Politics as a Moral Problem

TitlePolitics as a Moral Problem
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsMavric, Urska
Author(s) of reviewed materialKis, János

Translated by Zoltán Miklósi

PublisherCentral European University Press
ISSNISBN 978-963-9776-22-7 cloth; ISBN 978-963-9776-34-0 paperback
Full Text

János Kis’s book Politics as a Moral Problem has a very ambitious goal. The aim of the author is to try to create a plausible theory of political morality, one that is able to explain how our moral judgments in politics may form a consistent whole, since the they seem to be inconsistent. On one hand, we believe that the politicians’ conduct should be judged more strictly than the conduct of ordinary citizens, since they have official public roles. On the other hand, we do not want to see candidates we support lose an election because of their good moral character. That is to say, in the struggle for power, our candidate may need to break the rules i.e. commit a dirty handed act (mislead the public, betray an ally, etc.) in order to win, and this does not seem to be problematic for us. Therefore, we believe that politicians are simultaneously under stronger and weaker moral constraints than those to which ordinary citizens are subject. According to Kis, this inconsistency relates to the Janus-faced nature of political activity whereby politicians are agents of the community in which they are supposed to selflessly and impartially promote the common good, but are also competitors who are allowed, within limits, to pursue their own advancement.

Kis begins grappling with this problem by first returning to classical doctrine, which puts forth the thesis of realism and that of indirect motivation. The thesis of realism is the usual suspect for addressing this moral-political conundrum, since, following the logic of Niccolo Machiavelli, it argues that politics is not the domain of moral exemplariness. The struggle for power saturates politics, and thus a politician’s strict compliance with morality would be neither rational nor necessary, since there is no strict compliance with morality by others. According to Kis’s reading of Machiavelli, a moral prince must act immorally when dealing with immoral actors. A better formulation of this idea however, following Hobbes, does not assume immoral behavior of others. It is enough that we assume that they are not fully transparent in regard to their true intentions, attitudes and dispositions. Therefore, it may be rational for actors, all of whom are moral, to deal immorally with each other. This follows from the idea that strategic decisions are not made on grounds of what is actually true but on the basis of what we believe to be true, given the information we have. Whether the person in question is vicious or virtuous does not play a decisive role. In the context of the thesis of realism, dirty handed acts are permissible in the struggle for power, provided (1) no competitor can gain power without committing them; (2) that by gaining power, an agent can/will do significant good that he intends to do, (3) and he could not do it otherwise.

The thesis of indirect motivation, following Thomas Hobbes, assumes humans are essentially egoistical and need incentives to accept the terms of mutual cooperation. The question is how to ensure cooperation, and the answer is that institutional rules be designed to make the self-interested choice and the choices directed by morality coincide, rather than appealing to their virtue, which Kis understands as a readiness to make sacrifices for duty’s sake.

Although these two theses appear to help solve the initial problem of explaining contradictory attitudes towards the morality of politicians, Kis does not find them adequate. He argues that the thesis of realism appears to condone any political immorality, provided the level of general compliance is low enough. Likewise, the thesis of indirect motivation may yield an unjust distribution of social burdens and benefits, because it assumes extra incentives. It can also adversely impact human motivation, since it only addresses selfish desires, and if (political) institutions treat humans as pure egoists, they may eventually become such. Thus, Kis amends these theses and puts forth the so called Neoclassical theory. His amendments help identify proper the place of moral motivation and common deliberation, as well as hold political agents in democratic politics morally accountable. In what follows, I focus my analysis on these amendments, especially on those concerning the thesis of realism.

According to Kis, the thesis of realism must be constrained since, in its classical form, it presupposes the unlimited power of politicians, and therefore cannot adequately explain the permissibility of dirty-handed acts in constitutional democracies. Politicians must be constrained by moral minima that should not be transgressed. Where the levels of moral compliance rise, the moral minima must be more demanding. If politicians violate these moral minima, they become subject to sanctions. The question is no longer what politicians are allowed to do, but rather what they are not allowed to do. Those in authority are accountable to those over whom they exercise power, and accountability is a necessary condition for an institutional system of power and authority. Such constraints on political action are the gateway to legitimacy. Kis juxtaposes this political accountability with moral responsibility, i.e. when an individual commits something wrong and is responsible for it, he makes himself liable to blame.

Significantly, Politics as a Moral Problem does not deal with the question of how politicians themselves are supposed to deal with their dirty-handed acts, but rather discusses how the public should deal with them. There is, however, a problem with the concept of political accountability, namely that politicians who act improperly are supposedly accountable to the public. Yet, the permissible dirty-handed acts are not wrong even if they are morally objectionable, since politicians could not have acted otherwise. So, despite the fact that the acts are morally objectionable, they are not objectionable in the sense that they are wrong in their particular (political) setting. Neither would it seem that political agents are fully responsible for their acts, since in their hopes of promoting the common good, they could not do otherwise.

In order to work through this dilemma, Kis resorts to Bernard William’s theory on agent regret, which the following situation exemplifies: a child jumps in front of a bus and the bus driver kills it through no fault of his own. Even though he could not have done otherwise, he should feel regret for what happened. However, Kis concludes that in the instance of justifiable dirty-handed political acts, the situation is different since the politician acted, and intended both the act and its reprehensible consequences, thus making him individually responsible. Even though the act is not wrong in its particular circumstances, making it unnecessary for the politician to feel guilty or be subject to blame, he still should feel remorse for what he has done. In this scenario, the dirty-handed act is a problem only for the agent. But, the politician is also accountable to the public, which will, at the very least, demand an explanation. The moral minima are there to serve as a border that no political action should transgress.

In amending the thesis of indirect motivation, Kis changes the question. Instead of dealing with the question of which non-moral incentives may replace the moral motivation (in which humans are seen as purely egoistical), he deals with the question of how the conflict between moral and non-moral motivation can be reduced in order to make the moral component more effective. In the case of the bus driver, indirect motivation would be seen only as a strategic action, whereas in the case of the political agent, it would not only be seen as strategic, but would also leave room for common deliberation. The agents are therefore regarded as having both self-regarding and community-regarding preferences, while indirect motivation seeks to reduce the cost of ignoring self-regarding preferences for the sake of the community-regarding preferences. 

Kis’s book is well written and covers an extremely wide range of theories concerning morality and politics. He nicely presents theories put forward by Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, and effectively shows how they are not best suited to explain today’s situation in politics, although they remain theoretically significant. He also succeeds in showing how their core ideas can serve as the foundation for a theory that fits our current political needs. The most important part of Kis’ book is his close attention to the place of dirty-handed acts in politics. His book not only presents the theories of Max Weber, Michael Walzer and the afore-mentioned Machiavelli on this issue, but, in a very clear manner, categorizes their theories and successfully shows why they cannot fully explain the problem.

The importance of the book lies in the fact that it effectively argues that dirty-handed political acts are not only the problem of political agents, but are also the problem of those to whom politicians are held accountable. While each of the chapters of Politics as a Moral Problem contains important concepts and may be read individually, they are connected with each other in many ways, and only by carefully following them, can we reach a full understanding of the complex issues Kis addresses. The book combines both theory and “real-world” situations in order to exemplify the main points of the author, which gives Kis’ philosophical investigation a tangible historical counterpart. Kis succeeds overall in comprehensively explaining how moral judgments on politics may form a consistent whole.