Undergraduate Modules

The Ethics of Political Leadership

We often like to think that politicians are morally worse than ordinary citizens - but does this judgment rely on a misunderstanding of the requirements of effective political action?

This module focuses on a set of ethical questions that arise when we consider the nature of political leadership. It asks how we should assess the conduct of politicians and if we can reasonably expect successful politicians to act in accordance with conventional moral requirements. By answering these questions we seek to examine how to distinguish good politicians from bad ones. To do so, students will engage with the work of some key authors in the western tradition of political thought (such as Machiavelli and Weber) and some central arguments in contemporary analytical political theory. The overall objective is to enable students to analyse and evaluate normative arguments on the significance and function of political leaders in contemporary politics.

The topics covered on this module include:

Week 1: Introduction: The Principles of Public Life
Week 2: The problem of political judgement 
Week 3: Machiavelli: Politics and the limits of morality
Week 4: Weber: Conviction, responsibility, and leadership
Week 5: Dirty hands
Week 6: Integrity
Week 7: Private Lives
Week 8: State secrets and the ethics of whistleblowing
Week 9: The morality of compromise
Week 10: The ethics of representation
Week 11: Political resistance
Week 12: Conclusion

Key questions include: 

  • What is the relationship between politics and morality?
  • Why might the assessment of political conduct differ from the assessment of ordinary moral conduct? 
  • Must good politicians be morally good people? 
  • Should political leaders violate moral constraints to achieve great goods or to avoid disasters? Is it possible for politicians to display integrity? 
  • Are private lives relevant to our assessment of political conduct? 
  • Are political compromises always morally problematic?

Semester: Autumn


12 two-hour seminars


1 two-hour exam
1 3,000-word essay

Optional Research Project Module

You also have the opportunity to deepen your knowledge by undertaking a supervised 7,000-word research project on a topic arising from the work done on the Ethics of Political Leadership.

More about the Research Project