Relevance: The topic is a part of UPSC CSE General Studies Paper-IV Ethics syllabus. Concepts are particularly relevant in the theory section. Aspirants will also find the article useful for their Essay paper and situation-based questions in personality tests. Moreover, the article’s essence will help aspirants professionally and in life in general.
Nanditesh Nilay writes for UPSC Ethics Simplified fortnightly on Sundays. The first article will be a concept while the second article will be a caselet based on the concept. Don’t miss the ‘Point to Ponder’ section below.
Politics & Ethics
This topic will be always relevant for everyone after joining the civil services. As you know well, we are living in an age of politics. For Chanakya, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers, politics has been a central subject of discussion and even today it easily occupies the cognitive space of mortals. There is something unique even in a country like ours. People love to absorb themselves in political analysis and rarely refrain from passing any political opinion. However, for a bureaucrat, it is not the same. They keep a distance while in service to comment or pass an opinion, and focus more on becoming a bridge between politics and public or policies and benefits.
A civil servant or the executive in our parliamentary form of government is responsible to the legislature, and the elected representative wants to do everything for people across. Here you all will agree that the civil servants have to formulate policy or facilitate policy making for the effective execution of benefits. Now what about the fundamental question? Can we believe in any form of government where politics and ethics can go together? However, as an ethicist, I firmly believe that they can go together, particularly in a democracy like India or other democratic countries. However, there have been several incidents after independence in India and even globally which asserts this conviction a bit faintly.
Politics and ethics mean moving with the true purpose where politics is there to facilitate working towards the welfare of the masses and not that of acquiring undue power and privileges and control over large amounts of public funds. Here it is all about the highest form of integrity and commitment to the cause. All constituents of the political system are expected to work in this direction. And here comes the role of ethics. I will request you to once again recall the definition of values and ethics. As you know, politics means the work done or those ideas that are connected with governing a country or any city, village, etc, and here even the meaning asks us to add ethical intent for taking the work done near to qualitative analysis and ideas to purity.
Therefore, it is expected from politics to remain virtuous and operate on the bedrock of ethical foundations. The constitution of our country and various countries do proclaim this spirit only and all great politicians have exemplified this through their conduct.
However, one can witness a few times a serious deviation from this is visible which creates a misunderstanding as if politics and ethics cannot go together. Also, don’t forget the role of civil servants is equally important. They will have to facilitate creating an environment that can easily reduce any kind of rising tendency among politicians towards greed and power-mongering and we all understand that it can be counterproductive and hazardous to the system as a whole in the long run. My suggestion to students is to give examples of great politicians who became role models and think of those incidents that happened globally where ethics and politics came together and even distanced too.
We must agree that ethics and politics can easily go together if politics is done with a purpose. It can be facilitated primarily by developing that ethical or right understanding and awareness among people to be ethical and along with it, by bringing requisite reforms in the electoral and other political systems and also by enacting strong punitive legislations, etc.
To implement the above principle, firstly, one has to develop the right understanding and conviction about this challenge and truth and has to be continuously vigilant to act by it. Each decision either in politics or in civil service has to be evaluated in the light of its consequences to even the poorest of the poor as was suggested by Mahatma Gandhi in giving the oft-quoted ‘Talisman’. We have even discussed in earlier columns that it is a human weakness to give priority to one’s self-interest, and therefore in real-life situations, it can be countered by making a deliberate attempt to place the consideration of the common good as the first priority. If politics is ethical even in the long run, one’s interest will also be truly safeguarded. All the policies and institutional mechanisms such as codes of conduct and monitoring etc. to implement these need to be formulated based on this principle only which advocates ethical politics.
Society has to play a big role in putting politics in the ethical frame. Citizens will have to facilitate creating the ethical character of politics through ethical conduct that is highly required in everyone’s life. The golden rule of ethics has to be followed, ‘Do to others what you would like them to do to you.’ Yes, we must not forget that an ordinary man looks towards their representatives as a panacea for everything and that image of politics reaches to the common man by civil servants. Therefore by becoming a robust bridge any civil servant can keep that trust intact and later people can easily believe that politics and ethics can go together. Ultimately valuing morality amid all pulls and pushes shines the spirit of ethics. And so are brightened all institutions and individuals.
…I am no politician or political agitator. I care only for the Spirit — when that is right everything will be righted by itself…. — Swami Vivekananda
Long live ethics. Long live politics.
Post Read Question: Doing politics is different from being in politics. Do you agree? Do ethics and politics belong to different worlds?
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(Nanditesh Nilay is the author of ‘Being Good’, Aaiye, Insaan Banaen’ and ‘Ethikos: Stories Searching Happiness’. He teaches courses on and offers training in ethics, values and behaviour. He has been the expert/consultant to UPSC, SAARC countries, Civil services Academy, National Centre for Good Governance, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Competition Commission of India (CCI), etc. He has PhD in two disciplines and has been a Doctoral Fellow in Gandhian Studies from ICSSR. His second PhD is from IIT Delhi on Ethical Decision Making among Indian Bureaucrats. He writes for the UPSC Ethics Simplified (Concepts and Caselets) fortnightly.)