Personal Morals, Public Competence - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Campaigns & Elections

Personal Morals, Public Competence

Are a politicians personal morals relevant to his qualifications for office? Indeed, are anyone's personal morals relevant to his or her public or professional life?

As I write this, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, is being accused of various moral failings. It is not my purpose to comment here on whether I think these accusations are true or false. For a far more important question has been brought to the forefront: Does it matter whether they are true or false?

For the most part, the president's defenders are not saying that these charges are unsubstantiated, or that they just couldn't believe that a man like the president would do such a thing. Rather, their defense is: So maybe he did. So what? If the president was unfaithful to his wife, this is perhaps of some concern to his wife and himself, but it is no one else's business. What the president does in private has nothing to do with his ability to lead the country effectively.

One analogy that has been made which I believe sums up this position quite well is the "heart surgeon" analogy. Suppose you were in dire need of heart surgery, and the best heart surgeon in the country had some "problems" in his personal life. Would you reject him as a doctor because of this, and instead get some lesser-qualified doctor to perform the operation? Wouldn't you want the best doctor available, regardless of his personal life?

I would have to reply ... That depends. This argument sounds plausible as long as you keep it vague. But let's try some specific examples. Suppose Dr Jones is recommended to you as the best heart surgeon available, and then just before the operation you learn that he is a cocaine addict. Would you say, Hey, his personal morals are no concern of mine. Or would you say, What if he comes to the operating room stoned out of his mind?

Or suppose you learn that Dr Jones had just swindled a business partner out of a large sum of money. Would you say, Hey, his personal financial dealing have nothing to do with his ability as a surgeon. Or would you say, If he cheats on his business dealings, how do I know that he didn't cheat his way through medical school?

The problem with this whole argument is that it begins by assuming that morality is unrelated to competence, and then uses this assumption to prove that morality is unrelated to competence. That is, if we start with the assumption that Dr Jones is the greatest heart surgeon in the world despite his moral failings, than of course we must conclude that his moral failings have not prevented him from becoming the greatest heart surgeon in the world. But that was just an assumption they made up to pose the question. Let's step back and ask the real question: Is it likely that someone with severe "personal" moral problems could actually be the greatest heart surgeon in the world? I have a hard time believing that a drug addict or a con man or ... I'm sure you could fill in many other "personal" moral failings here ... could ever become the greatest heart surgeon in the world.

It is, I suppose, possible that someone could be a chronic liar and cheat with his friends and family, but scrupulously fair and honest in his business dealings. Perhaps someone could be subject to violents rages with his children, but always be calm and rational in his professional dealings. But that must surely be rare. Real people do switch their morals and ethics on and off when they walk through a door.

Sexual morality is put into a particularly "private" category. Sorry, I don't buy it. If I was planning to enter into a partnership with a man, and then I learned that he was unfaithful to his wife, surely it would be fair and wise to ask myself, If he does not keep his promises to his wife, will he keep his promises to me?

Yes, we should be cautious to judge. We cannot realistically demand that every public figure be absolutely morally perfect. (I freely admit that I do not live up to a standard of perfection myself.) We should not rush to assume that every juicy accusation is true. Even if the person's guilt is well-established, we rarely if ever know all the circumstances. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances. Perhaps the person was provoked. Even if the provocation does not justify the act, we might accept it as an excuse. Similarly, if it is discovered that Judge Smith used drugs in college 30 years ago, a fair person should surely ask what his behavior has been like more recently. Surely a person should be forgiven for past acts repented and atoned for.

But if a public figure engages in immoral behavior -- no matter how "personal" -- and shows no sign of remorse or repentance, I cannot accept that this is irrelevant to his public life. If a politician will sell out his marriage vows for a good roll in the hay, surely it is fair to ask if he might not charge the same price to sell his oath of office. How can we possibly believe that he can be loyal to an abstract concept like "the American people" or "the Constitution", if he cannot be loyal to his wife whom he sees every day, and presumably choose as someone he could and would be loyal to?

© 1998 by Jay Johansen


No comments yet.

Add Comment