Ethics and Politics Relationship - Part I
- :Sayyid Hasan Islami
By : Sayyid Hasan Islami
Politics has two faces—a smiling face that gives glad tidings of prosperity, power and authority, and a furious one that calls to mind power struggle, power worship, and injustice. It is owing to this that politics is likened to Janus, the first mythological king of Latium.
The gods had bestowed the king with such powers of clairvoyance that he would see the past and the future in unison. It is for this reason that they used to depict him as having two faces, portraying him as terrifying. In reality, politics has also two facets and faces: On the one hand, it is after securing the objectives and demands of the citizens and is a powerful tool for the establishment of public order and welfare—this is the favourable face of politics.
On the other hand, it is the means of rivalry, challenge, power struggle, dealing a blow to the enemy, and outstripping and outsmarting him—this gives a dreadful image of politics.
In our culture the latter face of politics is better known. Usually politics has been equated and associated with fraud, deception, and in slang, ‘chicanery’ [pedar su-khteh ba-zi-].
A deeper analysis of this aspect of politics exists in Arabic and has taken the form of a proverb. It states, “To rule is mule-like (sterile)” [al-mulk ‘aqi-m]. It means that it show no mercy to anybody and recognizes no kinship and kinsmen.
History is replete with this attitude to politics. Na-dirsha-h killed his own son merely because of a misunderstanding, and Shi-raveyeh murdered his own father Khusru-parvi-z (Khosroe Parvez) in order to gain power. Ferdowsi- elegantly depicts the gloomy end of this unlucky king. After Shi-raveyeh, who was himself a prisoner of his father, is released from the prison through the help of the soldiers, he dethrones his father, puts him behind bars, and goes in search of a person who would kill his father. But he has nobody to help to murder the king as such a deed would be inauspicious. However, he finally finds the person who accepts to shoulder the heavy responsibility.
He gave him a sharp dagger that shines like water, And he was hastily directed to kill.
When the wicked person approached the king, He saw him devoted to God.
When Khosrow saw him, tears flew on his cheek; When the king wore those garments and repented from his sins.
A new chador he covered himself with So as not to see his murderous face.
Mehr Hormozd took hold of a dagger And closed the door of the king’s house.
He promptly approached the king and took away the chador from his head And opened the king’s belly.
This patricide does not end here. As a precautionary measure, fifteen other sons of Khusru- who are imprisoned are also butchered.
When the people of the street and market understood How Khosrow became corrupted, All the wicked were imprisoned While the indigent were in the veranda.
All the fifteen noble sons (of Khosrow) Were imprisoned in the castle.
They were innocently murdered in prison As the king’s fortune returned.
Shi-raveyeh, too, did not remain unpunished for this patricide [and fratricide] for he was also murdered by others.
Well, the story of politics from this perspective is a tragic one and replete with patricides, fratricides and filicides. If politics is such, what will its relation to ethics be? Is it possible to build a bridge between the two? This question has occupied and challenged the minds of thinkers for the past two thousand years. Some believe that politics is a mixture of fraudulence and violence, and, as such, it cannot be rid of its abominations. This is while others do assert that politics can be ethical. But we are after finding out the place of politics in the ideological system of Imam Khomeini and what connection it could have with ethics. In a bid to answer this question, we have no alternative but to discuss first the fundamental views on the subject under consideration. Then, we will examine the viewpoint of the Ima-m in this context.
Concerning the relationship between ethics and politics, there are four main views and they are as follow:
• View on the separation of ethics and politics;
• View on the subservience of ethics to politics;
• View on the duality of ethics and politics; and
• View on the oneness of ethics and politics.
View on the separation of ethics and politics
The principal claim of this view is that one should believe in the difference between ethical rules and political exigencies, and that one should take political measures on the basis of reality and by keeping in mind the interests and benefits. Anchored to this approach, which is also called political realism, is the consideration of ethics in politics ending in failure in this sphere.
It is because the pivot of ethics is truth and right while the motive of politics is interests and benefits. Ethics demands that we tell the truth even though it is against us, not to do injustice, not to take people as our instruments, to be advocates of justice all the time, not to lie, to abstain from deception, not to conceal the truths, etc. This is while politics necessitates the abandonment of some principles of ethics. Basically any step in politics begins with hostility against ethics and trampling upon moralities. Any political activity is impossible without ‘the dirty hands’.
