Political Ethics

Can Political Ethics Truly Be Universalized?

Political ethics are (or include) all those values that characterize a functioning society, insofar as it is politically organized.

These values include not only the goals of a society’s political and legal institutions Opens in new window, but also the behavior required of its citizens.

Political ethics are thus not simply a series of norms that define honest or moral behavior in political affairs, but rather they are the moral base of the institutions Opens in new window in which the political life of a country takes place. Accordingly, political ethics are an expression of political culture.


The institutions in which the political life of a country develops include:

It is evidently impossible to distinguish definitively between these three areas, as the political and social spheres are not entirely distinct and, in fact, overlap.

Political ethics composed of these parts make up the ethos of a nation and the fabric of its society, which is in turn the product of its history. This fact does not rule out the universal applicability of such ethics, though there is inevitably a certain tension between universality and the diversity of particular social histories. This tension, and the consequent ambivalence brought about by the particulars of history, is a chief obstacle to the universal acceptance and application of political ethics.

This obstacle is in the case of human rights Opens in new window, which are the expression of the political ethos whose universal validity we are seeking. This form of ethics is precisely the product of the history of a particular culture.

Nevertheless, the universal validity of this ethic of human rights is to be sought not because they should be exported from their origin, the Christian or post-Christian West, as a neocolonial initiative, but because they have become part of a normative global heritage.

Even Islamic countries, for example, and non-Christian countries in general, declare that they consider human rights as a valid standard for what they judge to be desirable norms in politics, even if, one must acknowledge, they occasionally give human rights Opens in new window interpretations that run contrary to their original meaning. There are even authors who attempt to trace the Islamic origins of human rights, a task that is not straightforward.

The viewpoint from which most authors reflect upon these problems is that of political philosophy. Political philosophy Opens in new window belongs to ethics, which is practical, for it both reflects on practical knowledge and aims at action. Therefore, it not only is normative, but must consider the concrete conditions of realization.

The rationale of political institutions and action must be understood as embedded in concrete cultural and, therefore, historical contexts and as meeting with problems that only in these contexts are understandable.

A normative political philosophy that would abstract from the conditions of realization would be trying to establish norms for realizing the “idea of the good” or of “the just” (as Plato, in fact, tried to do in his Republic). Such a purely metaphysical view, however, is doomed to failure.

As theory of political praxis, political philosophy must include in its reflection the concrete historical context, the historical experiences and the corresponding knowledge of the proper logic of the political.

Briefly: political philosophy and ethics are not metaphysics, which contemplates the necessary order of being, but practical philosophy, which deals with partly contingent matters and aims at action.

Yet, in the context of political ethics, human rights form what we might call a political absolute or a categorical foundation. In this function human rights are similar to natural law, though conceptually natural law Opens in new window is not identical with human rights Opens in new window.

By its very nature, natural law encompasses the whole of human life and, inasmuch it is natural law, it therefore cannot be a criterion for what is to be counted as political reasonable.

Natural-law Opens in new window reasons do not distinguish between the moral norms a person is obliged to impose on her own actions on one side, and what she legitimately may impose on the actions of others on the other.

Although natural law may always work as a criterion for recognizing specific laws as unjust, it is not a criterion sufficient for making out what belongs to the political common good and therefore is to be imposed by law and the coercive apparatus of the state on the totality of citizens.

For natural-law reasons to be valid reasons in the sphere of the political and public reason they must be a political application, restriction, or concentration of natural law, according to the logic of the political.

This logic is not contained in the concept of natural law as such, but is specifically political; that is, it is proper to reason as public reason.

The justification of human rights typically belongs to public reason. The concept of public reason has been given a new actuality by the American political philosopher John Rawls.

More generally, public reason is defined as the kind of reasonableness by which the basic political institutions of political society, its legal system and, based on them, concrete law-making—legitimately imposed by coercive state power on the multitude of citizens—can be justified in a way that is able to command general consensus and that therefore will not determine but rather will promote social cooperation and assure stability of these basic political and legal institutions. It is the reasonableness that refers to the political common good of human society.