Moral Dilemma: A good person, a good politician, or a moral politician

Dr. Salikyu Sangtam
St. Joseph University

We are told by Aristotle that politics is natural to human society. Politics, for him, meant the best way to organize a society, whose ultimate aim was to attain the highest good. By this, he means that politics ultimately ought to enable citizens to lead a good life. Of course, by “good life,” it does not mean ‘good’ in its materialistic sense, such as money, property, riches, etc. Rather, it means where people in a society can lead an honest, ethical, virtuous, and fruitful life that, at the same time, contributes to the common good. In its more contemporary sense, it means a society where people do not have to lie, do not have to be corrupt, do not have to resort to tribalism (or any other forms of communalism/divisions), do not have to deceive in order to do well in life or to earn one’s living. Certainly, the further a society deviates from this ideal, the more its people are unable to lead an ethical, honest, and virtuous life, even if they wish, desire, hope, and want to—one potent example this state of affair is our state, Nagaland.


This is what politics is meant to be. When Man had originally reasoned and moralized politics, it had been done so to create a society where people can lead an ethical life, enabling them to realize their fullest potentials and aspirations. This understanding of politics has gone on to form the quintessence for what we today define as a ‘good society.’ Maybe, it is because of this valuation of politics that societies continue to conceive that the best way to make a society ‘good’ is through politics. And thus, we remain steadfast hoping for ethical, honest, and virtuous politicians to bring about changes we desperately seek. This is why, even though societies are frequently deceived by politicians, they nevertheless continue to go on hoping and believing that one day, new ‘kinds’ of politicians will bring change and enable people to lead an honest and ethical life.


Yet, one ought to wonder and ask why is it that, even with new politicians, things continue to remain the same—the conditions of the society do not change, people continue to deceive, be resentful, be malicious, engage in a corrupt behaviour, and lead an unethical life? It seems as though, as one proverb goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In other words, nothing changes. One government after the other comes and goes along with their ephemeral promises, but things remain the same. But, why is that so? The answer to this question lies in the way societies continue to have an idealistic, yet simplistic, view about politics and politicians. Let’s illustrate the answer by stating unpretentious characteristical epitomes symbolizing a crucial aspect of any political vocation.


Does a person who is good at something—such as politics, sports, acting, speaking, debate, painting, singing, or dancing—necessarily a good person? Or, to take the reverse, does a person who is bad at something necessarily a bad person? In other words, say for simplicity sake, if I am good at politics or acting, does it also mean that I am a good person? Or, take the opposite, if I am bad at playing politics or acting, does it also mean that I am a bad person? These questions afford us essential insights into the typical crude understandings most of us have of politics. We habitually tend to equate ‘good at something’ into ‘a good person,’ i.e. “good at something Equals a good person.” And by “good,” I mean here a virtuous, ethical, moral, and upright person, all those characters which society recognizes as ‘good.’ The problem is that, in most cases, I may be a ‘good’ politician/leader but a horrible, immoral person. Similarly, I may be ‘bad’ at playing politics but a good and moral person.


Generally speaking, with few exceptions, those who are good at something—be they acting, politics, sports, singing, etc.—are not necessarily a good person. This is why societies naturally tend to assume that a good politician is a good person; and that such persons ought to be elected, selected, chosen, etc. to lead the society and bring changes. I think in this case Nagaland is not exempted either. Even in Nagaland, like elsewhere, we tend to habitually assume that a good politician is a good person. Thus, most of us, including me, are of the opinion that the only way to solve much of society’s sickness and change our society is to elect and have as many ‘good politicians’ as possible. However, this is where we, and others elsewhere, go wrong. Certainly, my examples are simple, for the realities of the world are much more intricate; yet, I use these examples to show the complexities of politics which most of us, consciously or unconsciously, tend to ignore.


In politics, when the word ‘good’ is used to tag politicians, we actually mean something else. The word ‘good’ is applied to accentuate the skills required to capture and stay in power, that is, to excel in lying, deceiving, manipulating, and use people, as well as to bargain away the future of supporters, as a means to attain one’s selfish ends. To be more specific, when we say that so and so is a ‘good’ politician, we do not mean that he is an upright, moral person. Rather, in politics, we mean that a ‘good politician’ is one who is good at using people as a means to capture and stay in power for his own selfish gains by lying, deceiving, manipulating and bargaining behind the backs of his supporters. This is what, we mean by “good politicians”; persons who have no qualms about using people for their selfish gains by wearing a mask and a smile to manipulate, deceive, lie, and bargain away the lives and well-being of the supporters in order to attain power and glory. They will resort to using any—moral or immoral—means necessary to attain and stay in power. Here, I say, stands a “Good Politician.”


In contrast, we have, on the other hand, “Good Persons”; those who we regard as virtuous, moral, honest, kind, generous, helpful, impartial, selfless, and ethical. Some of these good persons enter political life, aiming to bring about some specific transformation and changes. What’s more, they are even encouraged, tacitly and overtly, by the public who want good persons to be their leaders, their representatives. However, the reality of politic soon catches up to these good persons. Very soon they are required to learn some essential lessons about politics. They must first learn, as Machiavelli correctly puts it, “how NOT to be good.” The irony is that these “good persons” are incapable of learning “how NOT to be good.” They cannot “NOT” be good. They only know how to be good, for do be bad, corrupt, or dishonest is against the nature of these persons. Hence, they cannot learn “how NOT to be good.” But they will not succeed and hence will be unable to fulfill their promises of bringing change unless they learn how NOT to be good—use, deceive, lie, manipulate, and bargain behind peoples’ back—because they have chosen a political vocation to compete for power, says Machiavelli, among “so many who are not good.” Politics is mostly occupied will people who are not good; who will lie, deceive, manipulate, and use people by bargaining away the future of its society without any reservations. Good persons know these and still chose to struggle and compete for power; it was a commitment. Yet, if they are unable to learn this essential lesson on how ‘NOT’ to be good, then they should have just stayed home instead of getting involved in political life. Without learning how NOT to be good (lying, manipulating, etc.), they can never win the struggle for power. If the good persons wanted to change the society, they should probably learn this lesson in order to succeed in politics and win the struggle to occupy a seat of power, which they can only attain if they learn how to be a “good politician.” But they cannot be a “good politician” because they are good persons. And because they are good, they will never succeed in politics. Hence, good persons rarely succeed and win in politics. This is why change never or seldom comes; the vision of change always remains a distant dream and things continue to remain the same.


Whether we accept it or not, in the politics, the majority of us are always looking out for our short-term interests, even if we affirm that we want things in our society to get better. If this wasn’t the case, then there is no need for a good person to learn “how NOT to be good” in order to succeed in politics. It is precisely because of the fact that majority of us are selfish and the majority of people involved in politics have and always will be filled with people who are not good, that learning “how NOT to be good” becomes essential. This is the Moral Dilemma in politics. This is what defines politics in any society, even in a society like ours. Seldom do we have good persons to also be our leader, that is, a “Moral Politician” (fortunate are those who have good persons as their leaders/politicians). Indeed, our state is not short of “good politicians”; but to assume (as voiced by various civic organizations, NGOs, youth organizations, and by citizens, in general) that “good politicians” is the solution to society’s maladies and the key to development and progress is questionable. To hold such assumptions is to ignore the fundamentals of political reality. Even though it is an extremely difficult task for any society to do so, we ought to sacrifice our short-term interest in order to have good persons, i.e. a “moral politician,” as our leaders, representatives, politicians. Ultimately, it is up to us, and no one else, to overcome this Moral Dilemma.