Politics is nothing but an arena for the obtainment, expansion and preservation of power, which cannot be realized without sacrificing the principles of ethics. After every political step, the abundance of crushed moral virtues is conspicuous. Therefore, one must choose either ethics or politics, purity or defilement while discarding the other since combining the two is absurd. As a result, “All the interests of man who wants his soul to remain pure through piety lie in not doing anything.”
According to a political realist adhering to ethics in the political sphere is not only unbeneficial but also means total loss since he knows that in this world, “In spite of the moral tales which are for children, virtue remains unrewarding. The real sovereign is power… and moral temptations are signs of weakness of designs.”
Apparently, the first thinker who dwelt on this issue and elucidated it was Thucydides, a Greek political thinker and historian. He precisely sketched out this viewpoint two thousand and four hundred years ago and decided to delineate the exact boundary between ethics and politics and to separate these two realms from one another. In the belief that politics is tied to interests while ethics is to truth, he narrates the dialogue between the representatives of Athens, which was then in a position of strength, and the representatives of the city of Melos, a former ally of Athens that was in a position of weakness. The dialogue strikingly shows the essence of this view.
After the city of Melos fell under siege, the representatives of Athens went there to conduct a dialogue and talked with the elders of the city. An excerpt of the dialogue is as follows:
“What we want is to make it clear to you that we have come here for the expansion of our empire and are conducting this dialogue so as to maintain the safety of your city. To prevail over you is not difficult for us, but at the same time, we want your safety since this affair is beneficial to both of us.” 
The representatives of Melos replied, “How could it be just as good for us to be the slaves as for you to be the masters?”
Representatives of Athens: “You, by giving in, would save yourselves from disaster; we by not destroying you, would be able to profit from you.”
Representatives of Melos: “Hence, according to the people of your city, just behaviour lies in not differentiating between the cities that have nothing to do with you (neutral) and those that are either your puppets or have revolted against you, and you have gained control over them?”
Representatives of Athens: “From the viewpoint of right and wrong, our people do not make any difference between them and they believe that the cities are still independent as they are strong, and the reason why we do not attack them is that we are afraid of them. So, by conquering you we shall increase not only the size but the security of our empire as well. We have mastery over the seas and you are a small and weak island. As such, it is only natural that you should surrender to us.”
Therefore, since the people of Athens are more powerful than the people of the island of Melos, the power itself gives them the right to occupy the island and make its inhabitants their slaves. The view of the separation of ethics from politics is more explicitly associated with Machiavelli, the Italian thinker. He not only insists on this dichotomy but also recommends, in his concise and famous thesis named, The Prince, to the ruler or prince to trample upon every ethical consideration so as to fortify his power.
Although Machiavelli thinks of ethics as essential for the life of the individual and indispensable for the continuity of society and social life, he regards attachment to it as dangerous for the prince and he cautions him (the prince or monarch) against the danger of piety and says:
Anyone who wants in all conditions to be virtuous, in the midst of all this wickedness, has no destiny except disappointment. Thus, a prince who would not like to relinquish his crown should learn wicked methods and utilize them wherever needed.
Even though in the view of Machiavelli the possession of virtues is good for the prince, it is so as long as it does not amount to the collapse of his rule.
Thus, since we think optimistically, we see it as an attribute which is regarded as a virtue. But its implementation will lead to annihilation [of the government]. This is while there is also another attribute which is viewed as callousness although it engenders security and success.
Though the popularity of the prince is desirable, in case he cannot avoid either the people adoring or fearing him. It is then better if they fear him because in this way they could be controlled and guided better.
No matter how desirable the faithfulness and fidelity of the prince are, it is regrettable that circumstances are not always compatible with the observance of pacta sunt servanda.
Life experiences have taught us that the monarchs who have performed onerous tasks are those that have not given any consideration to doing good deeds and have manipulated the people through trickery. Finally, they have prevailed over those who have observed righteousness.
Thus, one must always move in tune with reality, know the value of power and authority, and bear in mind that even among the prophets, those armed had been victorious and “all the prophets who were fighters triumphed and those who were armless remained unsuccessful.”
