The Aim of Politics is Ethics and Virtue, the Promotion of the Individual Self Worth and the Common Good

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

This humble paper is a counter-thesis to the prevalent negative and pessimistic view that there is no ethics in politics and that the idea of the ancient Greeks concerning politics is not applicable in our society or in the world in general because we are not living in an ideal world!

aristotleI sternly disagree! Hence, I am registering my dissent and offering my counter arguments to refute and debunk the baseless twin contentions.

To the contention that we do not live to an ideal world, let me state that: the world is the world today because of who we are. We improve the world by improving ourselves. We deserve the kind of community, society and world that we have, because whether we like it or not, we are responsible to its creation and continuing existence.

There is no shadow of doubt as Professor A. C. Grayling lucidly remind us:

“humanity is part of nature, and the beauties and pleasures of everything of everything natural are part of humanity’s inheritance. This was the view of the ancient Greeks, who saw in the exercise of man’s reason the source of his ability to recognize goodness. The Greeks extolled friendship, the quest for knowledge and the appreciation of excellence in all things, as the source of the greatest pleasure that humans can have. They sought to understand what should make a good society so that individuals within it could enjoy flourishing lives. The focus of their attention is on this world and its benefits, and they debated intelligently about how to enjoy them, share them, and get the best from them.”

As a close student of the ancient Greeks, it is my humble contention and in conformity to the Aristotelian view: that the very basis of politics is ethics.

Hence, the negative outlook and pessimistic view that there is no ethics in politics is without any foundation!

Undeniably, not only that there is a room for ethics in politics, but the very aim or purpose (telos) of politics is the creation of virtues citizens, a good society where the citizens are responsible and truly living a happy life; because their interest is not simply their personal one but the interest of the whole for the promotion and the development of the common good!

I concur that “morality is hard to preserve and practice in politics”, nonetheless, it does not mean that being a moral and ethical politician is improbable! Yes, it is hard, yet it does not mean that it is impossible.

True, the English philosopher Francis Bacon said: “It is hard and severe a thing to be a true politician as to be truly moral.”

I intentionally highlighted this quotation, because it put squarely into the forefront of the discourse the very heart of the thesis of my argument.

What does it means to be a true politician? The very idea or the concept of a politician as originally envisioned by the Greeks is very different from the conception of the politician that we, the so-called “moderns” now understood. Etymologically, a politician is what the Greeks called as a polites. A polites is an individual whose main concern is the public welfare and the promotion of the common good!

We, the so-called “moderns” unfortunately have corrupted and bastardized a very noble concept.

With regard to those so-called “politicians” who do not give a damn to the people or who do not care about the public interest or those creatures whose interest is their only interest and use power not to distribute it but to further their nefarious and selfish aims; the term given to them by the Greeks is — an idiotes.

Those “politicians” who are in truth are the idiotes are those creatures quoted by our correspondents whose interest is their self-interest, those who are engaged in corruption (whether in money, position or power), those who do not care about the welfare of the people and don’t give a damn about problems of society.

Yes, they are idiots. They are idiots not because they are uneducated or unlettered or ignorant. Rather, they are what they are because they are blind and deaf with regard to what is the most important thing in life and in the public sphere.

They thought, idiotically and myopically that what is most important in life is money, power, position, privileges, etc.

They thought that the people exist to provide them with positions; they do not realize that instead their position exist to provide those people with freedom, justice, equity and to advance their well-being.

They believe that money is the most important thing, yet failed to discern that rather it is honor and virtue.

A fake “politician” thought that he or she is powerful and privileged when that individual is using it arbitrarily as against the wishes of the people; not knowing that he or she is powerless, because the true source of power is the power that comes from the people themselves.

Incontestably, only a moron would doubt the veracity of the claim that: “Politics, in its true meaning, is praiseworthy”.

The problem is, the idiotes of today corrupted and twisted the beautiful meaning and aims of politics.

Now, politics is known universally as the so-called “realpolitik” which meaning is a galaxy away from its original meaning.

