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Politics and morality



In a life quite possibly ruined by literature I still, even at this late stage, take heed of the greats. Hermione Lee, in her recently released biography of playwright Tom Stoppard, quotes the latter: ‘All political acts have a moral basis to them, and are meaningless without it’.

Main image: Man and woman walking up manmade stairs in wooded area in Greece. Ghostly feet walk in front of them. Fairies hide in the foreground. Illustration Chris Johnston

A worthy and sound idea to ponder at any time, but at present rather sadly, for it seems to me that so many political acts in today’s world are instead amoral at bottom: we live in a world in which affluent nations discriminate against groups such as the poor and disadvantaged, the disabled and elderly, as well as against the immigrants and refugees, and against most who are outsiders. How meaningful, therefore, are these actions, which often seem to be simply punitive? It becomes very difficult to reconcile such acts on the part of politicians with the Christian ethos Western nations often profess to believe in.

The leaders of these nations, as well as acting amorally, have also apparently thrown the ideal of common civility to the winds. What are we to make of heads of government who hurl insults and are economical with the truth, use the gag continually, and turn their backs when those in opposition are speaking?

It has to be admitted, however, that discontent with government is nothing new. Satirist Jonathan Swift considered that a successful farmer could ‘do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together’. Statesman Edmund Burke lamented that ‘the age of chivalry has gone and that of the sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded’. Both these men wrote in the eighteenth century. One wonders how they would view the forthcoming American election.

Famous novelist Martin Amis has expressed his view, which is that the election will be a referendum on the American character, not an assessment of President Trump’s performance. Now there’s an interesting thought, and one that could occupy our minds for a considerable time.

Perhaps all elections are tests of character? Edmund Burke again: he is supposed to have said that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. It would seem to follow, therefore, that all those conscientious and eligible should make the effort to vote.


'What, then, should the electorate accept, or at least be prepared to put up with? And what can it, taking individual moral beliefs into account, tolerate?'


Burke also said that there is ‘a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue’. What, then, should the electorate accept, or at least be prepared to put up with? And what can it, taking individual moral beliefs into account, tolerate? Standards of morality are obviously variable within cultures.

Canadian cultural anthropologist Joseph Henrich points out that factors such as economic shock or trauma because of extreme weather events, for example, can cause individual morality to change. Having come through such events, one might concentrate on the weighty matter of survival, no matter what, and without much regard for other people.

Perhaps the pandemic will have this effect? It has already changed ‘normal’ life as we used to know it. When interviewed on the BBC recently, Henrich agreed that rapid advances in technology have already wrought many changes, and may eventually sweep much of the known ways of life and cultural values away. But he also made the point that history has shown that faith and families have a way of reasserting themselves. Let us hope he is right.

In the meantime, what should an electorate in a democratic country aim for? I think it should bear the idea of the common good very much in mind and should also accept that while we believe we are all equal in the eyes of God, here on this very imperfect planet, where some are much more equal than others. The less fortunate should not be blamed: quirks of fate can happen to anyone.

Voters should have an eye to the future, and consider how parents can be helped to raise their children successfully. Respect is also owed to the past, and its representatives, so that old people can expect proper care and companionship in the twilight of their lives. In short, the individual voter, examining his own character, needs to vote for the representatives whose actions have, as Stoppard suggests, a moral basis: care for others, and respect for civilised conduct.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, COVID-19, politics, morality, Donald Trump, US elections, democracy



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Existing comments

Excellent, Gillian. You've said it all!

john frawley | 28 October 2020  

It certainly would be a useful exercise to examine our politicians using the criteria outlined by Gillian before casting our votes. Very few would measure up. Others are so far from the mark that no fair and free democracy should have elected them in the first place. Thanks for another thought provoking article.

Stephen Hicks | 28 October 2020  

...”care for others, and respect for civilised conduct”. Thanks, Gillian - an excellent summary for people like me, often rendered speechless by the speech and actions of our elected representatives.

Joan Seymour | 28 October 2020  

Well said Gillian .!i have been caught up in the political posturing on both sides of the pond and I have noted the depressing similarities: lack of respect and morality and a disregard for others out with the ‘clan’. Perhaps we do get the government we deserve and that human nature doesn’t change but let’s hope the current pandemic will teach us something positive about human values.

Maggie | 28 October 2020  

We've just seen the Australian PM lie about a telephone conversation with the British PM - spinning it into an agreement when it was clearly the opposite - Boris J telling Scott M to up the Australian moves on global warming - to divest from fossil fuels. You are right though Gillian - the moral imperative - long largely absent anyway from politics - is now openly trashed - no apology. Ideology, corruption, vested interest direction, lack of will to act for the citizens... Thanks for this Gillian.

Jim KABLE | 28 October 2020  

If citizens in democracies get the governments they deserve, clearly, as Gillian suggests, they need to examine not only the form and policies of political candidates, but also their own. In Australia, we need, too, I think, to outgrow a chronically anti-authoritarian cast of mind that equates, a priori, politicians with incompetence and corruption. (And I'm not saying we should abandon a healthy scepticism!)

John RD | 29 October 2020  

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) writing in 1867 - I quote: "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." The alleged Edmund Burke (1729 1797) version, if it ever was uttered, certainly rolls more fluently off the tongue as one would have expected of a politician. The grandiosity of the phrase "the triumph of evil" reminds me of the personification so much favoured by fundamentalist preachers, namelythe devil. Wheras Mill prefers to hit us with the hard truth that "bad men" do exist and nothing will stop them, unless "good men" just stand there looking on (and maybe tut tutting) and do nothing. I wish Mill were alive today so that he could report on the US Presidential election. He had that rare attribute of a political philosopher - acerbic wit. Here's an example, with a suggested amendment, by me. "Although it is not true that all conservatives (Republicans) are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative." Ouch!

