PANEL DISCUSSION - THE ROLE OF ETHICS IN POLITICS
The Law and Politics Society of LUMS in collaboration with Transparency International Pakistan organized a fascinating discussion on the role of ethics in politics and how can the youth influence, create, or change public policy decisions on 28th November 2014 at LUMS campus. Around 250 students attended the event including students from other universities. The event was followed by refreshments and informal conversation between students and the guest speakers. The LPS was able to invite four highly influential personalities to offer their respective views on the complex yet intriguing relationship between ethics and politics. The panel included Ayaz Amir, a respectable journalist and politician, Shafqat Mehmood, a USC and Harvard-educated politician, Ahmed Pervaiz, an LSE and Lincolns Inn-educated lawyer and host of a T.V. show, and Saad Rasool, a Harvard-educated lawyer and member of the LUMS faculty.
Ayaz Amir started off the discussion with the assertion that, although there exists a notion that there must be virtue in it, politics is ultimately the ‘art of managing people’ and the only form of virtue is given in a capsule form to control people. In the United States in particular, lobbying, corporations and what he termed as ‘big money’ are inseparable from politics, leaving little room for ethics. Post-partition leaders in Pakistan were anything but heroes or Samaritans, yet they did not employ politics as a means of acquiring wealth through trading or industry. Today, Pakistan’s political class has developed a culture of grabbing property and is not apologetic about it. This situation initiated with Ayub Khan’s regime and General Zia’s necessity to fight for legitimacy. Today, commercial power is equated with political power. Nevertheless, he quoted the example of Abdul Sattar Edhi to argue that there is still hope for a class of people who are considerate of civic virtues. His solution to the problem of lack of ethics was the active involvement of the youth in politics the way it flourished in the 60s.
Shafqat Mehmood admitted that he could not get his head around the connection of ethics to politics. Ethics, he claimed, are a set of values. Politics, in contrast to ethics, is about power. Wherever there is power, it is troublesome to incorporate ethics. He referred to articles 62 and 63 of the Pakistani constitution to suggest that there are laws that attempt to enshrine ethics but they are rarely enforced. The exercise of power is accompanied by the need to suppress competition. For this reason, elections in Pakistan are, and should be, an adversarial process that might be disrupted by a regard for ethics. The temptation for money after coming to office is another factor that overshadows ethics. Institutional failure, in his opinion, is the root of the problem. He strongly supported the need for ethical behavior and offered the establishment of institutions and respect for the rule of law as a remedy.
Ahmed Pervaiz had a slightly different take on the issue. He defined ethics as standards of right and wrong that lie at the very core of politics rather than being detached from it. Any government that has come to power legitimately has been guided by ethics. One form of ethics he described was the ethics of political processes such as campaigning, polling and elections. The other form was the ethics of policy or the ethical considerations taken into account while legislating. He highlighted the need to distinguish between law and ethics. Violations of law in the electoral process such as expenditure beyond the amount allowed, for example, should not be taken as unethical, given their necessity in light of the challenges posed by the practical world. Ethics, he opined, involved the active involvement of the youth in exercising their right to vote, the movement towards a culture of tolerance and debate, and the critical evaluation of a leader’s tenure.
Saad Rasool, in agreement with Ayaz Amir, stressed on the role of money in politics. The place of the notion of ‘big money’ lies at the core of the ethics debate. A United States Supreme Court decision addressed this very debate. It is well understood that freedom of speech forms a fundamental part of politics where the loudest speaker is thought to be the most influential. The decision dealt with whether a similar status could be given to the freedom of individuals and corporations to spend an unlimited amount in campaigning. The court ruled in the affirmative. The problem then becomes that those with the most amount of money drown everyone else out, limiting political participation. Legislation such as the Representation of Peoples Act 1976, that lays down the rules for conduct in the electoral process, embody ethical considerations. Although the system is what Saad Rasool called ‘rotted’ and actual practice, as Ahmed Pervaiz suggested, is quite different, it cannot be denied that a body of rules exists to guide behavior. Following that, he reinforced the urge to go back to the rule of law.
Ethics, often embodied in ethical codes, are a chief aspect of most professions including engineering and medicine. However, when it comes to politics, it becomes somewhat problematic to locate the function of ethics given the susceptibility of politics to various arenas extrinsic to it. Hopefully, the panelists were able to offer views that educated the audience on the possible answers to the ethics question and inspired them to take initiatives in a positive direction in the coming future.