In Politics SE I'd posted the reference-request, political-theory and political-science tagged question Writings advising elected politicians on how to make hard choices which dropped to -4 votes until I somewhat simplified it to it's current form, bringing it back to +1, after reflecting on recommendations in my linked meta question Is there any way I can adjust or otherwise “spruce up” my reference-request question, or should I just be patient?

However, so far it seems that nobody can think of any.

Should no answers be posted after some further time, might some form of this be better asked here instead? Would it be passable as-is (I'm neither a philosopher nor a political scientist) or would it require reworking? Currently I think it asks exactly what I'd like to know, so I wouldn't want to change too much.

  • 1
    Well, there's Macchiavelli's The Prince (mandatory reading in most Ivy League courses) and most ethicists say that a politician should follow their ethical doctrines, but I am afraid you'd have to be a bit more specific. There was an academic dispute in Germany in the 1920s resulting in scientists saying they should only provide information and offer council, but never decide since it is the prerogative of politicians to do so (Werturteilsstreit)....there is quite a lot of ground to cover. Any ideas how to narrow it down, say, to a certain period of time, a certain cultural background?
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Nov 28, 2020 at 12:24
  • Thank you, this is encouraging. The question's previous version contained examples of applicability including climate change denial, McCarthyism and deference to Fascism within, so I was looking for guidance that would apply in those situations. But since well-read and educated leaders should ideally be exposed to classics (and since I'm not) I don't have a feel for how to specify a period of time or cultural background. Senates have been around for quite a while in one form or another :-)
    – uhoh
    Nov 28, 2020 at 12:43
  • @PhilipKlöcking I'm not sure if that's a helpful response or not. Distilled down (perhaps too far) I'm looking for some form of an essay with the title "How to choose between what we want, what they want, what's best for us and what's best for them when we represent fellow citizens as politicians."
    – uhoh
    Nov 28, 2020 at 12:50

1 Answer 1


Some advice on asking for references given what I've seen asked here.

First, strongly qualify.

An excellent teacher of political science would be able to read somewhat into your request and provide some editorial guidance, but on these forums, while there are many people who are quite knowledgeable about higher educational technicalities, there seems to be a general lack of willingness and capacity to communicate with people who are entering the field. It's not a coincidence that higher education faculty tend to be lumped into a trope of luminaries and pedants. Many contributors strive to be knowledgeable and then fall into the curse of knowledge because they are simply unable or unwilling to adequately simplify. When presented with a broad question, they simply lack the desire or skills to address the question (and some small minority lack both but are fond of peeing in other people's breakfast cereal).

How to qualify? Start with the W-words. Which politicians? What sort of choices? Where and when in (insert preferred spatiotemporal reference)? What is the nature of 'best'? You've made some effort to do that, but alas, this still broad to the philosophically inclined. Some people spend their whole lives talking about Napoleon's perspectives on ruling and politics, and so when you ask a question like this, they might barely be aware that such a concern is near universal and can be considered philosophically as a distinct discipline. For instance, the intersection of politics and ethics is called (wait... for... it...) political ethics. Right there, you can see some contemporaneous references. Out of the bibliography, I see Dworkin is relatively a philosophical giant in law and philosophy.

But it might be a better idea to embrace understanding the foundations of politics and ethics somewhat distinctly. For instance, another tack you can embrace is asking about political philosophy. If you browse through the WP article, you'll see right away that The Prince is among a great list that spans from thinkers from over 2,500 years. Of course, ethics is the balance of this equation. For instance, are you more interested in understanding categorical imperative and it's potential application or perhaps have a Rawlsian sense of justice. The political thinking of Plato is quite distinct from that of John Rawls.

Second, avoid phrasing the request both in the first person and with a highly subjective question.

