Political Theory vs. Ethics: What’s the Difference?

Political theory and ethics share various similarities and differences, as we outline in the article below.

Aug 20, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

political theory vs ethics whats the difference


Explaining the difference between political theory and ethics means attempting to answer a number of questions. What distinguishes ethical theory from political theory, and in what way are they similar? Is it useful to conflate ethical and political theories, or should we try to distinguish between them in a rigorous way? We begin with a discussion of the similarities between political and ethical theory. A historical example – that of Plato’s Republic – is used to illustrate these. Certain variables which determine how compatible or how incompatible a given political theory is with a corresponding ethics (and visa versa) are then considered. 


Ethics and Politics

Don Quixote’s Moralising on Ingratitude, Gustave Dore, 1860s, via WikiArt


Before asking what distinguishes ethics and political theory, it is worth posing the opposite question: what makes them similar, or at least comparable? Philosophers might distinguish two of their core interests as description and prescription. In other words, philosophy can hope to describe the world, and to describe how it (or parts of it, like human actions or societies) should be. Philosophy is composed of subdisciplines – such as metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind – and although no subdiscipline is entirely free to disregard either question, each of them tends to focus itself on answering questions of the former or the latter type.


It is natural to assume that ethics and political theory would largely focus on the latter question, and that assumption is partly justified. Of course, many philosophers would argue (or at least assume implicitly) that giving an account of which prescriptive theory we should adopt (how things should be) depends on our ability to describe certain things.


Determining how people should act depends on developing a theory of action, which may in turn depend on developing a theory of mind, a theory of intention, a theory of language and so on. Determining how states or societies should be structured depends on a thorough understanding of anthropology, sociology, history and so on. Nonetheless, one way of framing the continuities between ethics and politics is to suggest that, whereas ethics deals with how individuals should act, politics deals with how societies should act. 

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Ethics in Plato’s Republic

Statue of Plato in the Centro Médico Nacional Siglo XXI, via Wikimedia Commons


This assimilation of the ethical and the political into a single body of prescription is well established. Plato suggests as much in The Republic, having Socrates attempt to answer questions of justice for individual human beings by first setting out the structure of an ideal city. One way of drawing a clear distinction between ethics and politics is to explain some of the ways in which ethics and politics cannot be conflated such that politics merely scales up the findings from ethics.


However, in order to remain as neutral as possible regarding so far as taking up particular ethical or political theoretical standpoints goes, it is important to recognize that the difference between politics and ethics is provisional, and depends squarely on which positions we adopt. To put the point more plainly: certain ethical theories have obvious corresponding political theories, whereas other do not, and certain political theories have obvious corresponding ethical theories.  


Compatible and Incompatible Theories

Theory of Tension, Jacek Yerka, 1970s, via WikiArt


Certain ethical theories are easier to imagine political equivalents for than others. Consequentialist theories, for instance, are not as concerned with the kind of entity which brings a certain state of affairs about. That isn’t to say that consequentialists can’t generate theories about the kind of person one should strive to be, but it does mean that a plausible account of consequentialist ethics might have a ‘political wing’ with many of the same aims scaled up. Approaching the issue from the other directions, certain political theories stress the particularity of political action, as opposed to other kinds of human activity, more than others.


Indeed, there are certain things which are politically desirable with no ethical equivalent. It is possible to speak of someone as being ‘just’, but it isn’t clear that one can be just in the way that a state is just. Equally, an ethical and political theory might agree on some overriding principles – certain moral goals – but might give very different expressions to these same ideals. How much continuity there will be between an ethical theory and some (hypothetical) corresponding political theory will depend, in part, on how focused that ethical theory is on theorizing at an individual level.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.