The Personal Lives of Public Officials
These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for
Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by Senior Fellow
Judy Nadler and Communications Director Miriam Schulman. The
Center provides training in local government ethics for public
officials. For more information, contact Hana Callaghan.
Where is the line between a politician's personal
and public life?
Can a politician be ethical in public if he or
she is unethical in private?
What ethical dilemmas are raised by a politician's
Resources on the personal lives of public officials
Where is the line between a politician's
personal and public life?
Everyone, including public figures, is entitled to privacy.
But when a person goes into public life, he or she must understand:
Certain issues that might be considered private for a private
individual can become matters of reasonable public interest
when that individual runs for office. Becoming a public servant
means putting the public's interest ahead of your own.
What does that look like in practice? Everyone will draw the
line between personal and public in a slightly different place,
but generally, if a private matter affects the performance of
the officeholder's duties, most people would agree that it is
no longer private. So, for example, the president of the United
States submits to a yearly physical, which is made public, because
his or her health is of such key importance to the nation. Similarly,
illnesses that affect job performance of local officials may
be legitimate subjects of inquiry. Behaviors that might impede
performance, like substance abuse, are matters of public interest.
Financial problems, especially in a person with budgetary responsibilities,
may be germane.
Because a politician represents the public, constituents will
be better represented if he or she practices the virtues of
honesty and trustworthiness in both personal and private life.
The reputation of local officials may have an important impact
on the business climate of the city or public support for local
initiatives, so the personal behavior of politicians may become
a legitimate area of public concern.
Can a politician be ethical in public if
he or she is unethical in private?
At heart, this question is a form of a longstanding ethical
debate about what is called "the unity of the virtues."
To many of the ancient Greek philosophers, a person could not
possess one of the cardinal virtues-prudence, temperance, courage,
and justice-without possessing them all. How, they might have
asked, could a person who cannot control his or her appetites
(or is intemperate) be just or prudent? According to SCU Associate
Professor of Philosophy and Classics Scott LaBarge, Socrates
believed that virtue was a matter of understanding, and that
once a person understood good and evil, he or she would naturally
be prudent, temperate, courageous, and just. Aristotle argued
that virtue had this intellectual component, but also included
the virtue of character-that is, habits of behavior developed
by proper training. So, LaBarge explains, Aristotle understood
that it was possible, in people with insufficient training,
for the passions to overrule reason; thus people might well
exhibit some virtues and not others. Still, LaBarge said, Aristotle
would have argued that leaders should have "true virtue,
where all parts of the soul are pulling in the same direction";
that is, toward the good. Many people still hold to the unity
of the virtues, making a case, for example, that a politician
who cheats on his wife is not someone who can be trusted with
the public's business either.
Also, in the classic tradition, they argue that one of the
central tasks of the public sphere is educational-helping shape
the souls of the next generation to achieve knowledge and do
the right thing. In that context, a public servant must serve
as an example of good conduct.
LaBarge himself has struggled with the question of whether
a politician might be unethical in one area and still be a good
leader. Ultimately, he has concluded,
Political office is not what it was in the ancient world. We
don't have agreement about what sort of souls we should be shaping,
so I don't necessarily expect a public official to be a moral
exemplar. More significantly, there's been a substantial change
in what sort of expertise we expect our leaders to have. For
the ancients, the required expertise was moral expertise, and
understanding of what sort of character we want to instill in
others and how we go about doing that. But today, we expect
our leaders to have entirely different sorts of expertise-economic,
public policy. If you were to go out and ask people, many would
probably even question the assumption that being moral could
involve expertise in the first place.
What ethical dilemmas are raised by a politician's
Many difficult ethical dilemmas arise in the relationship between
a politician's personal and public life. One is the "youthful
indiscretion." If a public official took drugs many years
previously, is this germane to his or her current character?
Is it a fit topic for public discussion? What if the indiscretion
was membership in a whites-only club? A marital infidelity?
Some guidelines that may help in determining the "statute
of limitations" on such indiscretions would be:
- Is the politician still engaging in this behavior?
- Has the politician been hypocritical? For example, the discovery
of an affair might be more damning to a politician who has
made "family values" a pillar of his or her campaign.
- Does his or her behavior create a conflict of interest with
the duties of office?
- Is here any discernible effect of the behavior on the larger
Another difficult set of issues is raised by behavior that
may be perfectly moral but still may have potential deleterious
impact on the politician's performance. One example is mental
illness. In the 1972 election, Thomas Eagleton was running for
vice president until his struggle with depression came out in
the media, and he was dropped from the ticket. Is it reasonable
for the public to evaluate candidates based on their mental
The public should also be aware of ways in which a politician
may use his or her office to gain advantage in personal life.
It may be as petty as the mayor who used to call 911 to get
driving directions or as significant as the water and sewer
commissioner who coerced sexual favors in return for free service.
These acts committed "under color of office" (on the
pretext the official has authority that he or she does not really
have) do not really raise ethical dilemmas; they are just plain
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