Private virtue and public service


Views from Oberlin Ed Long


As this is being written, the airwaves and media pages are full of reports about the highly unacceptable private behavior of some persons exercising or seeking to exercise official positions.

The attention being given to the private immorality of such individuals is eclipsing the attention that should be directed to the positions such persons have about very crucial public issues.

Years ago, a book by a professor at Yale Divinity school pointed out that many supporters of Strom Thurmond, the ardent segregationist, endorsed him with the argument he did not serve liquor in his home. This highlighted the fallacy of judging fitness for official roles solely on the basis of private behavior. I recognize this problem every time I read ads for candidates for office that mention such things as their good family life, church or service club membership — yet contain little or nothing about where the candidates stand on policy issues.

This problem does not completely go away if instead of claims to private virtue being used to commend persons for office charges of personal immorality are used to disqualify them. The relationship between private behavior and public service cannot be applied with categorical simplicity. Some persons with questionable personal lifestyles exercise office in ways that serve the public good and some persons with admirable lifestyles favor oppressive policies and advance selfish interests. It is therefore unwise to use alleged evidence of private misconduct as the sole reason to disqualify candidates for public office. Doing so becomes even more problematic if that evidence is advanced for partisan reasons.

To be sure, there are kinds of private conduct that do bear on how a particular person will serve in a public role. Honesty and care in handling details are important for positions like treasurers or auditors. Consistency and dignity are appropriate measures of conduct in any public role. Officeholders, whether in government or in industry, hold power and along with power goes additional responsibility. That responsibility, for example, calls for treating opposition with respect despite policy disagreements and being proper in dealing with both subordinates and citizens. Office-holding must not be used to provide special favors.

The criticism of officeholders for the conduct of their public roles is a protected form of free speech and helps to keep democracy healthy. The criticism of personal behavior may not have the same benefits, especially if done for partisan reasons or to be sensational. Commentators should not play investigator, prosecutor, judge, and sentencing authority without being restrained by requirements of due process such as apply to the determination of ordinary wrongdoing in courts of law. Otherwise there is a danger of falling into a new version of what might become star chamber proceedings.

To make such observations should not be understood as trying to undercut the urgent need to eradicate the behavioral malignancy that the accounts of bad behavior are bringing to light. It is becoming increasingly clear that the misbehavior being revealed has too long been tolerated in both private organizations where power over associates is wielded by executives and in public organizations in which it is wielded by officials.

This kind of behavior is too egregious to tolerate and should be eradicated in orderly and credible ways that protect the rights of all persons to fair treatment.

Edward LeRoy Long Jr. is a resident of Kendal and professor emeritus of Christian ethics and theology culture of Drew University. He taught religion at Oberlin College for two decades.

Views from Oberlin Ed Long
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