The Politics of Moral Capital

The Politics of Moral Capital

The Politics of Moral Capital

The Politics of Moral Capital


John Kane argues that, despite appearances, politicians and governments care deeply about people's moral judgments, for these provide the moral capital they depend on for survival and effective functioning. Some famous leaders--Lincoln, de Gaulle, Mandela--illustrate the workings of moral capital in politics, and a study of the American presidency from Kennedy to Clinton shows how the moral capital of the United States has been eroded, with severe consequences for the nation's morale.


Friendships that are acquired by a price and not by greatness and nobility of spirit are bought but not owned, and at the proper moment they cannot be spent.

Machiavelli, The Prince

Politics is about power, and power has attractions and uses independent of its necessity for achieving legitimate social goals. It is not surprising, then, that one often encounters in the political realm acts of selfish ambition, venality, mendacity and betrayal. What is more, even the best-intentioned players are often forced from the straight and true path by the cruel exigencies of politics, so that ordinary standards of decent conduct are oft more honored in the breach than the observance. Yet the Machiavellian game must be seen to be about something larger than gain, ambition and survival. Political agents and institutions must be seen to serve and to stand for something apart from themselves, to achieve something beyond merely private ends. They must, in other words, establish a moral grounding. This they do by avowing their service to some set of fundamental values, principles and goals that find a resonant response in significant numbers of people. When such people judge the agent or institution to be both faithful and effective in serving those values and goals, they are likely to bestow some quantum of respect and approval that is of great political benefit to the receiver. This quantum is the agent's moral capital.

Since moral capital thus depends on people's specifically moral appraisals and judgments about political agents and institutions, it must be distinguished from mere popularity. Popularity may, indeed, be based in part on moral appraisals but is very often based on quite other sources of attraction. It is possible to be popular while lacking moral capital, or to possess moral capital while not being particularly popular. Moreover popularity, it is usually assumed, may be bought, while moral capital may not. Like popularity, however, moral capital has genuine political effects. It is a resource that can be employed for legitimating some persons, positions and offices and for delegitimating others, for mobilizing support . . .

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