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What are Political Ethics?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Political ethics are a set of codes of behavior pertaining to political activities. Like other ethical systems, they balance the needs of situations with ethical questions. Ethics are a topic of study among academics, as well as legislators. Many nations have laws addressing specific ethical issues in politics with the goal of providing people with clear guidelines for behavior in particular situations. Numerous books have been published on this subject, including historical overviews illustrative of how how approaches to ethics have changed over time.

Politics can involve a wide variety of ethical issues, ranging from accepting campaign financing to balancing the conflicting needs of a constituency. Politicians can struggle with ethical dilemmas every day as they struggle to run a campaign or a legislative office fairly and with the best interests of the public in mind. Political ethics provides a framework for evaluating choices and making a decision based on fairness and reasonable behavior, as well as previous precedents.

By law, certain political activities are regulated to prevent ethical dilemmas or to dictate how politicians should behave. Politicians are, for example, required to disclose donations to the public in order to allow people to know who is influencing a politician or campaign. Likewise, politicians are barred from accepting certain types of gifts and must comply with laws pertaining to the conduct of campaigns and other political business.

Other political ethics are not spelled out as clearly, but are still an important part of the political consciousness. Politicians have unspoken rules they follow when interacting with each other and members of the public, including rules about treating people with respect and courtesy. Political ethics may be called into question, as when candidates challenge each other on activities deemed unethical or when individual citizens make choices about candidates they want to support on the basis of candidate behaviors.

On an academic level, political ethics is studied by political science and foreign policy students to learn more about the systems underpinning the government and its operations. Understanding how ethics work, what kinds of laws have been passed to regulate political activity, and how politicians behave during ethical dilemmas can be an important part of developing an understanding of the political system and proposing reforms. Political ethics is also important to people like campaign managers and press secretaries, as people must be alert to ethical issues from within their own offices, as well as violations of ethics committed by other politicians.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon244575 — On Feb 01, 2012

@Latte 31: What about President Obama's background? Don't you think that, as the first African American to run for President in this country, his entire background was not scrupulously checked out? You are trying to suggest that the media ran a story that is not true right, like they did when his citizenry was challenged!

The man has legally verifiable documentation showing where he was born and some still insist he is not an American. Ludicrous! Let's not forget that when President Clinton left office, this country had a surplus. When President Bush left office after two terms it was in a deficit!

And who inherited that mess and was expected to clean it up in four years? President Obama!

And about the media, they are struggling because no one is buying newspapers anymore but surf the internet now for the latest news!

By latte31 — On Jan 05, 2011

Cafe41-I also think that the media did the American people a disservice by not reporting more about Obama’s background.

Most of the people that voted for Obama did not know about Obama’s questionable associations or voting record.

Clearly if the media had done its job and reported the news, Obama would have never been President and we probably would have the economic situation that we currently have.

These are huge media issues which is why people are looking for more balanced media coverage. For example, Fox News is number one with respect to news media coverage because it provides information on both sides of an issue not just one.

This is also why many of the newspapers including the New York Times are struggling financially because people are getting tired of hearing one side of an issue and most of the American public is right of center politically.

The liberal media often alienates most Americans which is why the readership and viewership of these other news outlets have diminished greatly.

By cafe41 — On Jan 04, 2011

SauteePan-Political ethics and public office should have the same standard.

For example, Chris Dodd, Democrat in charge of the Banking Committee in congress received a below market interest rate deal for his mortgage from then Countrywide bank.

This is ethics news that should outrage Americans because it is giving these politicians preferential treatment that the average American would not receive. Usually these kinds of deals have strings attached which leads to corruption in politics.

By SauteePan — On Jan 02, 2011

Cupcake15-I agree that media ethics should require that a newsworthy story be reported regardless of the political leanings of the media.

For example, for seventeen years Charlie Rangel, a Democrat member of the House of Representatives and the person in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee which establishes the tax code of the United States of America was evading taxes from his villa in the Dominican Republic.

It was not until recently that the story actually broke, yet congress did nothing until the landslide congressional election that turned the House back in Republican hands did congress finally act.

Charles Rangel was censured, but not forced to resign. It was also reported that he used campaign funds for his legal defense which were additional ethics issues that got little attention.

By cupcake15 — On Jan 01, 2011

Anon124551-Political discourse in a society is beneficial in all societies but most widely practiced in free societies.

While politicians do have a high unfavorability rating and politicians are often negatively regarded as crooks or thieves not all of these politicians fit this description.

Sometimes the political media is shaped by political ideologies. The media issues that are brought to the forefront are issues that the mainstream media want you to know.

This is not particularly balanced because most of the political news would be unfavorable to Republican representatives while Democrat representatives would usually receive positive press and the negative unethical issues would not be reported with the same intensity as it is when a Republican was involved.

By anon124551 — On Nov 06, 2010

Politics (in free speech democracies at least) can be defined as people finding legal means to rob or control people who aren't them.

Given that politics deals by above definition in behaviors that are normally unethical, can ethics really apply to it, or is it all simply a matter of law?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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