For Ethical Politics by Andy Blunden, 2003


Ethical politics widens the scope for political action and in particular facilitates the “politicisation” of everyday life in a new way. Ethical politics opens the political field to all people, irrespective of whether they have a “following” or a political affiliation, or even political knowledge and expertise. Ethical politics is radically non-elitist while at the same time challenging both mainstream and academic political, sociological and ethical theory at a demanding level. Most importantly, ethical politics opens a common space for the productive engagement of all strands of political thinking which are challenging the dominant economic-rationalist and right-wing populist forces from radically different standpoints.

Ethical politics does not mean a re-moralisation of the public sphere, which could only be a pernicious moralism: a substitution of moral judgment for rational justification as powerless as it would be strident; nor a concern with public values as opposed to “reasons of state” which would be another effort to curtail the legitimate use of government authority and exercise of responsibility; nor a call for the restoration of the balance between legality and authority which would be a species of communitarianism, advocating the return to a singular collective good, and imposing the necessary consensus by authoritarian means under the sign of a reversal of the “priority of right over the good.” Nor is ethical politics an attempt to set limits to the science of government by means of ethical committees, which would begin as an impotent cavilling and end as a species of casuistry.

Ethical politics is none of these things. It is not a moralism. It is not a utopia. It is not a mask for communitarianism, nor a political voodoo that might re-animate liberalism. It does not seek to restore the “lost balance.” It does not imagine that the power of the multinationals can be confronted by extra-political moral pressure alone. It is not a confederation of “concerned citizens.” It is - above all - not an attempt to “clean up” the political landscape.

“For Ethical Politics” is not an effort to launch a political temperance society. Opposition to the agenda of mainstream politics cannot become a moralistic cavilling or a defence of actual elites at the expense of those whose interests are really at stake in neo-liberal policies and their populist smokescreen: the increasing numbers of ordinary people for whom economic, political and cultural globalisation brings new uncertainties and declining living standards, nor a call for social contracts to legitimise the exercise of corporate and imperialist power.

The hope guiding this inquiry is that ethical politics might be the focal point for the convergence of a broad spectrum of political tendencies breaking with the hegemonic neo-liberal political agenda of both Liberal and Labor parties. Whether these tendencies are republican, socialist, communitarian, feminist, multi-culturalist or environmentalist is less important than their potential coalescence around the need for a different way of doing politics. All of these tendencies have highly articulate criticisms of mainstream politics and definite agendas for their respective political alternatives. The only thing lacking is a common public perception of how such alternatives could be approached. In the absence of this awareness, the agenda of government is driven by the “unholy trinity” of economic neo-liberalism, the politics of the “war on terrorism” and populist prejudice, and the assault on social cosmopolitanism and ethical universality in the name of a reduction in the power of so-called cultural elites, attempting to manage the impact of globalisation not through governance of social processes but through ideological scapegoating.

What is ethical in the opposition to the dominant agenda is the focus on respect for the moral worth of all persons, whether this takes the form of the legitimacy of group identities, respect for cultural diversity and equality of opportunity, or the defence of human dignity through wage justice, social welfare and democratic rights. Underlying this opposition is the latent concept of political justice linked to an ideal of democratic ethical life in modernity as characterised by rational universality and social diversity.

The task of working out how the political atmosphere could be changed so that the broad array of activists currently collaborating through alliance politics can make their voices heard among the mass of the population is surely one that should concentrate our minds.

How is the link between social justice and cultural diversity to be framed? What are the just, and what the unjust, modes of governance that can be imagined for world of self-governing political communities? What sorts of links can be established between authority and legitimacy? How might democratic citizenship and civic virtues promote a culture of democratic politics within which egalitarian agendas might flourish? What are the public values that support freedom, and what are the forms of universality that sustain and contribute to diversity? Ethical politics sets itself to respond to these questions, not solely with new ideas, but also with new laws, new policies and new political directions.

May 2003