All disciplines have ethical obligations that are particular to that occupation. We can argue, for instance, that engineers have the obligation to check their designs, so that their bridges do not fall down, as did the West Gate bridge in Melbourne (Royal Commission, 1971). Engineers build the roads, cars, power plants, etc., that cause much environmental concern. Lawyers also face specific ethical concerns. Those who know their client is at fault but who plead not guilty, rather than enter a no plea, or in other ways defend that client, can justifiably be accused of unethical conduct. Doctors, and others in the health professions, have ethical obligations of a higher order than most. The nature of their work has generated books, running into the hundreds of pages, totally devoted to their ethical obligations (Beauchamp and Childress, 2008, Kerridge et al. 2009). Even tow truck drivers have obligations not to arrive at the scene of an accident in their multiples, nor to harass some distraught driver overcome by the mess in which they have landed themselves.

We could extend this list. Journalists, some would say, have the highest ethical obligations of all. They have a huge influence; are even the overriding decider for many, on significant aspects of our lives – how we vote, what are our attitudes to global warming, to foreign aid, and the like.

So what of politicians? What ethical obligations do they have? Obligations put on them by the nature of their calling? It is not an easy question to answer. To keep your election promises is an obvious response. But to keep your promise is an obligation put on us all; it is not therefore particular to politicians. In any case, the moral argument that we can break promises to meet a higher ethical obligation is not too far different from a classification by a former Australian Prime Minister of core and non-core promises.

We could point out that the massive swing against the recent NSW Labor government was in no small part due the dubious morality of that government. Nine ministers in two years must be a world record. But once we examine the nature of that morality, we do not find that it is in any way connected with their political tasks – paedophilia, unfortunately, is universal. Sacking whistleblowers is likewise universal, as are gaining personal benefits through ignoring conflicts of interest. Nor is employing or otherwise benefiting people who support you. Even wandering hands at social gatherings is not unique to NSW Labor. In any case the wrongs of this party seem likely to be matched by the incoming Liberal government. The big black hole in state finances announced by the new Premier within his first few days was subsequently shown to be non-existent. Or the newly elected member for Rockdale, John Flowers, on a pension, unable to work since 1996, but now able to energetically represent his constituency. The Liberal government had to force through a change in parliamentary rules to allow it. But again, using the welfare system to your benefit is not uncommon. John Flowers is not unique. But it all adds to a widespread conviction that our politicians are unethical in the carrying out of their political roles. It is perhaps because we expect so much more of them that they appear particularly wrong, despite the fact that they are committing the same ethical transgressions as many others in the community.

If we were to search a list of wrongs for the public service – thirty eight of which are listed in a massive study of whistleblowing in the Australian Public Service, we find that none are particularly political in nature (A J Brown, 2008).

Internationally, of course, it is relative simple to pin down the political wrongs. There are many examples of governments ignoring the treaties they signed. A number of countries are erupting at the moment as their political leaders are overriding the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Others are refusing to sign treaties that they should agree to – notably the US on the International Criminal Court. In 2002 the United States together with only Israel and Sudan, formally withdrew its intent to ratify its membership of the court. There are, in fact, many countries whose politicians could be accused of human rights violations, but Australia is not one of them. Those who seek more support for refugees would perhaps disagree. The deplorable health and social statistics of its indigenous peoples have also attracted much criticism, but violation of their rights is not one of the causes.

Australia has signed all major international treaties. It is still debating the issue of its own Bill of Rights, but that is a domestic issue, not an international one. If we confine the question to domestic ethical issues, we are still faced with the problem of identifying those that lie within the province of politicians alone. Australians are very critical of their politicians, broadly regarding them as a collection of self serving individuals, exhibiting somewhat dubious ethical convictions. This belief must have some substance behind it.

Perhaps it is the definition of what is ethical? As we all know, many guidelines have been proposed for deciding if an action is right and wrong – whether it is ethical or unethical. Is it universalisable, does it militate against personal autonomy, are the consequences good for us or bad, is the actor or action virtuous? These are some of the questions we use. None of them appear to identify unethical actions that are clearly associated with being a politician. One set of guidelines that seems to worth exploring, however, is contractarianism, a concept of a social contract between the governing and the governed that arose with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, but which has reached its current day fulfillment in the work of John Rawls. These writers propose a society in which a role for government is to redress the difficulties suffered by the members of that society.

It is certainly true that we expect governments to correct the problems society faces. Unemployment relief, sickness benefits, universal health care programs are evidence of these concerns. Yet there are people who claim that we go too far with these benefits. Calls to get the “dole bludgers” back to work are not uncommon. More liberal countries look with amazement on the conservative cry in the US against a national health system. For the more significant demands on a government would appear to be liberal vs. conservative issues. We have a political structure based on a government and an opposition. For reasons unknown to most of us, populations, at least in the western world, do divide broadly into these two camps. A conservative government will tend to reject demands for more assistance to those in need; a left leaning liberal government will embrace them. Any government has to decide, but whatever it decides will be rejected by those that have the opposite view.

Jonathon Haidt and Jesse Graham (2007) argue that the liberal /conservative split is anthropological in nature, even of evolutionary origin, and that it has generated five foundations to morality: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. They assert that “political liberals have moral intuitions base on the first two foundations”. They are misunderstood therefore by “political conservatives who generally rely on all five foundations.”

Haidt and Graham may well be right. Their conclusion is certainly borne out by general observation. Politicians, at least under this analysis, can never win ethical plaudits across the entire population. And if a government tries to determine where the majority might lie, it will be accused of being poll-driven. So we regard members of a government as unethical, but only when they do not agree with our particular political view point. Otherwise they exhibit ethical and unethical behaviours no different to the rest of us.

Whether in greater frequency than the rest of us is another question.

Peter Bowden,

Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney.


Brown, AJ. (2008). Whistleblowing in the Australian Public Sector ANU ePress p.64.

Kerridge, I., Lowe, M., Stewart, C. (2009). Ethics and law for the health professions, 3rd ed. Sydney: Federation Press.

Beauchamp, Tom L. and Childress, James F. (2008). Principles of Biomedical Ethics 6th. ed. Oxford University Press, New York.

Haidt, Jonathon and Graham, Jesse. (2007). ‘When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that Liberals may not recognize.‘ Social Justice Research. 20, 1, 98-116.

Royal Commission on the Failure of the West Gate Bridge, 1971.