Say you are a law-maker elected to represent the views of a population in the legislature.

The population are specifically and deliberately asked how to proceed on a political issue and use the opportunity to express their will to do X. But you "know better that X is unethical."

What should you do?

  • There is somewhat to little information here: for example in a more consensual orientated democracy the ethical course would be to convince the population of your position, failing which you should effect their will; in a democracy of a more representative bent, you are obliged to act your conscience.
    – christo183
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 17:14
  • Law makers are not necessarily elected to represent the views of their constituents. They are elected to represent the constituents, which is not quite the same thing. Are you specifying that, in this individual case, the law maker is elected to represent the views, and if so how strong is this? Is the law maker allowed to compromise if necessary and support something most constituents dislike to get something they like a lot? You refer to "sworn duty" - exactly what is that duty? Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 17:30
  • Never, ever act against or compromise your own values for any reason, regardless. A mercenary, a slave, or a machine will act against their own values. But a noble human being cannot do it. There is no sworn duty that can prevent your resignation.
    – Bread
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 0:54
  • You are asking a general question about legislatures and legislators. The question can't be answered in the general case, since the answer would vary depending on what was expected from legislators. In all cases I'm familiar with, the legislator represents the constituents, but is not normally bound to follow specific expressions of constituent opinions. I can imagine a legislature where the legislators would be required to vote based on constituent preferences in some way or other. The answer would be different in these cases. Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 19:49

2 Answers 2


If you are quite sure that it is unethical, don't proceed on. You should refuse it.

Your duty is to the Nation, not to a particular group. Sworn duty is to the Nation. Some actions that create unethical issues, once implemented, may be very difficult to revert to a sound condition and there is a great chance of more problems in future.

I believe in almost all oaths for the representatives of the legislature there is a word (or words) that is related to truth or conscience. You should obey that first. So giving more importance to those words you should refuse to fulfill that preciously sworn duty.

Your action can be treated as a part of protecting Dharma. Though it is against protecting truth, you need not worry. Dharmo Rakshathi Rakshitaha.

  • Thank you. If the population demanding the action is the nation (in a majoritarian sense), does that change your answer?
    – 52d6c6af
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 16:50
  • @Ben: Never. I have given a link for reference. Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 16:54
  • OK thank you. In that sense you are no longer (indeed you cannot be due to ethical conviction) a representative of the people. Should you therefore step down from your position? Edit: your link doesn't appear to work for me.
    – 52d6c6af
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 16:55
  • Of course. Anything that is ethical is not for a particular time. If I deserve it, I will certainly get it. Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 17:01
  • Is large-scale deceit for the greater good (as you see it) permissible in any ethical framework? For example, you might stay in the legislature and commit to X, fully intending to do everything in your power to prevent it? Does the impossibility of knowing whether you are correct in your analysis bear on the ethical course of action? The law-maker might be wrong.
    – 52d6c6af
    Commented Jan 31, 2019 at 17:04

It depends on the contractual relationship between voter and representative.


If you are elected as a delegate then you are mandated to follow the wishes and preferences, 'the expressed will', of the electors. You have no status as an independent thinker and discriminator. If the expressed will is unalterable by argument, and to carry it out would violate your conscience, then you should resign. You are reneging on your 'previous sworn duty'.

Burkean representative

In contrast if you are a representative then the electorate elects your judgement and conscience into the contract. It is then perfectly proper to act as an independent thinker and discriminator - and to take the consequences at the next election.

What I am echoing here is the Burkean view of representation, after Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), the Irish politician and philosopher. When Burke was elected to represent the English city of Bristol in 1774 he addressed them as follows :

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. (http://peter-moore.co.uk/blog/edmund-burke-speech-to-the-electors-of-bristol-1774)

Elitist language but the British Constitution still works essentially on this view of representation as regards Members of Parliament. It can also produce good results as when parliamentary representatives pass (at least occasionally) humanitarian legislation with which their electors do not agree.

This view of representation is consistent with the self-certainty of, 'I know better that X, which you [the electors] support, is unethical', but its more normal and less self-righteous, less dramatic version is just, 'I believe that X is wrong and on reflection can't support it - and you elected me to use my judgment'. In this case you are precisely acting on your 'previous sworn duty'. That duty is to judge independently of the electors when you consider it appropriate to do so.

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