Political vs ethical


I was reading this fascinating article by Jason Sanford over at SF signal, on military SF. Not that I’m much fascinated by military SF, I admit, but the article is fascinating for another thing: it’s the use of the word “political” to refer to something that, for me, has nothing to do with politics (in this case, whether or not to approve of war). I’ve seen it before, to refer to diverse other things, such as people’s positions on QUILTBAG relationships, abortion, women’s rights… The thing is, for me, those are not political problems. My position on war and abortion isn’t politics: it’s a matter of pure ethics, of how I put things in the context of my personal morals, rather than where my chosen political party stands on the issue (in fact, if anything, it would be a matter of where my religion stands on the issue).
Thing is… in France, parties don’t define themselves by this kind of position. Our left wing is slightly more pro-abortion and pro gay rights, for instance, but it’s far from their main campaign argument–so far that I don’t particularly associate a particular party with a particular moral stance [1].
This would seem to be a purely US use, and I’m curious–if you’re a USian and reading this blog, mind explaining to me why “political” for this kind of subject? Is “ethics” banned from public discourse, and I somehow missed the memo?

ETA: I stand corrected. Patrick Samphire and K.S. Augustin pointed out to me that this was also a UK and Aus usage. I’d not seen it in UK/Aus blog posts, and I leapt to conclusions regarding its use a tad too fast.

[1] Amusingly, I tend to define the French left wing and the right wing in terms of where they stand with relation to wealth: the left wing wants to tax the rich to death, the right wing wants to over-favour them. (and yes, this tells you everything you need to know about my politics vs my cynicism)


  1. That’s because many of the people you see using the term “political” in this way are USian, and we’ve been taught by our society that political = controversial. Anything that incites personal unease, existential angst, interpersonal anger, etc. — morality or ethics, as you call it — therefore becomes “political.” Which serves to distract us nicely from actual political issues. And which is why one of our political parties has deliberately tried to muddy the waters with manufactured controversy. If we’re all raging over whether [pick people] should receive [basic human dignity #253], we’re not likely to notice that we’re headed back toward feudalism.

  2. That word “political” doesn’t at all imply the direct involvement of any particular party, just whether an issue can be implemented as a matter of public policy. We like converting moral opinions into policy. We had Prohibition once. We’re big on personal freedom, too, so we care less about whether any specific person would/should have an abortion than whether they are legally allowed to.

    My best guess, anyway.

  3. As a matter of semantics, politics is the process of making collective decisions. Anything that involves people accomplishing something collectively is political. Any decision taken by a collective body is a political decision. Although the individual actors in our political decision-making process might be motivated by ethical intuitions (or by any of a variety of other things, like fear or greed), their sense of ethics is generally prompting them to use the country’s political system to get the government to do something: ban abortion or extend same-sex marriage rights to everyone, or whatever.

    More practically, many Americans believe that that their God disapproves of abortion, same-sex intercourse, etc. Telling them that what their ethical intuitions are mistaken seems a lot less effective than telling them that, as a nation, we cannot favor their ethical intuitions over those of other people. Since very religious Christians in America tend to feel themselves to be something of a minority, they’re more sympathetic to appeals based on personal freedom and minority rights than to direct ethical appeals.

  4. I’m afraid, as far as I’ve seen, ethics and politics have become very muddled and co-joined in the US national discourse. The parties (specifically Republican and Democratic, though there are plenty of smaller parties also) have very ethically-charged politics, so that it becomes very difficult to be in one party and agree with the ethics of the other without falling into “traitor” territory. The most outspoken of both groups seem to be unwilling to tolerate a mix of ethical opinions within their ranks–I suspect a pro-choice Republican might have a hard time amongst their own, just as a pro-life Democrat could have among theirs.

    It seems that in the US, there’s a very strong belief that if you find that your ethics and the government are not in line, you should make it so that the government exactly mirrors your ethics, thereby making the whole nation match your personal ethics. Religion and politics have become entwined in uncomfortable ways, and because of this, almost any ethical/moralistic discussion tends to be labeled “political” as well. It does, unfortunately, make it very difficult to have thoughtful discussions of ethics without elevating blood-pressures. :0\

    That, like Abra said, is my best guess at an explanation. 🙂

  5. As you pointed out, it’s also a UK problem. And, I may add, an Australian problem too. Basically, a lot of stuff that we see as purely US or UK issues are actually “Anglo” issues. The difference is only in apparent depth.

    Personally, I blame the British foundational cultural premise of, as everyone else has pointed out, not being controversial at all, coupled with their condescending habit of assuming that everyone MUST understand them. Ever watched any British comedy skits where a Brit goes overseas without learning the local language and then proceeds to yell out his request in louder and louder English, as if that would somehow help? It points to a deeper psychological dysfunction that’s travelled across the Atlantic as well.

  6. He, thanks everyone for the comments! I feel a little less ignorant about Western Anglophone politics now…
    @Nora: it would seem to be a Western Anglophone thing (it’s also true in the UK and Aus, though–as an outsider–it seems most pronounced in the US). I have to admit I’m with you; it’s a bit of a worrying trend that puts way too much weight on politics at the expense of everyone else.

  7. @Abra: I think I get the idea, but it somehow still feels wrong to me… I mean, yes, it could be translated into policy, but still… (just not used to it. As my sis pointed out to me, “political” means very different things in very different countries).