Nevertheless, despite the negative connotation of “politics” in its general present form, politics, not merely as a profession but more importantly as a way of life can achieve a high ethical values if the very system in which politics arise have strong values as developed by the people or the citizens themselves.

The question is how? What’s to be done?

Aristotle stated that we cannot be fully be human and be a good citizen without participating in politics to create civic virtue which is utterly necessary to be a virtuous person and correspondingly a responsible citizen.

As testified by Professor Michael J. Sandel, “For Aristotle, the purpose of politics is not to set up a framework of rights that is neutral among ends. It is to form good citizens and to cultivate good character.”

To quote Aristotle’s key passages in his book the Politics:

“Any polis (society) which is truly so-called, and it is not merely one in name, must devote itself to the end of encouraging goodness. Otherwise, a political association sinks into a mere alliances… Otherwise, too, law becomes a mere covenant… “a guarantor of men’s rights against one another” — instead of being, as it should be, a rule of life such as will make the members of a polis good and just.”

Man by nature is a socio-political animal. We cannot do much if we are alone or in isolation, because if that is the case we will fail to develop both language and moral deliberation.

Hence, to be a good, virtuous human being and a responsible citizen, it is a condition sine qua non that we must participate and take part in everything that is happening in our politics.

In the categorically stirring words of Bertolt Brecht:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

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About Jose Mario de Vega

The writer has a Master's degree in Philosophy, a law degree and a degree in AB Political Science. He was previously teaching Philosophy, Ethics and Anthropology at an institution of higher education in the Nilai University College at Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. He is currently a lecturer at the College of Arts, Department of Philosophy at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. As of the moment, he is preparing to publish his first book entitled "Dissidente". It is a collection of his articles, commentaries and op-ed published by various newspapers in Southeast Asia.

10 Comments on “The Aim of Politics is Ethics and Virtue, the Promotion of the Individual Self Worth and the Common Good”

  1. Hey Dude…have you read the life of Sir Thomas Moore. The English Prime Minister of King Henry VIII of England. He has : integrity, morals, and a good conscience. He lost his head following his conscience.
    You can be a Politician, and you can become a Saint also. As he had demonstrated. You can be a politician; and can be ethical also.
    Our problem with our politicians is: their hearts are not in the right way – to serve the people. Instead they serve themselves. Look at the blossoming of family political dynasties…

    1. Sir Thomas More kept a rack in his house in Chelsea so that he could torture Protestants in the comfort and privacy of his own home before sending them to be burned at the stake.

      If that is your idea of “integrity, morals and good conscience”, I hope you never have political power over me.

      The Church of Rome tells us that he is a saint; he is not the sort of fellow whom I would like to share Heaven with.

        1. “Proof” – we are speaking of a man who died in 1535.

          More’s own “Dialogue Concerning Heresies” extols the burning of Protestants, and yes, Foxe contains an account of More racking men in his own house (incidentally, Foxe was a very diligent researcher; whilst his writings were certainly not impartial, very few of his statements of fact have been shown to be in error).

          But, for convenience, try here:

          http://www.thetudorswiki.com/page/Sir+Thomas+More+Controversies

  2. A politician without ethics is a menace to society and a barrier to progress.
    They place self-interest, and maintaining the status quo, at the top of their agenda.
    They exhibit hypocricy and deceit in their personal quest for money and power.
    Their moral compass only guides them to the dark side of human endeavour, and an absence of conscience provides them with no braking mechanism.

    Sadly, i see no champion or change agent on the horizon, and no significant groundswell of intolerance or indignation amongst the populace, simply resignation and acceptance, almost to the point of total subservience.

    whilst people do not deserve that, and should expect higher standards from their politicians, the system is geared to ensuring that the feudal system continues, and that people will be treated accordingly.

