If those who work in politics have an ethical responsibility, to whom do they have it?

Earlier this year I tried to open a can of worms by asking what if any ethical responsibilities do I have as a political professional and an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University? That question in turn begs the question: if I have a responsibility, to whom or what do I have it?

Figuring out to whom or what one has a responsibility can help figure out the rest. For example, if the responsibility is “to the law” then what is allowable or not is pretty clear — the “red line” that Bush advisor Nicolle Wallace said White House staff should not cross is that which breaks the law.

If on the other hand one need only be true to one’s self, without regard to others, to community norms, to external codes of conduct, and so forth then the answer is equally easy; whatever one does is allowable by virtue of it having been done.

To my view, neither answer is satisfactory.

The legal argument narrows our democratic experiment to technicalities. It is Vice President Gore asserting there was “no controlling legal authority” preventing him from fundraising on the job, and President Trump spending time (and a lot taxpayer moneyat Trump properties. These legally allowable actions feel somehow not right in part because the law isn’t the point. Working toward as fair and just society as possible (or whatever one’s view of role of politics is) — is the point. One ought to do what is right because it is the right thing to do, not because it isn’t technically illegal. Laws set boundaries, but they emerge from something prior to the law. For example, the Bill of Rights sets principles on which laws may or may not be based, but the amendments are not themselves laws.

The personal argument is worse. Every individual claiming they don’t have to agree about ethics with anyone else makes it pretty hard to have a functioning community. It is the moral wildness into which critics say Foucault and others led legions undergraduates. While post-structuralism and post-modernism no more broke American than Ayn Rand did, the risks of relying on either absolute relativism or absolute individualism are real (however attenuated those positions are from the writings of FoucaultRand, and others).

The American Association of Political Consultants has a code of ethics (yes there is such a thing, and yes they have such a thing) that is equally disconnected from a philosophy, an external conception of ‘the good,’ or a transcendent notion of justice. The code dictates that a consultant’s first responsibility is to the profession of political consulting, then to one’s clients, then to certain norms (equal voting rights, not lying to the press, and so forth). The final obligation is to the code itself — you have an obligation to be obligated. There is no explanation of why one should “candidly answer questions” or why one should “work for equal voting rights and privileges for all citizens.” One does not, for example, have an ethical obligation to the Constitution or Bill of Rights, to a pluralistic notion of democracy, or to promoting fair and honest debate, ideas that are operationalized through voting and a free press.

Political norms — and the assault thereon — are getting a lot of attention. But these provide another “what” rather than a “to whom.” Whose norms? Is there a shared moral or ethical basis from which they are derived? If so, what is it? What should one do when norms conflict? Is it OK to violate a norm in the name of the higher (or greater) good?

Another option is that we have an obligation to what has been called America’s civil religion (a topic about which I’ve written elsewhere). This is Richard Rorty’s call for the political left to speak to a shared set of values on the assumption that America has both done bad things in the past and can continue to get better into the future. As a nation and an idea, America is neither beyond redemption nor fully moral and just — America, like the rest of us, is trying to learn from its mistakes and get better every day.This is the America of President Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention and his speech on race in 2008, the America of Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) in the wake of Charlottesville, and the America of Joe Kennedy III in the face of a hate gathering in Boston. For these speakers, we have an ethical responsibility is to an optimistic idea of America that was here before us, and if we don’t screw up too badly will be here long after we’re gone.

So I put it to you: If those who work in politics have an ethical responsibility, to whom or what are they responsible? Law? Themselves? A code? Norms? A poetic quasi-religious notion? Or something else?


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