There are two ways to gain victory: law and force. Law is peculiar to the human being. Force belongs to the animals, and since the first alternative is not always responsive, the monarch should also learn the second option. It is in this sense that the monarch ought to know how he could acquire the two temperaments as he will not remain faithful to one of them. So, if the monarch is supposed to learn the style of the wild beast and apply it, he ought to learn also the style (cunning) of the fox as well as that (brawn) of the lion as the lion cannot escape from traps (deception) and the fox from the clutches of the wolf (power)…
Therefore, the shrewd ruler is not supposed to be faithful to his promise when it is to his disadvantage and detriment, and there is no more reason to commit to it… From these circumstances, there are numerous instances that can be brought out and be shown that so many promises and commitments which have been violated through the infidelity of the princes as well as for without any basis. Those who have imitated the fox have come out more successful than the rest. But it should be known how to embellish the outward appearance and to cunningly perform deception and trickery. The people are so naïve and credulous such that a deceiver can always find those who are willing to be deceived.”
The book is replete with such recommendations. Considering the psychological makeup of the masses, he regards them as inherently filthy and wicked, and believes that “anyone who leans on the people [actually] leans on water.” His main proposal is that “the people should either be flattered or knocked down.”
There is no middle way; it is either the stick or carrot. Reliance on Machiavelli and quotation of his statements are due to his importance in the history of political thought. There have been innumerable discussions on Machiavelli and his thesis which he dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici (1449-92), the ruler of Florence (in Italy). A group believes that Machiavelli expressed his beliefs in that book and that he believed in whatever he said; thus, he deserves curse and damnation.
But keeping in view his other book entitled, Discourses, another group believes that Machiavelli was actually describing the rulers of his time and not prescribing a particular method. At any rate, this discussion is still alive and the first view prevails over the second. Similarly, ‘Machiavellian’ is an attribute that signifies jugglery and cheating in the sphere of politics. In spite of this, he has been described as “the first modern political philosopher” and nobody doubts the influence of his thinking and ideas.
So, it is fitting to claim that in the sphere of political thought, Machiavelli can be accepted; he can be denied as well. But, he cannot be overlooked. Machiavelli’s ‘crime’ was that he would expose whatever the princes were doing, and made clear the essence and consequences of such thinking. From then onward, this approach not only remained undiminished in matters of politics but also the rulers who were Machiavellian supporters commenced their rule by vilifying Machiavelli while observing all his recommendations. Even those who opposed Machiavelli’s thought would tread the same path once they obtained power, applying the same recommendations to such an extent that Frederick, the Great, the King of Prussia, at a young age while still a crown prince and enjoying the companionship of the French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote a book on the latter’s encouragement entitled, Anti-Machiavelli.
In it he criticized one by one the ideas of Machiavelli as being contrary to moral laws. But no sooner than succeeding to the throne that he found himself besieged by his rivals who, from all quarters, had cast covetous eyes on his country. Whereupon he followed to the letter the political principles enunciated by Machiavelli, particularly in The Prince. It is notable that there has been no political figure who observed so precisely and strictly the law of raison d’éstat as he did. Finally, in his political will and testament, he acknowledged that Machiavelli was right; adding that among all those with boundless ambitions, anyone observing ethics would not survive.
The perfect epitome of a person possessing such a mental frame, who instinctively applied all the above recommendations, was Mu‘a-wiyah ibn Abi- Sufya-n. In a bid to obtain the caliphate and preserve it, he did many unofficial things and trampled on all moral virtues. After concluding a peace treaty with Ima-m Hasan al-Mujtaba- (‘a), he trampled on the conditions that were not to his satisfaction. He officially announced that his objective in waging war and concluding the peace treaty was nothing but obtainment of power and dominance over others, and that there being no further impediment in his way, he saw no reason to fulfill his promises and commitments. He performed congregational prayer in Nukhaylah and in his sermon he declared to the signatories:
By God, I did not wage war against you in order to let you say your prayers, observe fasting, perform hajj, or give zaka-t [alms-tax], [It makes no difference for me] whether you perform these acts or not. I fought against you only for the sake of making myself your ruler and God granted my wish even though it is unpleasant for you.
Prior to the birth of Machiavelli, Mu‘a-wiyah applied his prescriptions on the temperamental duality of the prince and the lion-fox nature of the ruler. In his letter to Ziya-d ibn Ubayyah, the then governor of Basrah and Ku-fah, he wrote:
It is not fitting for you and me to guide the people uniformly through a policy of leniency as to make them experience inebriation, or to exert extreme pressure on them as to put them in a quandary. Instead, you have to adopt a policy of violence and rudeness while I will employ a policy of clemency and compassion.
