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Private Wrongs and Public Resignations

Public officials are often called to resign their posts if they commit grave moral or legal wrongs as private persons. Consider a few cases. It is discovered that a Minister of Education had plagiarized multiple parts of his academic work before taking up his position in the government. Another high official is caught expressing bigoted ideas against ethnic and religious minorities in personal Facebook comments and posts. A county prefect is charged for beating his wife. Should such acts call for resignations? Can they ground the decisions of political bosses to sack these individuals, or justify the general public in exerting pressures on the government to drive them out of office?

To all three questions, most members of the general public, and among them many moral and political philosophers, would be inclined to say ‘yes’. Although the intuitive pull would likely be strong in many such cases (although certainly weaker in others; for instance, adultery), philosophers might have a hard time matching them with one or several moral principles. This might be explained by our predominant allegiances to the liberal political legacy, which understands our public and private lives to be separate from one another.

Naturally, we wouldn’t want to deny politicians their private lives. So let’s assume that the private wrongs that we are dealing with here are in the proper sense private, and that they are not accompanied by political wrongs. One example of the latter would be an attempt by one of the aforementioned officials to use leverage in order to cover up their private wrongs, or to pull strings in the judicial branch to avoid sanction. Let’s assume, instead, that such abuses of power, which would give us separate reasons to call for resignations, do not occur. And, importantly, let’s also assume that the officials are not penalized with jail time, which would effectively bar them from carrying out the public function.

Despite the fact that such calls for resignations abound in virtually any modern democracy, moral and political philosophers have had little to say on the matter. It was only last year that Croatian philosopher Neven Petrović, in a series of conference presentations, prompted discussions on whether politicians should be judged in these terms. Petrović argues that private wrongs should not, at the very least, count decisively in favor of political resignations. Moral standards for persons in power, Petrović believes, often demand sainthood that hardly anyone lives up to, and ousting politicians from office often entails giving up on important talents that are, especially in dysfunctional democracies, all too scarce. Granted, it would be inadequate to require officials to be moral saints, and there are undoubtedly cases in which private wrongs are not particularly grave, and would not outweigh the value of a talented official’s contributions. However, working out whether such demands and circumstances are the rule or the exception in democracies is a more appropriate task for social scientists.

We might instead try answering a more fundamental philosophical question, one that Petrović does not adequately address – namely, why would private wrongs count in favor of public resignations at all? It might easily be the case that no single principle can explain all cases of private transgressions. Let me mention a few possibilities here. Likely the strongest candidate for a relevant moral principle suggests that public officials need to live up to those moral standards of which the content is related to the function that they are performing. Recall the plagiarist Minister of Education. Presumably at least, Ministries of Education are tasked to promote academic decency. If the Minister is a known plagiarist, then it could be argued that he is epistemically or normatively unfit for that job. While content relatedness explains the relation between private wrongs and resignations neatly, one obvious problem is that it captures some private wrongs, but not relevant others. Some may in fact argue that our feelings of moral disgust are much stronger in the case of the county prefect abusing his wife. The implication would be that a broader scope of private wrongs should call for resignation – that public officials should be forced to resign whenever they express disregard for legal, and sometimes less controversial moral norms. But this would leave us with the burden of explaining why some private wrongs express a disregard for laws and norms, and some do not.

We might believe that the struggle with this normative uncertainty should culminate in the policy of oath-swearing about some parts of politicians’ private behaviors when they take up public functions. Yet, it would still be up to moral and political philosophers to determine what the content of such oaths should be.

Viktor Ivanković

Viktor is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb. His main research interest is on the ethics of nudging, namely, the institutional requirements for nudge permissibility. His other interests are in distributive justice and bioethics.


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  1. Oliver Milne

    I think there are two issues you’ve overlooked here. The first is that the private conduct of an official acts as an indicator of their general trustworthiness – something that the public is usually in a poor position to assess. A sign suggesting that a politician might not be a sound person is therefore an important clue as to their fitness for office.

    The other is that even the most ‘private’ of the examples of wrongdoing listed – the county prefect beating his wife – is publicly pertinent because it’s the job of society at large to discourage serious wrongdoing of all kinds. For an official in the public eye to be widely known to have done something seriously wrong and still to occupy a place of public prestige sends the dangerous signal that that kind of wrongdoing not only comes without consequences but may not even be wrongdoing at all. A social norm demanding such officials resign therefore serves an valuable social function.

    • Viktor

      Thanks for the comment, Ollie! My hope is that a publication, at one point, would offer a range of prospective principles that could account for the wrongness of various kinds of private conduct, and why these might call for resignations. I’ve recently offered a more exhaustive (yet, still very unsophisticated) survey of prospective principles in a conference presentation; I simply didn’t have the space for this elaboration here.

