The public ethics of political candidates

The public ethics of political candidates

February 16, 2010

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

The presidential candidates have been using various channels of communication in making the people know their thinking on various issues. Whether through forums, blogs, web sites or press releases, such communications give us a useful window into the ethical reasoning of those who aspire to lead this country, at least in terms of what they care to declare in public. Most useful for me is the chance to study how candidates’ policy arguments and answers to questions reveal their ethical perspectives.

Of course, I understand that politicians are usually given lines to speak by speech writers and their subordinates. Still, the fact that candidates speak on the record gives a basis for accountability in the future. Some leaders do hold themselves accountable. In 2003, Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State under George Bush, testified to the United Nations Security Council that "there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more." Powell acknowledged a year later that the intelligence used for his UN presentation was wrong and that it was unlikely for weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq. When interviewed about the UN speech in 2005 Powell said, "It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It's painful now."

To understand the ethical perspective of candidates, we need to dissect their ethical arguments. An ethical argument combines one or more ethical principles with certain factual claims to arrive at an ethical conclusion about whether an act or policy is ethical or not. In their statements, candidates seem to use principles of utilitarianism, rights, or the common good in supporting their arguments, whether singly or in combination.

Utilitarianism is the perspective that the right thing to do is what will have the best overall effects on those who will be affected by an action, today as well as in the future. This perspective is often summarized as seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number.” For instance, Sen. Gordon argues that the pursuit of development may entail more taxes and “there has to be sacrifices”. This utilitarian argument implies that the burden of new taxes can be justified because it will finance much needed programs that will benefit the people in the end.

A rights perspective argues for entitlements of people and the duty of others to respect these entitlements. Sen. Aquino has argued that it isn’t right to raise taxes when tax collectors are not even able to efficiently collect taxes that are already mandated by law. Government has a duty to ensure that citizens benefit from taxes that they have already paid but which others are evading.

A common good perspective calls for policies and actions which promote opportunities for human development for all. Sen. Madrigal argues that the country “will never progress until we dismantle the oligarchies and the cartels.” The argument implies that the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few deprives citizens of opportunities to improve their lives. Madrigal is willing to use the power of the State to ensure more open access to economic opportunities for citizens.

The examination of public ethical rhetoric by candidates should be followed through by analyzing their concrete proposals and actions. For example, some candidates may speak about the lofty ideals of governance but have neither the intellectual bent nor the necessary interest in the policy details needed to pursue such ideals. Worse, such candidates may, behind closed doors, subscribe only to the ethics of vested interest and political survival. Such candidates are unfit to govern.

Dr. Ben Teehankee is the Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr. associate professor of business and governance at De La Salle University’s Ramon V. del Rosario’s Graduate School of Business. Email: