There’s a great discussion on the relationship between government and morality in Yes, Minister. It occurs in the episode The Whisky Priest. I excerpt it here from the printed version, written from the point of view of the Minister. (I strongly suggest watching it as well.) Here he’s talking to Sir Humphrey, his secretary. After the Minister discovers that British arms are being sold to terrorists, he tries to tell Humphrey that it must be stopped for moral reasons. Humphrey disagrees.
He quibbled again. ‘Minister, Government isn’t about morality.’
‘Really? Then what is it about?’
‘It’s about stability. Keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow.’
‘But what for?’ I asked.
I had stumped him. He didn’t understand my question. So I spelt it out for him. ‘What is the ultimate purpose of Government, if it isn’t for doing good?’
This notion was completely meaningless to him. ‘Government isn’t about good and evil, it’s only about order and chaos.’
I know what he means. I know that all of us in politics have to swallow things we don’t believe in sometimes, vote for things that we think are wrong. I’m a realist, not a boy scout. Otherwise I could never have reached Cabinet level. I’m not naïve. I know that nations just act in their own interest. But … there has to be a sticking point somewhere. Can it really be in order for Italian terrorists to get British-made bomb detonators?
I don’t see how it can be. But, more shocking still, Humphrey just didn’t seem to care. I asked him how that was possible.
Again he had a simple answer. ‘It’s not my job to care. That’s what politicians are for. It’s my job to carry out government policy.’
‘Even if you think it’s wrong?’
“Almost all government policy is wrong,’ he remarked obligingly, ‘but frightfully well carried out.’
This was all too urbane for my liking. I had an irresistible urge to get to the bottom of this great moral issue, once and for all. This ‘just obeying orders’ mentality can lead to concentration camps. I wanted to nail this argument.
‘Humphrey, have you ever known a civil servant resign on a matter of principle?’
Now, he was shocked. ‘I should think not! What a suggestion!’
How remarkable. This is the only suggestion that I had made in this conversation that had shocked my Permanent Secretary. I sat back in my chair and contemplated him. He waited, presumably curious to see what other crackpot questions I would be asking.
‘I realise, for the very first time,’ I said slowly, ‘that you are committed purely to means, never to ends.’
‘As far as I am concerned, Minister, and all my colleagues, there is no difference between means and ends.’
‘If you believe that,’ I told him, ‘you will go to Hell.’
There followed a long silence. I thought he was reflecting on the nature of the evil to which he had committed himself. But no! After a while, realising that I was expecting a reply, he observed with mild interest, ‘Minister, I had no idea that you had a theological bent.’
My arguments had clearly left him unaffected. ‘You are a moral vacuum, Humphrey,’ I informed him.
‘If you say so, Minister.’ And he smiled courteously and inclined his head, as if to thank me for a gracious compliment.
Later, Humphrey has a discussion with Bernard, another civil servant.
Bernard: If it’s our job to carry out government policies, shouldn’t we believe in them?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, what an extraordinary idea! I have served 11 governments in the past 30 years. If I’d believed in all their policies, I’d have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to joining it. I’d have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel and of denationalising it and renationalising it. Capital punishment? I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I’d have been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac, but above all, I would have been a stark-staring raving schizophrenic!
There’s so much here which could be discussed. Is right government about morality? Or is it just about keeping order? Is it good to have government officials who reason purely about means, and politicians to reason purely about ends? Is it necessary for officials to believe in policies before carrying them out?
The series really is a gem.