• Unit 1: The Role of Ethics and Morality in Politics

    In this unit, we study ethical issues related to politics and governance. Ethics are the rules societies make to guide their individual and collective decision-making processes. These rules are rooted in religion, morality, law, education, experience, and human strengths and weaknesses. We explore several definitions of ethics and learn how the ethics of our leaders have evolved over time. For example, while most believe the U.S. founding fathers were highly moral, most were slave owners. We frequently consider the actions previous generations and leaders supported to be unethical, due to evolving cultural norms and societal mores.

    In the United States, federal and state government employees are subject to formal ethical codes to mitigate the damage of improper political activities, such as certain types of lobbying, conflicts of interest, bribery, and nepotism. Our executive and legislative branches of government employ agencies and officials to investigate allegations of breaches of ethical codes by politicians, federal employees and other officials. Punishment for these violations is often tinged with political overtones. Officials may be censured or impeached. Employees may receive disciplinary action ranging from counseling to termination.

    Ethics in international affairs can be complicated. National security concerns and a lack of resources can trump a leader's stated desire to "do the right thing". However, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, economic and social injustice abroad can impact our national security. For example, we now see the role the disintegration of Afghanistan into a failed state played in the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 5 hours.

    • 1.1: What Does Ethics Mean?

      Ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with morality. It is often used synonymously with moral philosophy. We derive the word "ethics" from the Greek word ethos, which is translated as a cultural custom or habit. "Moral" is derived from the Latin, moralis, which also means custom.

      Ethics refers to our attitudes and beliefs about how we should act. We often use ethics synonymously with morals and values. Our ethics can describe different types of behavior, including the code of conduct we follow as individuals and the code of conduct a group use to regulate its members.

      Our moral understandings affect how we approach the concepts of free will and determinism. Free will is the belief that individuals decide their own fate and are morally responsible for their actions. Determinism is the belief that an outside force, such as God, nature, or other circumstances, determines our fate. Unlike free will, individuals are not necessarily responsible for their actions.

      • 1.2: Ethical Oversight in Domestic Politics

        Oversight is a legal question, but also an ethical one. Who gets to regulate and what has to be regulated are fundamental questions to politics. Most importantly is the question of how will oversight be setup and will it work as intended.

      • 1.3: Ethical Oversight in International Politics

        As challenging as ethical oversight is in domestic politics, it is much more difficult to pull off in the international sphere. The reason is that there is no central and always powerful world government the way there is within a country. Nevertheless, international institutions have attempted to engage in ethical oversight since the end of World War II. Organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and others have all been established for the purpose of trying to guide ethical action.