Public Lives and Private Morality: Whose Business is it anyway?

Public Lives and Private Morality: Whose Business is it anyway?

A baker’s dozen of Ethical Culturists and others chose the above topic on our first Summer Sunday with Socrates. A lively, 90 minutes discussion ensued.
Much of the focus was on Clinton, although his private indiscretions were hardly more remarkable than FDR, Ike or Kennedy, to name just few in recent years. One view was that Clinton was simply caught by an over-zealous press and a well financed effort to discredit him. Others felt it was silly to compare the moral significance of the consensual acts of adults involving a President of the US in the face of other acts with graver moral consequences, e.g. the carpet bombing of Viet Nam civilians or active collusion to overthrow governments with the subsequent loss of tens of thousands of innocent lives. Why should we care about the private moral decisions of a President or other politicians if they are otherwise effective and decisive leaders who propose or approve myriad decisions that seem to promote social justice and even world peace?
Some counter notions began to emerge. The poor judgment shown in the private domain of behavior may also emerge in policy decisions. Do they reflect an underlying character flaw that undermines our confidence and trust? Even if Kennedy was held accountable by the press, wasn’t he potentially jeopardizing national security by sleeping with a Mafia sponsored woman and opening up the possibility of being blackmailed into revealing secrets or acting against the public good to protect himself? In Clinton’s case, the poor judgment shown distracted a potentially great President from fulfilling his potential and diminished the respect the Office requires. Thus, most felt that, for at least the Office of the President, there needed to be moral conduct which, like Caesar’s wife, should be above suspicion. This is a much higher standard that that required of a local politician (where there is well deserved cynicism) or even of a member of Congress (ditto), since national security and the degree of power is unique. By contrast we expect our airline pilots to be skilled at getting us to our destination and in dealing with the vagaries of air navigation. We don’t usually care if he is married and sleeping with the stewardesses (before and after our flight).
But is it realistic to expect someone who is flesh and blood to remain chaste and above suspicion while in the White House as President? Shouldn’t we expect hypocrisy and deceptiveness as well as self-interested behavior and questionable moral conduct, especially from the self-selected group of individuals that reach the pinnacle of the political pyramid? The examples of Truman, Carter and possibly Bush Senior were offered as counter-examples to this skeptical challenge. Others suggested that character counts and is a realistic expectation of those holding our highest offices of trust. Even if Bush Junior was a libertine and an alcoholic when younger, his abstinence for two decades would not, per se, undermine our concern about his ability to function now. We do expect our leaders to be principled and decisive and effective. This requires an ability to analyze incomplete and contradictory information and to make reasonable and sound judgments. Can we trust people who demonstrate profoundly poor judgment in their private life to avoid such mistakes in their public administration?
Some suggested we want to believe in our chosen leaders and perhaps, at times, want to keep our illusions about them. At times we are looking for heroes, and Presidents are potential candidates. But history has taught us to be skeptical about our politicians. This extends to other community leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, MLK and the CEOs of corporations, for profit as well as not-for-profit. Despite numerous disappoints by those exhibiting rampant hypocrisy, double dealing, self-serving and even heinous moral conduct, we believe our leaders are capable of better. On occasion, we do find compassionate and effective individuals who greatly exceed our expectations and remind us that such rare leaders deserve our admiration and a special place in history.
Join us on August 17th for another Summer Sunday with Socrates where you can take your private ideas public.
Richard Bernstein

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *