The term political ethics can be used to describe a set of codes of behavior intended to balance the needs of political situations and ethical questions. There can be a wide range of ethical issues involved in politics, such as accepting campaign financing and balancing the conflicting needs of a constituency.
Politicians can face ethical dilemmas every day as they try to run a campaign or a legislative office in a fair manner and in the best interests of the public. Political ethics provides a framework for people to evaluate choices and make a decision on the basis of fairness and reasonable behavior and previous precedents. Many nations have laws that address specific ethical issues in politics.
Law in order to prevent ethical dilemmas or to dictate the way politicians should behave regulates certain political activities. For example, politicians are required to unveil donations to the public so that people can know who is influencing a politician or campaign. Similarly, politicians are not allowed to accept certain types of gifts and must comply with laws related to the conduct of campaigns and other political business.
Other political ethics are not defined as clearly as by law, but nevertheless are a key part of the political consciousness. These unspoken rules apply when politicians interact with each other and members of the public, such as rules about treating people with respect and courtesy. Political ethics may be questioned, as when candidates challenge each other on activities they consider unethical or when individual citizens' choice of candidates to support is based on candidate behaviors.
The candidates, the political leaders, and the common citizens play the main roles in the political realm. Each of the three groups has a responsibility to maintain high ethics. A representative of one of the groups can cross the ethical boundary by deceiving any of the other two. Citizens have more control than they know in a democracy. Citizens need to keep their officials in line and tell them what they expect.
In addition to legislators, ethics are also a topic of study among academics. On an academic level, political science and foreign policy students study political ethics to learn more about the systems that underpin the government and its operations. To understand the political system and to propose reforms one needs to understand how ethics work, what kinds of laws there are regulating political activity, as well as how politicians behave during ethical dilemmas. Political ethics is also important to people such as campaign managers and press secretaries because people must be alert to ethical issues from within their own offices and also to violations of ethics that have been committed by other politicians.
The institutionalized approach to ethics of a government department is often referred to as "The Ethics Program." In a government agency, the approach to ethics is more complicated than in education or in business, and includes policies, laws, and regulations. There are likely to be certain training and forms related to topics such as activities involving foreign entities, copyright and publication issues, as well as gift exceptions, including honorary degree, conflicts of interest, and financial disclosure.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, is an influential speaker on this topic and became widely known in the United States and worldwide on the publication of her book Democracy on Trial in 1995. In this book Elshtain, who is regarded as one of America's foremost public intellectuals, discusses her concerns about the well being of democracy and its survival in the future. Democracy on Trial triggered a big debate between feminists, who referred to Elshtain as a classical liberalist.
Elshtain, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 to the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, declared in her 1995 book: "I have joined the ranks of the nervous generation. I believe we are in the danger zone. No outside power will take us over and destroy our freedom. We are perfectly capable, my nervousness tells me, of doing that to ourselves." In her influential work, Elshtain discusses some of the key concepts of American society, including social breakdown, civil society, morality, feminism and multiculturalism.