  8. @Rahul: so you’re basically defining the concept in terms of its practical application(s), if I get this right? We discussed that on my LJ, but I wonder how much of that is an Anglo thing? I’ve noticed that Western Anglophones seem much more oriented towards the practical than, say, the French? (which inevitably has good sides and bad sides, it’s just very different approaches).
    And wow about Christians feeling in the minority in the US. Wonder how other religions must feel…

  9. @M. Slater: that makes sense 🙂 It’s a little… counter-intuitive to what I was taught. It seems to me that French politics, conceptually, leave a lot of leeway for people to do things in private, away from politics. We’re still at the “Freedom starts where other people’s freedom ends” (it doesn’t render well in English, sorry; the French version has a phrasing that defines freedom as “everything that doesn’t impinge on other people”, and it doesn’t work so well in English…)

  10. @Kaz: if it’s everywhere in Western Anglophone countries, it’s unfortunately a safe guess the British are behind it… It makes sense, though over on my LJ we were also discussing how the dual-party system (which is very prevalent in Anglo countries) could easily degenerate into a “polarise every issue” attitude… Interesting food for thought…

  11. BTW, the first Aliette´s short story published in Czech language was published in the same issue of XB-1 like this Jason´s great article 🙂

  12. Wow, thanks, Martin; I’d totally missed this in the runup to the move!

  13. Bumping a slightly old topic because I happened to read a series of articles leading here and it dovetails with a separate conversation on violence and culture.
    In the US, war, the military, and foreign policy were (until this year) one of the axes on which the two parties split pretty cleanly. Even though I don’t know what John Ringo thinks about business regulation or abortion, for example, I can almost guarantee that he votes Republican. Much of the current Mil-SF is dominated by Baen, which is pretty reliably conservative overall, thus triggering the keyword “political.”
    When I was teaching Contemporary Japan as a TA, one issue I could never get my students to grasp was that Japanese political axes are completely different from ours. Here, we assume that because we get worked up over abortion, size of govt., or whatever, everyone else does too. The concept of another culture splitting along different fault lines is utterly incomprehensible. I probably just said the same thing everyone else did. 🙂

  14. Brittain, thanks for popping by!
    It’s definitely a good explanation–our parties in France don’t split cleanly on issues like war, the military or foreign policy (foreign policy isn’t considered important in French elections; and I think they generally avoid topics like war because the military is a small but important swing bloc that they don’t want to alienate. Same reason why everyone tiptoes around agriculture, in case they get the farmer vote).
    It would definitely be interesting to see what the “fault lines” in other countries are; I suspect they’d vary wildly according to the local situation and recent history…

  15. Another USA view from someone who has lived in both Europe and the USA.

    In America we also believe that 1 persons rights end where another persons rights start but we also realize that government laws and policies are what define that transition line. This is particularly true on issues such as abortion where there are different opinions as to when the unborn child is a life. Some believe it is a life at the point of conception while on the other extreme some believe it isn’t a life until it is virtually fully formed (with a head, legs, arms, etc). What is legally allowed with regards to that life? The answer is supplied by government laws and policies. This is why there is so much heat in the arguments. To those opposing unrestrained abortion, they are protecting the life (and rights) of a being which can’t defend itself in the same way that elderly people are protected from being mugged or assaulted. On the other hand those who favor abortion (in same way, shape or form) are arguing to protect the mothers ability to decide what to do with her own body – the assumption being that it’s only her body she is dealing with because the fetus is not yet really a “person”. The laws decide what the mother can do legally.

    Fundamentally every legal system is a codification of ethics but here in the USA we have a much greater variety of people due to the massive immigrations in our recent past. Where countries which haven’t enjoyed easy immigration have a single dominant culture with its own set of basic ethics (social mores), codifying those ethics into laws isn’t controversial because most of the people have the same beliefs. Without the controversy there is no political battle.

    Is there not a growing Muslim population developing in France? Has that not raised political questions? Are Muslim women allowed to wear their burqa’s everywhere thus concealing their faces even in locations where the authorities need to search for terrorists?

    I think you have the same situation but to a much lesser degree.

  16. Hi Zak, thanks for dropping in!

    I have to say no one has complained about burqas being hiding places for terrorists, though there have been acrimonious debates about whether it’s safe to drive with a burqa, and whether burqas violate the rights of women. And some rank anti-Muslim propaganda, too, though I must say I personally am more than a little uncomfortable that women should choose to wear the burqa for going out–it’s a tough line to walk between respecting the traditional background, and encouraging a traditionally misogynistic society to maintain itself.

    I think you have the same situation but to a much lesser degree.
    I’m not sure… I would talk more about different fracture lines, and a different idea of what the government should do about those (and the fact that a lot of moral/religious subjects don’t come up because we’re a country where there is a deep dislike of mixing up state and religion. To take just one example, we’re a traditionally Catholic country, but even hardcore Catholics don’t feel the government should be the one to put forth laws about abortion. I think there is a similar situation in many European countries, where any religion is automatically suspect, and presidential candidates very seldom try to promote themselves by saying they’re good believers of their religion, whatever that religion might be). A lot of the issues that are coming up in US elections seem to be deeply bound up with religion (and in particular Christian religion).
    Our fracture lines are very clearly seen in the current election campaign: economic situation, immigration, whether to get out of nuclear electrictiy…

  17. Interesting perspective Aliette. I think our fracture lines are much closer than you think as the economic situation is about 70% of what our election is focused on with immigration and alternative power as some of the other major issues. In fact I think abortion is about the only subject where religion is a major factor as religion doesn’t regularly enter the discussions on any other subject.

    Another concept to keep in mind is that (at least in the USA) the radicals on both sides of the argument tend to receive a lot more publicity than moderates but the moderates vastly outnumber the radicals. So while your news might report on radicals, whether they are of a specific religion or anti religious, the vast majority of the people do not shre their views. The only candidate we currently have who is making a big deal out of his religion is Perry and very few people really vote along religious lines.

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