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Unit 1: The Role of Ethics and Morality in Politics


1a. Define the term "ethics" and explain how it differs from law

  • What are some common definitions of ethics?

  • Define a law and explain how it differs from ethics.

  • Define policy making, statute and international law.

  • How does ethics relate to laws and societal norms?

  • Describe how political views can influence one's ethical values, such as how people with liberal and conservative views may have different perspectives about ethics.

The word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, which means custom or habit. Ethics describes the branch of philosophy that is concerned with morality, which is derived from the Latin word moralis, meaning custom. In common parlance, many use ethics synonymously with "morality," "values," and "moral philosophy."

The study of ethics involves an examination of the norms, behaviors, and codes of conduct which community members create and share. Our ethical and moral values reflect our beliefs about how people should treat others and act as members of their community. The ethical values a society prescribes can help individuals make decisions about whether to act in certain ways, because they are morally right or wrong.

Policymaking is the process members of a community follow to make laws, statutes, and other decisions that will impact the community. Politicians base many of the laws they make on the moral values and ethical codes of conduct the community shares. For example, legislators create laws, and judges determine legal punishment, based on their beliefs or notions of fairness, justice, and equality.

A statute refers to a domestic law. International law describes the set of laws governments around the world follow, based on common notions of human rights, such as the belief that all human beings should be allowed to live in a way that is free from persecution from other individuals and governments.

People frequently have differing societal norms and ethical beliefs about what they consider to be right or wrong, especially when they come from different cultures. Note that we will study specific theories about the common good, duty, and ethical decision making in Unit 2.

Review the articles What Is Ethics? and The Common Good by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J. and Michael J. Meyer; the video Five Ways to Think Ethically and follow up article A Framework for Ethical Decision Making from Santa Clara University; What is Government Ethics? by Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman; Ethics Are Culturally Relative by Charles A. Ellwood; and The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives by Jonathan Haidt.


1b. Explain the difficulties of enforcing ethics in government

  • Define government.

  • What is the role of ethics in government action?

  • Describe some ways the U.S. government tries to ensure its employees follow ethical standards?

  • What is the relationship between individual action and public policymaking in the realm of ethics?

  • Describe Max Weber's thoughts about ethics in politics.

Government is the political entity societies create to make decisions that will guide their collective life. This process involves an interplay between personal action and collective decisions. This U.S. government attempts to ensure its employees and elected officials comply with ethical standards through a series of laws, agency-specific codes of conduct, and watchdog offices charged with investigating suspect conduct within a particular office or agency. 

The relationship between individual and collective ethics comes together in the realm of public policy. Here individuals bring their own ethical commitments to their jobs as legislators. A member of congress, for example, must decide when to hold firm to a principle and when to compromise to achieve a partial victory. The full process yields decisions that have ethics-based components, but do not always neatly reflect any one person's ethical sensibilities.

Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist, is one of the most influential thinkers about the role of politics in the modern world. In his essay, "Politics as Vocation," Weber speaks about a variety of political ideologies that had become popular during his lifetime. His brand of politics is still with us today.


Review What is Government Ethics?; by Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman; Doing the Job Right: Best Practices for Everyday Decision Making in the Public Sector by Judy Nadler; and Politics as a Vocation by Max Weber.


1c. Identify codes, statutes, and treaties that pertain to ethics

  • Define a code of law, legal statute, and treaty.

  • Define a code of ethics.

  • Are codes of law, legal statutes, and treaties always ethical?

  • Can you name some examples of actions that you feel we should perform for ethical reasons, but are not necessarily legal, illegal, or enforced by statute? 

  • How and why do those who create statutes and treaties appeal to ethical standards when they encourage politicians and states to ratify them.

Most communities base the laws they create and codify, and the treaties they sign, on the moral codes of conduct they have agreed to follow as a society. For example, the laws the executive, legislative and judicial branches in the United States are based on the values the Founders upheld in Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Nevertheless, our legal and ethical standards do not always overlap: the difference can be sublime.

