Book Club: Practical Philosophy — 4 — Private life and public culture

“Culture is neither rare nor for the few; like the environment it is everywhere; and just as foul air and polluted waters affect our physical health, so a degraded culture damages our psychological and moral wellbeing.”

So begins chapter 12 of John Haldane’s Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Society and Culture, the last chapter I’m going to cover in this mini-series, and the one that opens the third and last section of the book, devoted to culture. (Previous installments of this discussion are here, here, and here.)

Haldane immediately jumps into an interesting and ever current issue: the relationships between the private and personal lives of public figures, especially political figures. He suggests that up until the mid-1960s (though I think actually significantly later than that) people of course assumed that there were “some issues” in the private lives of politicians. Think JFK and his philandering, just to mention a well known example.

But such things were not discussed much in public, as it was considered in poor taste to do so. Moreover, people seemed to be willing to draw a sharper line than today between private and public life, thinking that one does not, and perhaps even should not, inform the other. How, then, did we get to what Haldane calls the contemporary “culture of exposure”? 

He suggests that it “results from a combination of factors, including changed attitudes toward public discussion of sexual conduct, changed standards of sexual behaviour, recognition of the scale of Cold War espionage and of its practice of blackmail, a general decline in social deference, a threat to the print media posed by the growth of television, and the rise of satirical entertainment.” I would add the nefarious rise of the 24 hour news cycle, and especially the popularity of social media, which seem to have turned largely into a strange combination of gossip and public shaming. As Haldane drily comments, “everyone talks, everyone wants to talk, and everyone wants to listen — or so it can seem.”

There are, he suggests, a number of ethical issues that can be raised in our culture of gossip & shaming. For one thing, sometimes the very methods by which information about the personal lives of public figures is obtained are themselves unethical, because they involve intentional deceit or dishonesty. Second, such revelations often affect innocent third parties, the gossip & shaming equivalent of collateral damage in war. Finally, Haldane warns, public shaming is a powerful psychological force, and should be used with extreme caution. And caution, as we know, simply isn’t a thing in the era of the internet.

I don’t disagree with Haldane’s general outlook here. But as a virtue ethicist I am more inclined than he appears to be to grant that knowledge pertinent to the assessment of a politician’s character is very much of public interest. Indeed, I think that such knowledge is arguably even more relevant than the specific policies that shape an election platform. The reason for this is that politicians can promise whatever they wish before getting elected, but once in office they have to come to terms with the fact that politics is about compromise, since — at least in somewhat democratic societies — they don’t have absolute power.

That means that the character of the politician becomes an important predictor of what she will do once in office. So long as she is a decent person espousing the broad ideals I favor as a voter, I can then trust her to do her best to implement her program, given the actual circumstances of the political landscape. Had more people paid attention to Donald Trump’s character, which was very clearly on display for everyone to see, the United States wouldn’t be in the dire straits it finds itself now. (And yes, I am perfectly aware that Hillary Clinton was herself not exactly a paragon of virtue. But you know, the scale is a relative one.)

So information about the private lives of politicians, in my view, turns out to be very much relevant to our informed choices as voters, and therefore vital to the functioning of a democracy. But this does need to be balanced against the sort of ethical consideration that Haldane brings up, as it is rather naive to embrace either extreme of what in reality is a continuum between aggressive inquiries into the private behavior of politicians and the blasé attitude that it doesn’t matter what these people do outside of their job, so long as they do it well. They cannot do their job well if they are, in the immortal words of Nixon, crooked.

Haldane discusses in details some of the commonly advocated reasons to seek information that undermines the privacy of public figures. For instance, the notion that a public figure is, by his own choice, in a different category than other people. This convincingly applies to politicians, as I’ve argued above, but not, say, to movie stars or athletes. No discernible public benefit comes out of uncovering and publishing personal details in the latter two cases. It is pure gossip.

Second, while there should be a general presumption to privacy even for public figures, some bits of information about them are obviously of direct relevance to the public. For instance, the actual (as distinct from obviously fictitious) health status of the President of the United States, who, after all, is in charge of literally life and death decisions affecting millions. And of nuclear launch codes.

Third, continues Haldane’s list, if someone’s good reputation is actually built on lies and sustained by the fabrications of publicists, again this information is pertinent for voters who are about to put someone in office largely on the basis of trusting that he will do his best.

The last section of this chapter shifts focus to the big picture of what has happened in the Anglo-American world (and, to a lesser extent, in other Western countries), during the second part of the 20th century. As Haldane summarizes it: “In Britain and America, the second half of the twentieth century saw a long war between Right and Left in which, by the 1980s, the Left was defeated. The victory was in the field of political economy but so convincing was it that conservatives could easily have thought that it was only a matter of time before other ground would be retaken. Those who did think so were wrong. What became apparent as the smoke cleared and the generals gathered their troops was that the forces of the Right were massed in two camps, pitched at quite some distance from one another. In one camp stood economic/social liberals, in the other social conservatives.”

The idea, I gather, is that the Thatcher-Reagan counterrevolution has succeeded on economic grounds, as we live in a neoliberal society where profit reigns supreme and inequality is rampant. But the very same counterrevolution has failed on social grounds, leading among other things to legalization of abortion and increased rights for women and minorities, including LGBTQ+. Moreover, Haldane argues, the reason for this mixed outcome, so to speak, is that the Right camp has divided itself into conservatives and libertarians, with the latter supporting the economic, but not the social policies of the former.

I think that analysis is largely correct, if perhaps a bit simplistic. The further question, however, is where we are going from now on. And there I am convinced that whoever makes predictions is a fool. Too many variables are at play, including but not limited to: the unexpected rise of Trumpism (though, with hindsight, everyone was expecting it…); the ongoing pandemic, with no end in sight as yet; the possibility of an imminent global climate collapse, made starkly ominous by images of red skies in the western United States in recent days; the still very much present risk of nuclear armageddon; the increasing economic (and therefore political) inequality within major countries in the world; and the surge of popular political movements protesting inequality and state brutality.

All of this makes for an explosive cocktail far more complex, and far less predictable, than the comparatively linear socio-political developments of the past several decades. What an interesting, and terrifying, time to be alive.

(Next book club: Scientific Metaphysics, edited by Don Ross, James Ladyman, and Harold Kincaid, Oxford University Press, 2013.)

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