What price a political bargain?
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 29 spring 1997
There used to be a time when a life in politics was considered the most noble of all available to a citizen. This was because the politician was charged with the responsibility of helping to build a good society.
Nowadays, far too many assume the worst about politicians. To the cynical public eye, it appears that politicians are primarily interested in power for its own sake or, worse still, for the sale of narrow personal or sectional interests. This is, of course, a grossly unfair caricature of most politicians.
The vast majority is motivated by a genuine desire to serve community and, as a result of this, they sacrifice a host of goods that the rest of us take for granted – privacy, family life and the unrestricted good opinion of their fellow citizens. How then might we explain their current standing?
One clue may be found in the reaction that many people have to the occasional announcement that parliament will be allowed a 'conscience vote' on some matter. For many, this provokes the question, “What then is the status of all the other votes?”. Are we expected to believe that, for most of the time, Parliament is a conscience free zone?
On one argument, such a response is perfectly understandable – but wrong! Supporters of the current arrangement, by which members of parliament debate issues in the party room and then vote as bloc, point out that this is the key to establishing and maintaining political stability. As far as conscience is concerned, it is argued that the proper place for its exercise is behind closed doors and that if it need be paraded in defiance of the party view, then the Member should resign from the party.
An alternative response is to assert the view that a well-informed conscience should be at work in all of a politician's deliberations. This still leaves plenty of room for a variety of positions to be sincerely held. However, it makes it clear that deciding matters in support of the powerful or to win popularity (or other benefits) can never be an acceptable alternative to doing what the individual, in his or her heart of hearts, believes to be right and good.
Now it may be that all of our politicians are in the fortunate position to hold that, in all good conscience, allegiance to the party room is always the best policy to follow. However, given the seriousness of the issues that politicians have to deal with, this seems an unlikely trick of fortune. Rather, we might suspect that most of our politicians encounter serious ethical dilemmas on a regular basis. What the fiction of the 'conscience vote' tries to do is institutionalise (and therefore neutralise) the dilemma by making it appear to be a normal part of the workings of government.
Many people, in public life, believe that it is an inevitable part of their lot that they should 'get their hands dirty' for the sake of the community. This problem of 'dirty hands' is well known in philosophical circles. Put simply, it is the realisation that there are times when people in public life may feel compelled to act unethically on our behalf (for example to tell lies in time of war) and that they should do so even though they know that the community will still blame them for having done the ‘wrong’ thing. In such circumstances, politicians believe themselves to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
In all of this discussion, one important fact needs to be kept in mind. All justifications for abandoning conscience rest on the claim that this must necessarily be done on behalf of the community as a whole. In other words, for us.
Now an obvious question follows. Do we really want the goods that politicians secure for us under such conditions? Have we any right to benefit from a system that places people in the nearly intolerable position of having to compromise fundamental beliefs? And, in any case, did anybody ever ask us if we wanted this particular bargain?