ABSTRACT

To discuss moral issues in relation to politics will appear to some to be as misplaced as eulogising the virtues of total abstinence in a brewery, or those of virginity in a brothel. Politics is popularly held to be a ‘dirty business’, operated by wheeler-dealers and time-servers. It has been defined as ‘the art of the possible’ and, more cynically, ‘the art of the second-best’; its practitioners bear the image in the eyes of many of unprincipled lusters after power, where power, in the words of Henry Kissinger when he was American secretary of state, ‘is a great aphrodisiac’. Yet politics has not only thrown up rogues, liars, pawns, and idiots but also eminent people who have made moral issues matters of national, if not international, debate. Some of the noblest contributors to history have been politicians; and some of the finest philosophical ideas have been penned by politicians. Italy produced Garibaldi as well as Mussolini; Germany Bismarck as well as Hitler; even Rome produced its Hadrians and Trajans besides its Caligulas and Neros. The English-speaking world has produced perhaps an even larger proportion of philosopher-politicians, from Jefferson and – though he, tragically, never became president – Adlai Stevenson in America to Burke, Mill, and Gladstone in Britain. It would be quite wrong, therefore, to generalise that politics is only for blinkered bullies. Since politicians are people, they will naturally reflect the gamut of human virtues and vices, and if the latter seem to be dominant at a particular time it seems reasonable to expect a swing of the pendulum to take place sooner or later. ‘Man’, said Aristotle, ‘is a political animal’; his saying so does not make it so, of course, but his words seem to carry enough truth to justify a brief examination of politics insofar as moral issues are involved.