4.3.4  Moral Influence in Politics

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/434.htm)

The Moral Dimension of power is most evident in people’s direct influence over each other, but moral pressure can be amplified by participation in politics – using some of the mechanisms which form part of the Political Dimension, as described in chapter 6. 

Individuals can make political choices which are driven by their personal moral values (, and they can influence others in casual conversations (  If large numbers of people make similar choices they can exert considerable political power in any society.  The formation of Green Parties in several countries has been driven by shared moral concerns, for example.

In a democracy, moral pressure can be put upon politicians to behave differently: particularly if they feel that there are votes to be gained.  The campaign at the end of the 18th century for the abolition of slavery was, in the words of Niall Ferguson, "one of the first great extra-Parliamentary agitations":

"When 11,000 people in Manchester alone – two thirds of the male population – signed a petition calling for an end to the trade, it amounted to a call for an ethical foreign policy, a call so widespread that the government did not dare ignore it. …..

This was the birth of a new kind of politics, the politics of the pressure group.  Thanks to the work of zealous activists armed only with pens, paper and moral indignation, Britain had turned against slavery.  Even more remarkably, the slave trade had been abolished in the face of determined opposition from some powerful vested interests." [1]

Pressure groups are a specific type of interest group (6.4.4).

A political system may have formal mechanisms for religious representation ( but, less formally, a religious organisation can exert moral influence at a high level.  Politicians listen to religious leaders, because the latter are seen as commanding popular support.  For example, Pope John Paul II made effective use of his global status by travelling the world – addressing the people and talking to governments; his visit to Poland in 1983 is credited with helping the Solidarity movement to topple General Jaruzelski’s oppressive government.[2]   There is no equally powerful organisation for non-religious people to exert political pressure, a fact which causes them concern,[3] although there are anti-religious websites.[4]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] Niall Ferguson’s description of the anti-slavery petition appeared in Empire, p. 118.

[2] An article entitled The Polish Pope appeared in the January 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 1), as published by Worldpress.org at http://www.worldpress.org/print_article.cfm?article_id=1813&dont=yes; it was available in May 2014.

[3] Richard Dawkins inveighed against the “privileging of religion” in The God Delusion, pp. 44-45

[4] It can be difficult to determine whether criticism is directed against a religion, or against a politicised faction within a religion.  For example in March 2014, the Gates of Vienna website did not clarify whether it was against Islam as a whole, or was criticising Islamo-fascism.  It complained that its views were being suppressed, but its contributors did not clearly identify the target of their criticism – and those responsible for suppression might be equally unclear about whether the criticisms were permissible or not.