  3. To quote the Greeks and what they thought politics was 4,000 yrs. ago is all very grand and noble. BUT the Greeks also thought that the fossilized fish bones found inside a mountain was proof positive that fish could swim through rocks. the Greeks failed to realize that the formation of the earths’ surface had changed and that the place where the fish died had been covered by sedimentary rock over eons and that the water had receded and a mountain now stood where once there was a body of water. So look how wrong they could be.
    It is really only a matter of opinion that Aristotle’s view that the basis of politics is ethics. Well, maybe.
    The author leaves it to the reader to figure out whether or not the political climate being viewed in todays version is a democracy, dictatorship, monarchy etc, etc, it seems to be inferred but then so is the connection between what existed long ago, exists today albeit in a ‘bastardized’ condition. To dissect the authors views may seem as an attempt to discredit what he asserts, which is an opinion, and substituting another opinion for it which, depending on the point of view: may or may not be true. So, no dissection.
    But to look at the assertions made realistically, the Greeks lived in a different society than the ‘moderns’: technologically considered, vastly different. The Greeks also had a class of so-called ‘intellectuals’ who patted themselves on the back for thinking such lofty thoughts as the fish swimming through rocks theory mentioned above.
    Simply stated, it is a different time and a different place, with many different conditions, the world we live in today. To make the comparison between the two contexts is difficult, almost implausible and what Aristotle said, and the context in which he said it, renders the comparison almost irrelevant. Apples or Oranges, maybe.
    One thing is for sure, the thiefs-in-hoodies that are the politicians of today’s ‘moderns’ are not concerned the least bit with the greater good of society (one may have been, and he was fished out of an aircraft fuselage, pulse-less.). They may have taken ‘Ethics’ at the University but do not apply it unless it is in reference to the greater good of his/her own personal wealth, and how to expand it. This resembles a type of ‘accounting, with no accountability'(quite a concept!) more than anything Aristotle may have been alluding to .

    1. So, what is your point? Ha?

      Without the ancient Greeks, do you think, the so-called “moderns” will ever have a concept of what politics, government, well-being, citizenship, ethics, etc.?

      They are the first to raise those issues and it is but just and fair that we give them the justice and the credit due to them!

      I reiterate the thesis of my humble work: we must distinguish the politics of today from the politics originally envisioned by the Greeks!

      1. if they did not do it, someone else would have.

        and we would still have the bastardized versions of today.Sure, the basis of Ari’s work was sound, it just doesn’t translate into a work-able model in a corruption plagued world, but it could if ya could stop the corruption….but you just can’t. They had their share of ‘problems’ too and surely someone had their hand in the till of the peoples taxes.

        Its funny when someone says , “if it weren’t for them(or that guy), we would not have what we have today!”. WRONG, someone else would have done it.

        It is almost laughable that the works of Ari, Socs,Hipocrates, are still even taught. Most of it is just forgotten and cast aside when the professional gets the degree and enters society to thieve as much as possible. it is a disgrace actually.

  4. @ Mario DLV

    Juan Ponce Enrile indeed have mastered the habit of “deceit and lie” he exceeded Aristotles expectations.

    Sir Francis Bacon, was an illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth 1st whom she banished to France. Francis Bacon was the real author behind William Shakespeare’s works.

  5. Glenn is right on saying that “it is really a matter of opinion…”.

    However, perhaps it is more prudent not just to make as basis whatever the past philosophers, statesmen, politicians and whatever relative to what really are the attitudes of the current politicians most specifically in the Philippines.

    Whatever attitudes and conducts of the politicians here solely depend on the culture.

    For example in The Proverbs 22:7 The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. The first phrase seems to apply in most times, however, for the second phrase this is entirely opposite to the actual practice of Filipinos. Once somebody lends money to someone he is servant to him/her because most likely he/she wouldn’t pay him.

    Another example: “Teach a man how to fish and he will not come back to ask for more.” This is never true to Filipinos. Teach most Filipinos how to fish, buy him a fishing rod and accessories, quickly after you just turned your back he’s behind you (because he all things you bought for him). This time he/she is even more demanding. To them, it is already your “obligation” to support him.

    Buy for the Filipino a tricycle or Jeepney to support his financial needs. Every time the vehicle breaks down, he will ask from you money for spare parts and labor expense.

    Majority of Filipinos are pathetically lazy and parasitic. And our government is designed to make them think that they are being pampered, because they are too lazy to visualize beyond the fact that they are being manipulated and exploited for their votes in exchange for the crumbs and manure fed to them.

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