Andy Blunden
Wednesday 1 October 2003
Presented by Sandy McCutcheon
Topic: Ethical Politics
Program Transcript

You might have been surprised that, despite the fact that people know that they were lied to over the basis for the war on Iraq, this hasn’t changed their voting intentions. John Howard is enjoying much the same popularity before as after these revelations. Now if, in the view of many Australians, lying does not disqualify you from national leadership, then it is no good just going on calling politicians liars ? we have to address ourselves to the underlying political terrain where lying by politicians is apparently acceptable.

Most people would understand what ethical politics means in relation to gender relations and environmental responsibility, for example. But “politics” tends to be seen as the specialist province of professional politicians, from which most of us are excluded. It is for experts. Participation in politics is limited to answering a multiple-choice question every few years, about which team of experts should run the government.

We are told that politics needs to be kept separate from work, from art, from religion, from personal relations. And, it appears, even from simply telling the truth. We need a new way of doing politics. A kind of politics in which everyone can participate, a politics which does not confine itself to choosing this or that team of experts for Canberra or Spring Street; a politics which is practiced in day-to-day life. We need a way of doing politics which doesn’t depend on being an expert in specialised fields such as economics or social theory, on having the numbers or being a public speaker.

I call this new way of doing politics “ethical politics.” Few of us can claim to have the solution for world poverty and all the other great geopolitical problems of the day; but we are all capable of distinguishing right from wrong and choosing to do what is right and demanding the same from others.

Ethical politics is the opposite of instrumental politics. Instrumental politics is the way politics is normally done. Politicians do not attempt to change people’s values or beliefs. Only to prove that they are the best people to deliver the outcomes that everyone presumably agrees with.

Ethical politics addresses itself to the question of how we should live. How this differs from fundamentalism and how ethical politics can defend the gains of liberalism and modern individualism can be explained as follows.

The basic ethical principle which underlies western civilisation is summed up in Luke chapter 6 verse 31:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

Over the past three hundred years, the scope of who is included in these “others” has continually expanded. It is no longer sufficient to conceive democracy as something for propertied adult white Christian males. Everyone is entitled to be included. But with this universalism has come the problem that no-one has the right to decide for someone else what they should do, unto you or anyone else.

In the 1980s, the moral philosopher, Agnes Heller, updated the so-called Golden Rule as follows:

“I do unto you what I expect you to do unto me.
What I do unto you and what you do unto me
should be decided by you and me”

What is lacking in this formulation is what I call the “we-perspective.” I believe the maxim for ethical politics must be this:

“What we do, should be decided by us.”

This is a maxim which can be practiced by employees, by people working in social movements, by students, in families, and in politics.

More and more, people who are separated by ideology, religion, life-style and politics, are struggling to do things together. The recent movements against the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and corporate capital are the tip of the iceberg; below the surface, all over the world, people are struggling to build alliances with other people across ideological divides. This alliance politics is fraught with conflict and confusion as people struggle to work together with others, despite the fragmentation and atomisation.

If and when people can solve this problem, the problem of how we can work together across the ideological chasms that separate us from each other, then the first step towards building a new kind of society will have been taken. I call that struggle, the struggle of working out how to live and work together, rather than leaving the job of government to specialists and experts, “ethical politics.” I believe the maxim for ethical politics is:
"What we do, is decided by us.”

Guests on this program:

Andy Blunden


For Ethical Politics
Author: Andy Blunden
Publisher: Heidelberg Press

Presenter: Sandy McCutcheon
Producer: Keri Phillips