Political Morality and Political Ethics

Distinguishing morality and ethics helps us better approach thinking about political questions and arriving at the right answers.

I almost postponed sending this, because today as I was editing the draft, pro-Trump protestors laid siege to the US Capitol in an effort to install their leader as dictator. It’s a terrifying moment in American history. But it’s also a reminder of how very wrong people can go when they abandon ethics and morality and turn instead to rotten and degrading ideologies propped up by personality cults.

And that’s why I decided to stick to my every-other-Wednesday schedule and send this essay out as planned. America desperately needs political ethics right now, and will need it as we move forward and recover from what Trump and his movement have done to the country. While Buddhism is very much a minority belief, I think it has a lot to say about what kind of people we ought to be, and what kind of politics we ought to aspire to.

One way to think about the Buddhist case for political and economic liberty is to see it as making two related but distinct claims, the first about morality and the second about ethics. The morality prong argues that Buddhism has something to say about what kinds of state actions are permissible according to Buddhist rules of personal conduct. The ethics prong argues that certain political and economic arrangements are more likely than others to lead to a world that aligns with Buddhist values.

It can be helpful, then, to take a step back from the particulars of Buddhism and explore the broader, “metaethical” question of how personal morality and ethics relate—if at all—to political theory. We might be tempted, after all, to think of this line of argument as a simple category mistake. Morality and ethics are about one sort of thing, but political theory is about something else entirely. To try to force the former into the latter risks leading us astray. Or it might simply be redundant, in that political theory could be complete on its own, and so need not bother with moral theory.

In what follows, I want to explore these questions, set out how I distinguish morality from ethics, and discuss why both are needed when engaging with political questions.

Morality vs. Ethics

“Morality” and “ethics” are frequently used interchangeably, but there’s value in applying each as a label for a different set of questions.

Morality is about right and wrong action, particularly as it relates to interaction with others. If the trolly’s careening down the track and will run over three people if you don’t flip the lever switching it to a track where it will run over only one, is it right (or perhaps even mandatory) to pull the lever? Moral philosophy is about looking at a range of possible actions we might take, and which will have an impact on others, and theorizing about how we can know which is the right or best one. Moral theories differ about which criteria are most relevant in determining “rightness.” A utilitarian will say that what makes an action the “right” is that it produces the most overall happiness compared to other options. A deontologist will say instead that the right action is the one that conforms to a given set of rules or is in line with existing moral duties. A virtue theorist will say what’s right is what a virtuous person in the same circumstances would choose to do. We can argue about which of these, if any, are correct, but for our purposes here, what matters is that moral theory is narrowly focused on right and wrong action.

Ethics is comparatively broader, and encourages us to ask what kind of life is best, and then to explore the steps we can take, and the values we can cultivate, to achieve it. Which behaviors are most likely to result in happiness? Which beliefs and actions help us feel fulfilled, satisfied, with a sense of meaning? Which characteristics make a person good? Moral theory, it should be clear, is part of this. A good life is, in part, one predominantly filled with moral actions. A good person is, in part, a person who, when faced with moral choices, chooses correctly far more often than not. But ethics also concerns itself with questions outside the scope of moral philosophy’s focus on right action. Put another way, morality answers the question, “What actions are right and wrong?” Ethics answers the question, “How can I be good and happy?” Knowing right from wrong is part of being good and happy, but it’s not all of it.

We can think of Buddhism as a comprehensive ethical theory built around the idea that living well means freeing ourselves of dukkha, or suffering, by changing our perspective on the nature of the world and ourselves. An aspect of this is developing a deeper understanding of karma, thus avoiding actions that create suffering in the world. Buddhist moral theory, then, is roughly the claim that an action is wrong if it causes harm (to others or ourselves) or if it leads away from enlightenment.

Personal vs. Political

Now let’s turn to how the above, which has so far all been about personal morality and ethics, applies to political questions. While we might be inclined, as already brought up, to think politics is sufficiently its own subject that we don’t need to, or don’t benefit from, applying personal moral and ethical thinking to it, that’s a mistake. In fact, it’s incoherent. Rather than political theory being something fundamentally different from moral theory, it’s simply a kind of (applied) moral theory.

Moral and ethical theories give us broad and often pretty abstract guidelines. But we don’t live our day to day lives broadly and abstractly. Rather, we find ourselves in specific situations that need specific answers. Applied moral theories are what you get when you turn to that process of drilling down. What’s the right way to act in the context of medical care? In the context of scientific experimentation? In the context of business operations? These questions create subfields such as medical ethics, bioethics, business ethics, and research ethics.

When I say that political philosophy is a type of applied moral theory, I mean that it asks questions about what’s the right thing to do when presented with political choices, such as the nature of institutions, the scope of state power, the legitimacy of government authority, the way decisions get made, and the policies and behaviors the state enforces and subsidizes. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about political philosophy without moral philosophy, because without the latter, we’ll have no idea how to even begin to answer the questions raised by the former. 

For example, the very concept of democracy is ultimately just the claim that, when there’s disagreement, we ought to do what most people want to do, and that everyone ought to have a voice in deciding. But that claim isn’t true without an underlying theory about why we ought to care about what people think at all, which is ultimately a moral question. Likewise, to say that we shouldn’t worry about moral questions but instead adopt policies that the data tell us “work,” is really just another way of saying, “We should take those political actions that lead to the best consequences, whether that’s peace, or wealth, or progress, or whatever.” Which simply is the application, in politics, of the consequentialist moral theory. And consequentialism might not be a correct moral theory. (For the record, it isn’t.)

This all means that when we put to ourselves political questions, we have to begin with what morality and ethics tell us about how to behave, and then apply that to the particular concerns at hand. In the case of Buddhism, this means asking what behaviors and values are harmless and promote an environment and incentives that will lead to happiness and awakening—and then taking political actions in line with that.

Political Morality and Political Ethics

This leaves us with personal morality creating political morality, and personal ethics creating political ethics. The former we can see as the rules telling us which political actions are permissible. When we first think about a political question, we begin with morality as a way to discard those answers that violate fundamental morality. But political morality alone isn’t enough to answer many political questions, because once we’ve jettisoned the immoral choices, we’ll find ourselves with more than one option left.

That’s when we turn to political ethics. Our political institutions exist to accomplish something. We have them because we think they make the world better than if we didn’t. That “better” is a matter of ethics. What kind of world do we want? What kind of world will best enable us to lead good, happy lives and give us the support we need to achieve that? Of the options still on the table once morality has had its say, ethics gives us the way to choose.

Morality constrains our choices while ethics tells us what we should aim at when choosing among the rest. We should study, and apply morality and ethics, particularly to politics, when our choices affect so many. Buddhism offers us a compelling framework for both.