There are two primary means of resolving ethical dilemmas.  The deontological approach is rules-based–don’t lie, don’t steal, keep your promises, etc.  Then there’s the teleological or utilitarian approach, which judges the morality of competing approaches by their consequences (“greatest good for the greatest number”).

Both approaches are respectable.  They often lead to the same conclusion in given situations.  In other situations, however, they may point in different directions and then the question arises regarding which we should choose.

Although many people believe that they are strong deontologists and that generally “rules are rules,” almost everyone would say that it is ethical to lie to Gestapo members who are looking for the Jewish family hidden in your basement.  In that setting, nearly everyone is a utilitarian.

Steven Spielberg’s very popular (and deservedly so) movie “Lincoln,” presents a difficult choice.  Is it ethical to lie in order to induce Congress to pass important legislation?  To bribe?  To allow a war to continue and men to die?  Nearly everyone, I believe, would say that the answer to those questions has to be a strong “no.”  At least most of the time.

But according to the screenplay, Lincoln decided that in order to end slavery, just about anything was justified.  Ending slavery seems like such an unalloyed good that it is difficult to disagree with that conclusion. This supremely important end arguably justified whatever means were necessary to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed.

But let’s be careful.  In the heat of battle, many less important ends may seem worthier than they truly are.  And illicit means to those ends can undermine the integrity of our democratic processes in ways that may damage our political system’s ability to accomplish anything worthwhile.  Politicians tend to be uniquely egotistical, strongly affected by the self-serving bias (highlighted in one of our “Concepts Unwrapped” videos), and often afflicted with Messiah complexes.  They often invoke the language of holy wars in debates over mundane fiscal issues.  Unrestrained, one can easily envision all-too-many politicians concluding that manifold normally questionable actions are justified in order to fulfill campaign promises, advance self-serving perceptions of the common good, or please major donors.

My previous Ethics Unwrapped blog asked what one should do when one finds oneself in an atmosphere of pervasive corruption.  I did not mention politics as an example, but I had it in mind.  It would, I suspect, be difficult to find a winning political campaign on the national stage in 2012 that did not involve intentionally misleading campaign ads and ethically-compromised political fundraising.

To watch Ethics Unwrapped ’s “In It to Win” video or to read Jack Abramoff’s book Capitol Punishment is to suspect that a significant level of ethical compromise is necessary to win political office, to retain office, and to enact any legislation.  I have often told family and friends that I would never run for political office (not that anyone has asked me to), because I am unwilling to compromise my values in the ways that it appears would be necessary.  Am I the noble one?  Or are those who are willing to dirty their own hands to accomplish the greater good the truly noble ones?  Writing about the movie “Lincoln,” David Brooks argues that “[p]olitics is noble because it involves personal [ethical] compromise for the public good.”  Do you agree with Brooks?


David Brooks, “Why We Love Politics,” New York Times, November 22, 2012