On Politics and Ethics

“If power — its acquisition and exercise — must be justified, ethics has a necessary place in the political process...In the words of a contemporary observer, ethics is the intellectual process and skill by which we engage in analyzing and reasoning about the rights and wrongs involved in any decision we face: Not exclusively the financial aspects, or scientific aspects, or military aspects, or geopolitical aspects, but the moral aspects of any decision we face.”
Sargent Shriver | New York, NY | November 11, 1977

Our Quote of the Week reminds us that ethics must have a role in the wielding of political power. When making decisions, if political leaders do not keep the best interests of the people in mind, the people’s well-being and freedoms are jeopardized.

Sargent Shriver spoke these words during the 1977 Address on Ethics and Government at the Deutsches Haus-Goethe Institute at NYU Inaugural Lecture. This moment in history was not unlike our own: the governmental crisis caused by Watergate and the subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon had happened three years earier; the ongoing energy crisis created economic instability; The United States wrestled to ease tensions with its long-time rival, the Soviet Union; all while a new US president, Jimmy Carter, worked to chart a different course for the country. The combination of domestic and international socio-political and economic factors had caused widespread cynicism and distrust among the American people, and with his speech, Sargent Shriver attempted to address this state of things.

In the speech, Shriver laments the lack of prioritization on ethics:

"[I]n today’s debate doctors, lawyers, economists (and I should add scientists and military leaders) are the gurus whereas moralists, philosophers, and ethicists are relegated to the sidelines - maybe even to the grandstands. They are spectators, not participants, when practical decisions have to be made by practical men. Whoever hears of a moral philosopher being invited to a meeting of the National Security Council? What could he/she add to the wisdom provided by the generals, politicians, lawyers, bankers, and cost accountants.”

Ultimately, Sargent Shriver concludes that we must cultivate a society in which people in every sector of society -- public service, medicine, the law, education, and so on -- act from an ethical place, keeping the well-being of others in mind. It is only then that we can create an ethical government:

“There is no substitute for a continuing effort to introduce ethics into the processes of Government. Only one place takes precedence, the inside space within each one of us, within each person in this democracy. If by education and example we can produce human beings who are ethically sensitive inside themselves they will produce an ethically sensitive government.”

In 2021, as we struggle with political leaders who dispute the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, who try to suppress the teaching of central aspects of US history such as slavery, or who attempt to retain power by limiting voting rights, we would do well to remember these words. May we create a more ethical society by starting within ourselves, and may our behavior motivate those around us to think and behave ethically, as well.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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