Private Morality and Public Servants

Add  Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the list of politicians who have claimed that their private affairs have no bearing on their public performance.  Villaraigosa recently admitted that he was having an affair with a local news anchorwoman, Mirthala Salinas.  Villaraigosa's wife of twenty years and the mother of two of his children, Corina, has filed for divorce.

In California, that list of politicians distinguishing between their public and private morality is quite long and growing: San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom admitted to an affair with a close advisor's wife; former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown had an out of wedlock child with chief fundraiser Carolyn Carpeneti, his lover in 2001; former San Jose mayor Ron Gonzales admitted to an affair with a twenty-five year old staff member in 2000. 
"I take full responsibility for my actions.  I want to stress however, that I don't believe the details of my personal life are relevant to my job as mayor." 
This was the immediate response of Mayor Villaraigosa after being confronted with allegations of the affair with Miss Salinas.  As quoted  in the San Francisco Chronicle, a Democrat strategist involved with the Mayor also added:
"The problem is this: when you run for governor, if that's what Antonio intends to do, the level of scrutiny is far beyond that of any other office - including U.S. Senate."
In a similar vein, Peter Ragone, spokesman for San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, said nothing about any moral transgression but plenty about the separation of public and private:
"Your personal life is separate to them [the voters] as long as it doesn't affect your job performance."
However, Mayor Newsom's spokesman did display some outrage about the level of scrutiny in modern society:
"It's an unfortunate part of modern life that every single thing that an elected official does is public."  The issue, in other words, is getting caught. 
The distinction between public and private spheres has been an issue for great thinkers ever since public life emerged as a distinct element of collective life. What should concern us here is not the rather alarming "So What?" attitude of many in the public and in the media, but the subtle attempt by many of these men and their handlers to convince us that when it comes to the relationship between public and private, as Kipling put it, never the twain shall meet. 

In this age of multiculturalism it might be instructive to poll another list of men, among them Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus, all of whom warned us in stark terms that we separate public and private at our peril.  In short, to these men, it was the height of immorality to distinguish the two. Socrates and Confucius among others suffered greatly trying to convince skeptical populations that the source of much of the world's evil came from the successes of their own politicians and sophists in separating public and private.

For example, in one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Plato's works, a young and gentle shepherd named Gyges discovers a large crevice in the ground after an earthquake, and after descending into the chasm he discovers a "ring of gold" at the bottom.  Later than night, at a meeting with the other shepherds, Gyges is shocked and amazed that when he twists the ring a particular way he becomes invisible!  About the gentle Gyges, says Plato,
"When he realized this, he at once arranged to become one of the messengers to the king.  He went, committed adultery with the king's wife, attacked the king with her help, killed him, and took over the kingdom."
A skeptical disciple named Glaucon asks Socrates to consider that if there were two such rings, one for the just man and one for the unjust man, no one would believe that the just man, given invisibility, would act any differently than the unjust man. Glaucon is suggesting that even the great Socrates, who taught us that philosophy itself was ultimately the art of "tending to the soul" is, like all men including Gyges, pretty creepy when no one, especially the law, is watching.  Glaucon wants to show that no one, as Plato puts it, is just willingly but only under compulsion."  Plato's masterpiece the Republic is the story of how Socrates convinces the young Glaucon to abandon this view, taught by the politicians of his time, and to fall in love with justice for its own sake.

In other words, Socrates shows Glaucon that someone in love with justice would not need laws or the fear of getting caught to remain just.  In the Republic, this rather daunting endeavor requires an education that spans ten books and hundreds of pages of philosophical dialogue.  Socrates want Glaucon to understand that it is good character that counts in life, and that morality has more to do with choosing to be just, rather than being just simply because one is afraid of the consequences of being unjust, like Gyges before he discovers the ring.

The just man is just (as well as not creepy) in private as well as in public.

The Greeks were not alone in trying to prove that morality ultimately concerns what we do in private.  In the Analects, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius famously said:
"Look into a man's motives, note his course, take heed whether he is at ease, and how can a man hide, how can a man hide!" 
Since Confucius believed that what defined the pinnacle of morality were personal virtues like "humanity" and "sincerity", it was impossible to build a harmonious society if the members of that society were rather unseemly in private.  Like Socrates in the Republic, Confucius had a dim view of law:
"Lead through laws, discipline through punishments, and the people may be restrained but without a sense of shame.  Lead through virtue, discipline through the rites, and there will be a sense of shame and conscientious improvements."  
In India, the same theme about character development formed the bases of one of the world's great religious traditions, Buddhism.  In the opening line of the Dhammapada, the Buddha says:
"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.  Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it." 
The Buddha argued that good or bad karma ultimately attaches to what we do in private, including our private thoughts.  Beyond the question of personal character then, great thinkers like Socrates, Buddha, and Confucius felt that indeed the condition of our societies is largely a product of what its citizens do in private, hence the connection between private and public.

When and where did all of this change?  Why do so many politicians slip so easily and comfortably into a world in which private and public are separated by another kind of chasm? 

Historians, at least in the West, might claim that it all began with Renaissance thinkers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Niccolo Machiavelli, men who were more interested in results and utility than in character.  These men tended to look at the old idealists like Plato and Socrates as hopelessly utopian, and believed that society could only benefit from a more realistic approach to human progress, even if the various "means" to that progress were a little unseemly.  Add a touch of Enlightenment philosophy in the form of John Locke's defense of private property and we find ourselves in world where freedom comes to mean even the freedom to not be shamed by philosophy and morality itself.

Whatever the case, we should understand that when politicians like Mayor Villaraigosa claim that in no way does their private life affect their public performance, we need to be wary, and we need to teach our children that this is a relatively new development in human affairs.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reportedly says the following about public and private:
"A good tree does not produce decayed fruit any more than a decayed tree produces good fruit.  Each tree is known by its yield.  Figs are not taken from thornbushes, nor grapes picked from brambles.  A good man produces goodness from the good in his heart; an evil man produces evil out of his store of evil.  Each man speaks from his heart's abundance."   
Villaraigosa may claim that his "yield" should be enough to "offset" his personal immorality, but in the judgment of some of history's great thinkers he might need a little education.

Ed Kaitz is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.