Joseph Quigley | 29 October 2020  

Well said Gillian. Of course if Australian politicians had any interest in promoting common civility by example we’d see fewer of them turning their backs to speakers from the other side, staring intently at their phones while others are speaking and constantly interjecting. To watch Question Time in the Australian parliaments means enduring a spectacle that would be forbidden in any kindergarten and it does the country a grave disservice.

Juliet | 30 October 2020  

“…Martin Amis…which is that the election will be a referendum on the American character, not an assessment of President Trump’s performance.” Only if the next US election is treated as three referenda on the American character through the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Presidency, which is one-third of a character each. Don’t these Oxonians with firsts in English know arithmetic? Or perhaps each American voter, like the Trinity, has three characters.

roy chen yee | 30 October 2020  

Joseph Quigley, wasn't it the same JS Mill that also opined: "One thing that can be said of a conservative philosophy is that it is well calculated to drive out a thousand absurdities far more absurd than itself." (Cited by Welsh Marxian theorist, Raymond Williams, in "Culture and Society".

John RD | 30 October 2020  

I am not sure many of our current politicians would have much knowledge of Swift, Burke or Mill. Barry Jones, one of our most intelligent, widely read and far seeing former politicians, contrasts the current crop unfavourably with those of his day, who, although sometimes theoretically less well educated, brought a wealth of life experience and thought and verbal facility to their debates. These days those who aspire to represent the major parties come from a very narrow base of experience for a predictable career rather than to change things. 'Do not rock the boat' is their mantra. The 24/7 news cycle and the debasement of political commentary on the internet make it difficult. Things will not change until we do. My strategy is to vote defensively for the person and party I think will do the least harm and may in fact stand for something. Perhaps there is an element of Swiftian pessimism in this. Swift was extremely pessimistic, which is odd for a clergyman, but I think he might have become a cleric for the career rather than from any deep religious conviction.

Edward Fido | 31 October 2020  

"Things will not change until we do." Spot on, Edward,

John RD | 02 November 2020  

Edward Fido “Things will not change until we do” Absolutely! But this can only come about by trusting in The Holy Spirit.. The ‘Truth’ is a burning fire it looks not at man’s desire. Popes cower before it denuding power. Bishops it mocks Priests defrock. Leaders stand in disarray it’s all relative they say. But honest it is not integrity is the loss. The denial of goodness to make it dark is to lose one’s heart. To look into the living flame is to know one’s shame. To bend one’s knee is to be set free. The spark to become a flame in every mortal frame. We are to become as lamps. We look within and acknowledge our own sin. We bow our heads as by the Master we are led. With cleansing grace, we start to see His face. The air becomes clear as we relinquish fear. Love and clarity of thought Is what our suffering will have bought. As we stand by His side His Peace (Will), will reside. We no longer struggle alone as The Master leads us home. Before the break of the new day Our lamps will light the way….. “If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own power. Your self-sufficiency, your selfishness and your intellectual pride will inhibit His coming to live in your heart because God cannot fill what is already full. It is as simple as that” Mother Teresa….. ‘Father’! With tongue and flame, give us unity again kevin your brother In Christ.

Kevin Walters | 03 November 2020  

I write this on a day when the fate of democracy in America hangs in the balance - 4th November. Your comments are therefore particularly relevant.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 04 November 2020  

A very truthfully written piece; We are living in times where the Trumps, Johnson’s and Bolsonaro’s of this world are becoming the norm.

Stathis T | 07 November 2020  

“fate of democracy in America hangs in the balance...." Democracy never hangs in the balance in the US, or in nations of the Western Canon. But, it hangs in Russia and is supine in China. Polities are born equal but almost everywhere else, they are in chains.

roy chen yee | 09 November 2020  

I heard a comment a few days ago that, because of the Electoral College system, the USA is a republic but not a democracy. I can see the point when a candidate with millions more popular votes still loses the election. But that's the system they have and, even with the flaws in the system, I believe the USA is still more democratic than much of the rest of the world.

Brett | 11 November 2020  

Brett has hit the nail on the head. The USA was never meant to be a 'democracy', it was designed as a 'republic'. It's modelled on the English arrangement of the time of George III which, despite the claims of the 'Glorious Revolution', was far from a democracy. It's not accidental that the Reps - the chamber closest to being democratic, faces the electorate every two years whilst the Senate - the chamber to which only the rich and connected are ever 'elected' - is contested only every six years. The 'winner-take- all' nature of all their voting systems - president, senate and reps - ensures that none but a major party candidate is ever elected, and the gerrymandering of house electorates (rotten boroughs) means that the popular vote is often not reflected in the reps elected. The president (king) may direct government for his limited term but it's the senate (aristocracy) that controls the long term, not least the composition of the Supreme Court.

Ginger Meggs | 12 November 2020  

I do not think the fate of democracy in the USA 'hung in the balance'. There are certainly flaws in their system, as there are with all systems, but, despite being parodied as idiots in certain circles, most American voters are not. They proved that conclusively. It is now up to the Biden-Harris team to repay the trust of voters. Trump lost because he lost trust. Trust in the leadership and the system is the basis of all flourishing democracies.

Edward Fido | 16 November 2020  

Very thought provoking Gill. I often think the old adage that we’re all born equal is very wide of the mark. Our parents, their economic circumstances, our nationality and our health are only some of the things that can cause inequality. Those more fortunate blaming the less fortunate for their situation is totally unjustified in most cases.

Robyn Jewell | 24 November 2020  

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