For example, some activities may be legal, but we no longer consider them to be ethical. American history is full of examples where the government failed to protect and actively violated the rights of minority populations. Examples include legal and legislative support for slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination against native Americans and immigrant groups.

In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of slavery in its decision Dred Scott v. Sanford, and slavery remained legal in many parts of the country although many Americans considered it to be immoral. The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery until 1865 and, after it was ratified, many state governments quickly passed Jim Crow laws to allow injustices against minority populations to continue.

Likewise, many would argue that individual actions may be ethical, even if they are considered illegal. For example, many Americans believe they have a moral duty to help immigrants who are hurt, hungry, or abused, even if they have entered the country illegally. Others disagree and would argue that any effort to help an illegal immigrant is wrong due to the person's immigration status. In addition, anyone who offers assistance is also violating the law even if their intention is to do what they consider moral.

In the same vein, our laws do not always require us to act in a moral fashion. For example, we are not legally required to donate to a cause or help an elderly neighbor, although many would argue we should do so for ethical reasons.

Review Chapter 8: Ethics by Philip A. Pecorino; Human Rights by James Nickel; the U.S. Government Accountability Office code of conduct U.S. Government Ethics Standards; and Doing the Job Right: Best Practices for Everyday Decision Making in the Public Sector by Judy Nadler.


1d. Identify the respective roles of agencies with ethics oversight or enforcement authority

  • Define ethics oversight and enforcement authority.

  • What is the role of the Government Accountability Office in the United States?

  • What are some ways that independent agencies ensure that ethical guidelines are being followed by the institutions they oversee? 

  • What is the difference between congressional oversight committees and regulatory agencies?

Enforcing ethical standards on government agencies is a complicated and difficult task. The U.S. federal government divides this responsibility across a number of organizations: Congress, independent regulatory agencies, the press, and independent public watchdog groups all play a role in the endeavor. Additionally, some agencies have investigative and enforcement authority which enables them to levy fines or other penalties. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, can assess large fines to companies that do not comply with rules about air pollution.

Review more examples, such as the mission of the Government Accountability Office, in Doing the Job Right: Best Practices for Everyday Decision Making in the Public Sector by Judy Nadler; About GAO from the U.S. Government Accountability Office; and Politics as a Vocation by Max Weber.


1e. Describe the types of ethical issues that might arise for local, state, national, and international political leaders

  • What is the relationship between ethics, human rights, and distributive justice?

  • Briefly summarize the intellectual history of the concept of human rights.

  • How does encouraging ethical activity differ on the international and domestic stage?

  • What is the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human rights is a 20th century notion that states all individuals possess specific rights, such as the right to live with dignity and respect, regardless of where they live or the type of government that rules their country. In other words, human rights are universal and apply to all humans at all times no matter what. In western thought, the concept of distributed justice goes back to Plato (429 BC–348 BC) the Greek philosopher. Distributive justice refers to the concept of fairness when distributing material goods, such as food, water, property, and money.

It can be difficult to define ethical standards and human rights in an international context, because no one person or entity has the legal or moral authority to define what these principles mean across country borders. While the terms are used widely and serve as a common point of reference for individuals from diverse societies, many disagree with what these concepts mean in specific detail.

For this reason, since its creation in 1945, groups of countries have met over the years under the auspices of the United Nations to craft shared agreements about the human rights every individual should enjoy and how governments should treat individuals around the world without exception. 

This Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is especially important because it provides a foundation for our most popular understanding of human rights. To understand the context of today's human rights debates, you need to understand the contents of this document since it summarizes so many relevant ideas on the topic.

Review the reading Human Rights by James Nickel; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations; the report Human Rights in Brief from the U.S. State Department; the video 2009 Global Status of Human Rights from Amnesty International; and the reading International Distributive Justice.


Unit 1 Vocabulary


  • Code

  • Conservative

  • Distributive justice

  • Enforcement authority

  • Ethics

  • Ethics oversight

  • Government

  • Government Accountability Office (GAO)

  • Human rights

  • International law

  • Law

  • Liberal

  • Max Weber

  • Political view

  • Societal norm

  • Statute

  • Treaty

  • United Nations

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights



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