The adventurousness of Mu‘a-wiyah, the war he imposed on Ima-m ‘Ali- (‘a), the elected caliph of the people, and his Machiavellian ways are well-known to all and sundry. Some of the people at that time were so influenced by such an approach as to accuse Ima-m ‘Ali- (‘a) of lack of political acumen, with which we will deal later. Relying on political realism, this group of people believed that Mu‘a-wiyah should be dealt with in a Mu‘a-wiyah-like fashion—something which Ima-m ‘Ali- (‘a) was not at all prepared to do.
Consequently, Mu‘a-wiyah emerged triumphant. As such, their view, as they thought it, was proved that the path of politics is separate from that of ethics. The main critique of Ima-m ‘Ali-’s (‘a) critics who have always believed in the great value of his ethical personality, pertains to the Ima-m’s (‘a) moral approach in politics. One of them is Shafi-q Jibri-, an Egyptian contemporary, who regards the Ima-m’s (‘a) ethical approach as the reason behind his failure in the Battle of Siffi-n. He says:
The Ima-m (‘a) did not know that the main apprehension of the people concerned the vanities of the world. It was difficult for him to believe that the people were in pursuit of their own interests and benefits. So, he did not behave with them as a professional politician would; rather, he dealt with them as a professional man of ethics.
Sayyid Qut*b, himself a Sunni- thinker, does not approve this assessment. He believes that the Ima-m (‘a) was familiar with the way to victories and defeats, and the methods thereof. But he was not willing to make use of any method at any cost. Instead, he was strictly committed to ethics. This is while
Mu‘a-wiyah and his alter ego ‘Amr [ibn al-‘A-s], owing to being more acquainted with the psychological motivations of individuals as well as with useful attitudes in suitable conditions, turned victorious against ‘Ali-. Nay, they became victorious since they regarded themselves free to employ any weapon; whereas he [Ima-m ‘Ali- (‘a)] abided by his ethical principles in employing war weapons. Besides, Mu‘a-wiyah and his alter ego used to resort to lies, deception, trickery, bribery, and buying commitments and loyalty. Therefore, it is not surprising that the two would triumph and he be defeated; a defeat that was nobler than any triumph.
Such an approach to politics has led many religious individuals to turn their backs on it; the reason being that the notion that politics, in essence, necessitates separation from ethics has taken root. Expressions such as ‘to rule is mule-like’ [al-mulk ‘aqi-m], ‘politics has no father and mother’ ‘politics is chicanery’ [siya-sat pedar su-khteh-ba-zi-], and the like, are the products of such a notion. Even one of the contemporary jurists [fuqaha-] who used to assail politics pessimistically and dissuade the Muslims from engaging in it, would say, “Politics is on one side while religion is on the other.”
In the words of Imam Khomeini, the matter went to such an extent that most of the scholars [ahl-e ‘ilm] and holy men [muqaddasi-n] had accepted the notion that “religion has its own boundary and so with politics” and even if they wanted to backbite somebody, they would dub him as ‘political or politicized’ [siya-si-]. He himself narrates that Pa-krava-n, the then chief of the State Organization for Security and Information (SAVAK) approached him and said, “Sir, politics consists of telling lies, cheating, trickery, jugglery and, in short, chicanery of the highest order [pedar-su-khtehgi-]; leave all this to us.” Since the occasion was not appropriate, I decided not to argue with him and said, “From the very beginning we have not been engaged in the kind of politics that you mention.”
In reality, this tenet has two premises. One is that ethics and politics belong to two distinct realms while the other is that political values are different from those of ethics. Proponents of this view propound that the realm of ethics is that of individual realm and his private affairs, while the realm of politics concerns the assurance of wholesome social life and regulation of social relations of individuals with one another, as well as with the government. In addition, moral value is a function of truth, whereas in politics the criterion of value judgment is interests and benefits.
A certain political act is good provided that it is beneficial and brings about a positive outcome, this not being so with ethics. Basically, ethics manifests itself when man is free of the shackles of his personal interests and considerations and moves beyond himself. This point indicates that the precept of separation of ethics from politics does not necessarily mean conflict between them. That is to say, it is not that political acts and movements of politicians are unquestionably repulsive to moral values.
Thus, this tenet is sometimes called the tenet of ‘amorality of politics’. It means that in politics we are up against different kinds of values and standards of measurement, and that politics should not be assessed on the basis of moral values or be judged within the framework of ethics. So, politics in this sense is neutral; it is not against ethics. However, since in practice, this tenet is not bent on either ensuring or negating ethics, and is only in pursuit of obtaining benefits; it does not refrain from trampling on all the principles and rules of ethics whenever necessary. Hence, this theory throughout history has been tantamount to the negation of ethics and etiquettes.
