethics is harmful or counterproductive).
Another kind of criticism comes from those who argue that we[who?] should not pay so much attention to politicians and policies but should instead look more closely at the larger structures of society where the most serious ethical problems lie. Advocates of political ethics respond that while structural injustice should not be ignored, too much emphasis on structures neglects the human agents who are responsible for changing them.