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What ethical standards should we hold politicians to? A philosopher explains two different approaches


Boris Johnson’s resignation: an interesting moment for ethics in politics. Michael Tubi / Shutterstock Joshua Hobbs does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

With Boris Johnson’s departure, the drama of the Conservative leadership election, and Keir Starmer’s declaration that “integrity matters” in politics, the question of what ethical standards we ought to hold politicians to has never felt more pressing in the UK.

The idea that ethics has anything to do with politics is often (justifiably) met with some degree of scepticism. As philosopher Michael Walzer notes , it is conventional wisdom that politicians are “a good deal worse, morally worse, than the rest of us”.

There are two arenas where the ethics of politicians come into play. First is in their political work: putting their personal scruples aside to achieve noble political goals, engaging in “dirty deals”. The other is, of course, in their private lives: the sex scandals and other personally unethical behaviour that are characterised in Britain as “sleaze”.

To decide how to judge politicians who engage in either of these activities, we can turn […]

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