Is politics as morally bankrupt as it seems?

“Politics have no relation to morals” – Niccolo Machiavelli


As the lobbying scandal delivers the latest body blow to the public’s trust and confidence in the political system, it seems hard to disagree with Machiavelli’s suggestion that politics have no relation to morals. Examples of such wrongdoing are so prevalent amongst the political elite that they almost appear to be part of the normal “rules of play”. Indeed, Nick Clegg has described the recent events as “unsettling but not surprising” and back in 2010 David Cameron predicted that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.  

But, taking a step back from the media headlines, what can a scientific approach to the issue tell us? Is politics as morally bankrupt as it seems? And can an analysis of the MoralDNA™ of politicians shed any light on why and how such misconduct comes about?

Our findings

We analyzed the MoralDNA™ of those working in politics. Our sample is equivalent to about 13% of the UK parliament and is drawn from our database of 80,000 people in over 200 countries. The results strongly suggest that Machiavelli was right (that politics has little to do with morals) and that we ought to question politicians’ morality.

Graph 1 presents politicians’ scores on the 10 moral values that make up the MoralDNA™ profile. In all but two of these politicians score below average, particularly in terms of Honesty, Humility and Trust, attributes that the voting public might reasonably demand of their elected representatives.

MoralDNA_Values_in_Politics

Graph 2 shows how people in politics make judgments using the Ethics of Obedience, Care and Reason. What is remarkable is the sharp distinction between their approach to decision-making within their professional lives (in which the Ethic of Obedience is dominant) and their personal lives (in which the Ethic of Obedience plays hardly any role).

“The Police State Effect

Broadly speaking, most peoples’ approach to decision-making will shift within the workplace. The Ethic of Obedience increases as the Ethic of Care declines: doing the “right thing” at work becomes more about following orders than exercising empathy or expressing concern for the wider impact of our decisions. I call this “police state effect”.

However, in the case of politicians this contrast between professional and private decision-making is greater than in any other occupation I have studied, showing a 95 percentile swing in the significance of the Ethic of Obedience. One conclusion from this might be that politicians are essentially mavericks who don’t like taking orders. But while their basic disposition is to be disobedient they will comply with the whip and toe the party line in order to get the job done.

This apparent “Jekyll and Hyde” character is perhaps consistent with the low scores that politicians achieve in terms of Honesty, Trust and Self -control.
MoralDNA-Ethics-in-PoliticsThe second notable finding is that the Ethic of Care plays a small role within politicians’ decision-making process. This strongly suggests that, in both their personal and professional lives, politicians are not particularly caring of others, either friends, families, or constituents. On the one hand this result is, in part, due to the fact that the sample was mostly made up of men (who generally score 5 to 10% lower than women on the Ethic of Care;  however, it is also apparent that women in politics tend to replicate the male MoralDNA™ profile, exhibiting a reduced Ethic of Care.
Just desserts?

Our research raises several questions, the most immediate being whether these maverick individuals, who apparently care less than most, are the right people for the job. Their very low Honesty scores might at least give us cause to question why we are electing such people to represent and govern us.

With the emergence of the NSA spying scandal such questions seem particularly relevant as political debate has rapidly become polarised around the issues of civil liberties and national security; between those who might regard whistleblower Edward Snowden as a hero and those who view him as an enemy of the state. Given our findings, can we trust our politicians to genuinely engage with such issues of moral complexity?

Underlying our findings is a yet deeper question. What does it tell us about our political system that such personalities are attracted to (and able to succeed within) it? It may be that we simply get the politicians we deserve… What do you think?

Join over 80,000 people from over 200 countries around the world and find out more about your values and how you make decisions. Take the Test

About Roger Steare

Roger is The Corporate Philosopher - a leadership, culture and ethics advisor to the Boards and senior executives of major corporations, public sector institutions, government and regulators. He is also Visiting Professor in the Practice of Organizational Ethics at Cass Business School. Roger's the 'grit in the oyster', challenging the dysfunctional and sociopathic corporate behaviours that destroy value. He invites people to stop and think in a compelling and inspiring, yet pragmatic way - with business leaders describing him as a disruptive thinker, critical friend and trusted advisor.

2 thoughts on “Is politics as morally bankrupt as it seems?

    1. Pavlos

      Hi Neil, thank you for your question. Within our data we only asked our respondents questions about moral values and therefore do not have any data on psychological profiles.

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