Politics and Ethics

We all spend a great deal of time criticizing those in and out of power for their conduct and exercise of leadership or lack thereof, but rarely do we try to elucidate the qualities that we would like to see in a leader. It is important that we do this.   Politics is the acquisition and exercise of power, and real harm can come when people who are unsuitable for the job attempt it.  Here are some starting points for such a discussion.

In his important lecture “Politics as a Vocation”  the eminent German sociologist and political economist Max Weber identified two kinds of  “deadly sins” in politics: a lack of objectivity and a lack of responsibility.  In an essay early last year DHinMI discussed the latter sin, irresponsibility, in connection with Ralph Nader.  This essay discusses the need for objectivity, or “seeing clearly.”  The qualities that Weber sees as necessary in politics are very similar to qualities that Chinese sages hundreds and even thousands of years ago also counseled and trained leaders to develop, no doubt reflecting Weber’s extensive studies of Eastern thought.

Weber delivered his lecture in 1918 to a group of students as Germany was undergoing the revolution that ended the rule of the Kaisers, a moment when careers in politics and political participation would be open to a far greater number of people.  Toward the end of the lecture he discussed the inner enjoyments a life in politics could provide and the personal conditions or traits needed for such a vocation.  Along with passion, which Weber stressed was not “sterile excitement” but deep devotion to a cause or purpose, and a sense of responsibility, a politician or activist needs a sense of balance and proportion.

Weber states,

This is the decisive psychological quality of the politician:  his ability to let realities work upon him with inner concentration and calmness.  Hence his distance to things and men.  ‘Lack of distance’ per se is one of the deadly sins of every politican. . . . For the problem is simply how can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?  Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of the body or the soul.  And yet devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone.  However, that firm taming of the soul, which distinguishes the passionate politician and differentiates him from the ‘sterilely excited’ and mere political dilettante, is possible only through habituation to detachment in every sense of the word.  The ‘strength’ of a political ‘personality’ means in the first place the possession of these qualities of passion, responsibility and proportion.

Weber notes the perils and seductions that accompany the striving for power. Power can never become an end in itself.   “The sin against the lofty spirit of his vocation, however, begins where this striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication, instead of exclusively entering the service of ‘the cause.’”    A politician

is constantly in danger of becoming an actor as well as taking lightly the responsibility for the outcome of his actions and of being concerned merely with the ‘impression’ he makes.  His lack of objectivity tempts him to strive for the glamorous semblance of power rather than for actual power. . . . The mere ‘power’ politician may get strong effects, but actually his work leads nowhere and is senseless. . . . In this, the critics of ‘power politics’ are absolutely right.  From the sudden inner collapse of typical representatives of this mentality, we can see what inner weakness and impotence hides behind this boastful but entirely empty gesture.  It is a product of a shoddy and superficially blase attitude towards the meaning of human conduct; and it has no relation whatsoever to the knowledge of tragedy with which all action, but especially political action, is truly interwoven.

So how does one cultivate Weber’s objectivity or what i would call “seeing clearly,” and find balance?

Seeing clearly, the product of deep listening, is the fundamental prerequisite to all effective action.  This means above all seeing the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be or fear it is.  True clarity is neither excessive optimism nor a paralyzing pessimism.  Seeing clearly means not being blinded by by unresolved emotions, especially anger, fear, greed (self-seeking) or ambition.  Not being preoccupied with our own needs.  Not bringing so much baggage to a situation that we cannot appreciate nuance and small changes.  it means really listening to what someone else is saying, not immediately jumping to conclusions and reacting to what we think they are saying.  It means treating each situation freshly, reacting to the actual conditions that are presented, not reacting based on what happened in the past or what we assume to be the case.

As Weber noted, this requires a kind of detachment, or more properly non-attachment.  Part of being able to see clearly is avoiding being caught by distractions, desires, emotions and ambitions.  It is learning to find the stillness in the midst of the noise and activity all around us, and in that stillness, listening to our own intuition, our own cultivated judgment, our own inner ethical sense.  It also requires sufficient independence and integrity to avoid being overly beholden to supporters and patrons.  Seeing clearly often reveals avenues of action that might not have been initially apparent.  it is often the only way to see chinks in the opponent’s armor, and novel ways to resolve problems or extricate self, party or country from a difficult situation.
Finding balance and proportion.  Like the Greeks’ concept of the golden mean, Chinese sages teach us to find a balance between extremes.  In the Eastern concept of yin and yang, symbolized by the familiar interlocking design, opposites are seen as complementary halves of an integral whole, with each one partaking in some measure of the other.  Good contains within it elements of bad and vice versa.  No position is wholly correct or incorrect.  Neither side can, or should, absolutely prevail; attempting to bring that about only caused the tide to turn back toward the other pole.  There is always a higher vantage point in which opposites, necessary for navigating the relative world, are transcended.  Being able to step back from the conflict of the moment and to see things from a broader vantage point is necessary if one is to maintain a sense of proportion and not be crushed by setbacks and individual tragedies.  Balance also means caring for ourselves enough so that the self can ultimately become less important than the cause.  But while one should give oneself wholeheartedly to a cause, in the end what is important is not who wins but that the system and ultimately life continue.

Ethics and Politics.  Because politics involves the use of power and often requires difficult choices, a particular kind of ethical sense is needed.  Only a very principled and disciplined person can hope to properly make those difficult choices,  because only such a person is free of the self-seeking and fatal blindness that prevent one from seeing clearly.  Only one who maintains a sense of balance and distance can appropriately determine whether and when dubious measures are ever justified in pursuit of worthy goals and when a sense of responsibility dictates that they are not justified.

Someone unwilling ever to compromise or to use force or dubious means shpu;d not become involved in politics, says Weber, but neither should someone who lacks the selflessness and ethical sense to know that some means cannot be justified because their use will irretrievably damage the cause, and perhaps also the whole country, humanity or the planet.

Finally, politics requires not only discipline but toughness, what Weber called “the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life, and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.”  Speaking in 1918, at the birth of the infant German Republic and only two years before his own death, Weber was under no illusions about what might lie ahead.  “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.”

He concluded,

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.  It takes both passion and perspective.  Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.  But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.  And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes.  This is necessary right now or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.  Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point if view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.  Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

Potentially facing our own dark night, those who care seriously about politics must demand no less of ourselves, our colleagues and our leaders.

Politics and Ethics, By Mimikatz

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