Criticism of the view
The conclusion of the claimants of this is that the principles of ethics should not be allowed to interfere in politics. The story of the followers of this tenet is that of the person who was cutting the root while unwary of the fact that he was approaching death by his own hands. The problem is that if the people realize that their leaders are not behaving morally, they will also wash their hands of ethics, just as Sa‘di- says:
If the monarch were to eat a single apple from the garden of a peasant, The servants would pull up the tree by the roots.
A government which permits itself to commit injustice and deceive the people cannot expect justice and truthfulness from them. A citizen, who realizes that his sovereign government tells a lie, prefers, for instance, to fill his tax declaration form with lies, too, and give wrong information. From the perspective, ‘The people are sovereign over the judgment’ [An-na-s ‘ala- di-n mulu-kahum], such a citizen considers himself licensed to perpetrate all sorts of fraud and answers a lie with another lie.
The point is also certain that no government is needless of ethics. The government regards it necessary for its own citizens as they cannot always be asked to obey through force and violence. Instead, the social and government laws should be internalized; with ethics assuming the responsibility for this task. So, any government or ruler is in need of ethics. Even Mu‘a-wiyah considered ethics as being necessary for the people and would feign to be a moral person abiding by ethical principles.
A government has hitherto not appeared in history which has permitted its citizens to behave immorally and claim that ethics is worthless. Even if there is a person who has, in practice, trampled on ethics, at least he has pretended to preserve it. Hitler, too, considered himself as a moral person, and Stalin, who set up those ceremonial and sham courts, did so as well and regarded for his people morals as being necessary.
Therefore, if ethics is needed for the people, it can only be kept when the people feel that the government is also faithful and committed to the principles of ethics. Otherwise, there will be no guarantee for the survival of ethics in society, and in turn, survival of the government.
That is why even Machiavelli stresses on the need for the government to behave morally. He views as oppressive the application of whatever he explains in The Prince, saying, “Of course, all these instruments are oppressive and destructive to civil life.” He also states, “Just as good law is needed for the preservation of good morality, good morality is also necessary for the observance of law.”
In a nutshell, no government, no matter how powerful and versatile it may be, can exact obedience from the people only through police methods and by strengthening its own security system. It has no alternative but to benefit from ethics and its promotion. Instead of intimidation, it should persuade them and even pretend itself to be committed to morality. The importance of pretending to be moral is so great that all governments—even the immoral ones—try to make use of this cover-up to achieve their objectives.
Given all the evidence that is sometimes put forth to support this tenet, the reality cannot be denied that if one day the people realize the untruthfulness and immorality of the government and government policy, they will no longer follow them and will retaliate. The truth of the matter is that the moral man is the very same social and political man.
The exact demarcation between the public and private domain of individuals cannot be specified, and ethics cannot be assigned exclusively to a certain realm and politics to another. In practice, the life of every individual has acquired social forms, and every social dimension has individual manifestations. On the other hand, the influence of the government over the private sphere of the individuals is increasing daily. Actually, governments are also gradually taking up the supervision of the private realm and are implementing policies for it.
Thus, it is naïve to think that politics can be regarded as separate from ethics, and accordingly, expect people to behave morally in their relations with others and with the government. In his book entitled, Trust, the Japanese-American thinker, Francis Fukuyama, points to the issue on the legitimacy crisis of the American system and regards it as caused by the negligence of the society’s leaders of the principles of ethics, and their fraudulent conduct in political affairs. Deceitful conduct, moral disgrace and scandals such as ‘Watergate’ have provided the grounds for the mistrust of the people as regards the moral conduct of the leaders. The people have steadily lost their confidence and now the American society is facing a legitimacy crisis caused by the decrease of confidence. According to Fukuyama,
The organizational potentiality of economic establishments relies not only on the institutions such as trade law, contract, etc. Instead, it necessitates the aggregate of unwritten moral laws and principles which establishes the foundation of social confidence.
Fukuyama believes that apart from enhancement of economic assets, the government should always endeavor to enhance and increase social assets (such as confidence). In his opinion, confidence and moral commitments are society’s engine of stimulation.
For that reason, nowadays almost everybody outspokenly advocates this tenet and tries to mitigate its extremism, modify it and acknowledge, to some extent, politics as being ethical.
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