Many minds tend to use shallow lexical and semantic cues for reading the intent of a question and determine its content. The question 'What's best for my country?' posed on this board would be closed very quickly. The question 'What do philosophers say about "What's best for my country?"' will struggle, and the question 'What were contemporary philosophical debates of contemporaries of Niccolò Machiavelli, and did his advice in The Prince raise new ethical debates as Europe was transitioning from monarchies to republics?' may get you something. The last question stands the best chance of not being closed because it's highly focused, highly clarified, highly qualified, and indisputably a question about historical ethical arguments in politics. Note, that most readers could venture to read into your question and offer amendments, but that requires work and a vested interest in preserving the Q&A entry. By staying focused on a single, narrow question, you stand the best chance of surviving a closure or downvotes.

Third, articulate clearly the intersectionality of the topic with judicious jargon.

If you are interested in political ethics of leadership, use words and ideas found in the WP articles on politics, ethics, and leadership. If you're interested in contemporary politics, try to find contemporary philosophers of political ethics and see if you can't latch onto some of their terminology. If you can find a way of working the phrase justice as fairness into the article and cite the article, it will help keep your question open because thinkers tend to take more seriously questions with topics they know nothing to little about because instead of the presumption you're just a clueless newbie who doesn't deserve any effort in being guided to an answer than a brief comment below your question, it demonstrates there are topics they still haven't mastered. On the upshot, if you have a subject-matter expert read your question, s/he'll see you've done your homework, and may offer some additional insight. For instance, I exert little energy in the direction of political philosophy or ethics because I'm a bad human being and misanthrope, however, I have a fascination with syntax and semantics and I would read your question and it's links thoroughly just to see how you composed the question, and to evaluate its merits based on successfully if persuades others to answer your question or their rationale for correcting or rejecting it.

In Response

Would a question such as this about moral choices made by elected politicians be on-topic and potentially answered here?

My personal view is that every question has philosophical questions built into it. Philosophy studies the nature of reality, existence, truth, politics, and so on, and so there's always a philosophy-of attached to a question. So it only depends on how you phrase your question. If you phrase your question to examine:

  1. historical philosophical argumentation
  2. logic which inheres to positions
  3. positions of a particular philosopher or school of thinking
  4. ontological, epistemological, or axiological foundations
  5. relationships between and among of the aforementioned

then the question is valid, although this site has been known to close questions about entries that have their own Stanford Encyclopedia Entries, but again, the hurdle is to do it by avoiding the deadly sins of closure. Is your question 10 questions or 1? Does your question have appropriate citations for clarification? Is your terminology sophisticated enough not to be answered by a dictionary or encyclopedia entry? Does your question add value to the knowledge base because it is often asked and needs to be, not answered with an answer, but rather an explanation of how it isn't answered? Does your question better dwell on another site? Has your question already been answered, and did you check? Can you decompose your question into a series of narrow questions that can readily be answered? So on...

For your particular question, I'd say your question belongs here more than over at Politics, because the questions you asked weren't technically questions about historical or political specifics, but seemed to hinge on what constitutes basic ethical thinking. Rather I'd restrict your initial search to political philosophers who contemplated the importance of the normative ethics of popular representation in representative and direct democracies, for instance. This narrows it down quite a bit from all philosophers, to a direct subset; if you can even get narrower, like a philosophers since Venice dominated Europe, or the 20th century, all the better.

The other advice is that asking a good question is a hard thing to do. Don't be afraid when you get to questions about what exactly differentiates various types of ethics or ask about differences in ethical theory to post them here too. It may take you developing enough of an understanding about ethics to ask a question focused enough to get what you want. Good luck!

  • Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful answer. I appreciate the review of topics I should look into and will now take some time to give all of this some thought. Normally when an extensive answer is provided I try to leave a longer comment indicating that I've taken in and appreciated some of the major points but this will take some work and further reading.
    – uhoh
    Dec 1, 2020 at 7:26
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    No worries. The role of the editorial response here is to provide you confirmation and potentially disconfirmation of your claims/interrogatives in Q&A form drawn from related philosophical subject-matter. I apologize for not being an expert in the philosophical nature of disagreement, but hopefully someone else will come across this question and provide you a better quality response. Good luck!
    – J D
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:20

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