Relationship Between Politics and Morality

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  • Chapters

Politics and Morality



Politics and morality is a juicy topic. Any given day one could mine enough raw materials from the headlines to write a lively thesis on the ‘alleged tension between politics and morality’ (p.14). In light of this, it is difficult to understand the vagueness and lack of direction that characterise Politics and Morality unless Susan Mendus, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of York, was simply overwhelmed by the embarrassment of topical riches. Part of the problem may be that the book draws heavily on Mendus’ prior publications. Chapter five’s discussion of Billy Budd is based on ‘Innocent Before God: Politics, Morality and the Case of Billy Budd’ (2006a) and her analysis of Machiavelli comes from ‘Saving One’s Soul or Founding a State: Morality and Politics’ (2006b). Given the historical and philosophical breadth of the topic, one cannot blame Mendus for mining old work – though it does lend the book a belated feel. The problem is that she does not use these specific cases as the basis for a general argument. Politics and Morality never declares what corner it is fighting, and as a result fails to land a punch.

From the outset, Politics and Morality avoids defining either of its primary terms. It treats politics and politicians as if they are universally understood and agreed upon quantities, which they are not. For example chapter four, ‘Integrity and Pluralism’, discusses Machiavelli and refers to his political doctrine as one aimed at serving ‘the interests of the State’ (p.78) but how is the reader to understand ‘the interests of the State’? Or indeed the term ‘state’? Is this a contemporary republic concerned with domestic prosperity? A nation bent on conquest? A colony seeking freedom? Politicians regularly fail to agree on what constitutes the best interests of the state at a given moment (take the cuts-versus-investment arguments currently raging in Britain and America), so to use such terms without definition renders them moot. This is doubly true when dealing with as contentious a term as ‘morality’. Two-thirds of the way through the book there is a reference to ‘Christian morality’ (p.79) but that is the nearest we get to an explanation of what the author means by the word.

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