Political ethics: a perspective from psychology


Ethics is a code of moral principles and values which governs the behavior of a person or group with respect to that which is right or wrong. There are various factors that affect the development of ethics, namely historical background, religion, and national culture. Societal morality is oftentimes also reflected in norms of behavior and values that are accepted as defining characteristics of an orderly society.  Daft (2007) in Organizational Theory and Design stated that some ethical principles “are codified into laws and regulation,’’ and these laws and the unwritten societal norms are what characterize the environment in which we each act or behave.   According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, there are five sources of ethical standards: utilitarian (balance that produces the greatest good and least amount of harm); rights (protection and respect for the moral rights of others); fairness (equal or fair treatment regardless of position or influence); common good (protect the well-being of others, especially those most vulnerable); and virtue (which base decision-making on universal and ideal values, such as honesty, compassion, courage, tolerance, integrity, fidelity, prudence, and self-control (Velasquez, et al., 2009). It is hoped that politicians consider ethical decision-making in their judgments and actions, which affect many of whom have put their trust in them.    


Political ethics is an excellent metaphor for the phrase ‘lead by example’. Many people who become active in politics do so to make a difference in the lives of others, and usually, that difference is intended for the well-being of society as a whole. There is a sense of responsibility, commitment, obligation, pride, and “goodness”. These individuals want to lead by example and epitomize what it means to have the power of leadership and influence as well as the authority through decision-making. Their efforts could impact a community, an organization, a metropolis, and countless individuals ranging from one person to possibly millions.

Not all leaders are managers, nor are all managers leaders. Comparing the description of leadership with the description of power reveals that the concepts are closely intertwined. Leaders use power as a means of attaining goals. Various studies link inefficiency in government agencies (federal, state or local) and ineptitude and corruption to managerial hierarchy and the quality and style of leadership. Therefore, we want highly ethical leaders as our politicians who are empowered with authority and who manage a functional government. These politicians can affect change from some of the highest levels of government for the betterment of mankind.  

That authority carries a huge social and ethical responsibility. The old adage about to whom much is given, much is expected in return is apropos for political leaders who have been empowered with authority and leadership. As constituents of our leaders, we should expect our politicians to be ethical. Although ethics are personal and unique to an individual, group, society, and organization, there seems to be some consensus as to what constitutes ethical behavior and is an expected and acceptable ethical practice.  After all, ethics is the most important and defining value for an organization’s culture.


There are different kinds of people which personify certain leadership types in politics and society, one such being “charismatic”. Charismatic leaders influence followers through several means: by articulating a vision and appealing to followers’ sensibilities of wanting a better future for the organization; by presenting an organization’s vision statement to set goals and show purpose; by conveying through words and actions a new set of values and an example for followers to imitate; and lastly, through emotion-inducing behavior and unconventional behavior to exhibit conviction about the vision. Unconventional leader behavior is the “leader’s behavior that is perceived as novel and surprising by followers.” (Jaussi & Dionne, 2004, p. 16) Robbins and Judge (2009) write that “Followers ‘catch’ the emotions their leader is conveying, thus trust in their leaders, understands leaders’ appeal to followers to reach high-performance goals, and imitate leaders’ values.” (p. 389)


But there is a dark side to charismatic leadership. Some charismatic leaders think they are larger than life, and these individuals do not have the best interest of their organization at heart. Many of them use their power and act in a manner based on their own image and remake the organization to suit them. Their personal goals override the goals of the organization, and they will engage in unethical behavior to gain financially (money/wealth), politically (organization’s climate/power) and personally (in stature/ego).

Researchers and scholars have proposed a way to reduce the likelihood of such ethical problems and tried to integrate ethical and charismatic leadership by advancing the idea of socialized charismatic leadership, in which leaders convey values that are other-centered versus self-centered, and who role-model ethical conduct. Socialized charismatic leaders can bring followers’ values in line with their own ethics through their words and actions (Robbins and Judge, 2009). Charismatic leaders who exhibit unconventional leader behavior or novel behavior may seem extraordinary to followers. This, in turn, may result in “followers granting of personal power and attributions of charisma to the leader” even when other key characteristics of leadership style are absent (Jaussi & Dionne, 2004, p. 18).


In consideration of a philosophical perspective to analyze the moral behavior of leadership, the application of which will be applied to ‘politics’, Arnold, Audi and Zwolinski point out that in doing an analysis of business ethics and applications in the business world, either ethical theory or applied ethics should be examined. In another illustration of examining ethics from a leadership and management perspective, Cohen (2009) states in “The Role of Influence and Persuasion on Strategy and Tactics” in the book Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the Father of Modern Management “what is important is not to master every simple strategy of influence and persuasion, but to understand such strategies exist, that they are a part of the marketing model of leadership, and that, like other aspects of human behavior, while the techniques can be practiced unethically, the leader can also use them in an ethical manner’’’ (p. 255).

Influence is an important emotion when it comes to ethical judgments and can be traced back as far as Aristotle. Our feelings inform us of when things are not right and act as ethical alarms. Leaders are in a unique position to influence emotions of their followers and can do this through their communications and behaviors (Arnold, Audi, and Zwolinski, 2010).


As a final thought to ethical behavior and politics, the responsibility is on the individual politician to function ethically and at the highest level of ethical standards (usually as described in taking an oath of office), which states in part that “... I ... do solemnly swear (or affirm) ... and defend the Constitution of the United States”. Also stated in the oath is the word “faithfully, a  word which denotes trustworthily, realistically, dependable, and authentically.

And while the word ‘ethics’ is not actually part of the oath, the inherent language of taking these oaths is that it is with the understanding and acceptance that execution of the duties of the office will be conducted ethically and in the best interests of the people. It is not so abstruse to think the oath of office cannot be executed without regard for society. These are the responsibilities of the individual politicians to be virtuous and practice discipline, fairness, and good judgment. It is the responsibility of members of society to demand transparency and insight, and have a means for conducting regular checks and balances of actions taken by politicians.


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and Its Implications for Business Ethics,” The Journal of the Society for Business Ethics:

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Cohen, W. A. (2009). “Drucker on Leadership: New Lessons from the

Father of Modern Management,” Business Communication Quarterly 73, no3 (September

2010): 292   

Daft, Richard L. Organizational Theory and Design. Ohio: Thomson, 2007   

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Studies, Vol. 10(3), Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y.

Robbins, Stephen P. and Timothy A. Judge.  Organizational Behavior. New Jersey: Prentice

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