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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Personal Lives of Public Officials

Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman

Sex in the City

These materials were prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics program in Government Ethics by former Senior Fellow Judy Nadler and former Communications Director Miriam Schulman.


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 personal behavior?
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 personal behavior?

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:

  1. Is the politician still engaging in this behavior?
  2. 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.
  3. Does his or her behavior create a conflict of interest with the duties of office?
  4. Is here any discernible effect of the behavior on the larger moral climate?

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 health?

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 wrong.

Resources on the personal lives of public officials

September 2006

Oct 23, 2015
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