      Let me address, though, the two prospective principles that you are suggesting. The first – that private conduct signals a lack of general trustworthiness – is exactly the kind of thing I suggest requires more substantiation. Why is it that some offenses and misdemeanors are connected to general trustworthiness? Content relatedness can offer a helping hand – if someone is desperately failing at conduct that relates to their public function, or seems not to take the relevant public norms seriously, like the plagiarist Minister, then private conduct might be an indicator of a lack of trustworthiness. Otherwise it is not obvious that private conduct is related. It is perfectly conceivable that persons compartmentalize their lives in ways that while their private lives are in a state of disarray, their public lives and official conduct are impeccable (or vice versa). You could say that someone’s drunk driving indicates that he will be negligent in his relations with his associates or the public at large, but such a suggestion is tenuous at best. If we want to say that politicians who commit many private wrongs, but lead impeccable and corruption-free public lives, should still resign, we need something additional in normative terms.

      I’ve considered the second suggestion as well, but an important question would then need to be answered about the general mission of the state – is the state required to discourage wrongdoing beyond ensuring the rule of law? If the politician has been processed and sanctioned in front of the courts, it might be suggested that any further discouragement of private wrongs is not the state’s function. A plausible suggestion might then be that some behaviors should be discouraged by asking resignations on grounds of public reasons, or if they include the disrespect of basic rights. But as to how far this requirement should go and how strict it needs to be, I still have to consider. Perhaps these are the kinds of misconduct that should be regulated via political oaths.

      • Oliver Milne

        On the point about private wrongdoing as an indicator of general untrustworthiness, there are two connected points worth bringing out. The first is that because the public has a hard time assessing the trustworthiness of officials in general, any sign, even one only weakly correlated with trustworthiness, is worth their following up on, unless doing so has negative ‘externalities’ such as being racist. The other point, underlying and justifying this attitude, is that the public’s proper concern is with the public interest first, and being completely fair to office-holders only a distant second (or third, or Nth). As a result, it only takes a smidgen of the public interest to outweigh office-holders’ claims to be treated fairly.

        On your point about whether it’s the state’s job to prevent non-criminal wrongdoing, I think it’s important to distinguish between the state violently enforcing norms and officials of the state voluntarily and visibly respecting them – such as by resigning when seen to violate them. The most defensible answer to the question of the state’s approach to non-criminal wrongdoing is that the former methods would be inappropriate, but that the latter are highly valuable and important..

        I look forward to reading the publication!

  2. Giorgia

    I don’t know who much this comment can help in the task of identifying a satisfactory principle justifying or disproving our intuition that yes, private wrongs committed by public officials challenge their fitness to the role, but maybe it can break down the problem a little more. Plus I had this in mind from your symposium talk. I think the time component here is a relevant one. So, the case of the plagiarism is pretty severe because of the content relatedness, but I think it is not as bad as it would be if we were to find out that he committed plagiarism while, for instance, writing a report or an article or whatever in his private capacity, like as a consultant, while at the same time filling an appointed role as public official. If we consider shop-lifting (say, committed by someone who is currently minister of economy or anything remotely related to business, so we can maintain constant the content relatedness, even though I’d admit it seems a bit stretched), the severity of the impact of that wrongdoing for considerations on whether they should be allowed to maintain their public role changes, I think, based on when the episode happened. I would think very few would push someone to resign if it turns out that they shoplifted in their early twenties, more would push for it if it turns out the episode happened while they were public officials. Not sure about how perceptions would change whether the episode happened a year or a few months before they took the job, though.
    On a separate note, we do already consider it acceptable to prevent people (admittedly, I can only think of cases for criminal records, which is not what we’re discussing) to access certain types of jobs. Whether that is a correct approach is a different matter, I don’t particularly like that, because it seems like a big barrier to re-integration into society, which should be the ultimate goal. But should that be the case for jobs of public officials, that they cannot be accessed if someone has a certain record of committing a wrong? I think not, to expect someone to lead an irreprehensible life before taking on a job as a public official places the bar of access to the job too high, and also, taking again the time factor into consideration, that would really exclude the possibility that people can change and better themselves over time. There have been cases in the UK were MPs had to resign following some twitter comments they had published YEARS before they started their office. Honestly, if you used to be a close-minded homophobic in your early twenties and wrote something insulting one night ten years ago, but ultimately had a complete shift in your beliefs and became more reflective while being exposed to new content and ideas, and realized that actually you are quite supportive of LGBTQ rights in the current moment/recent past and it was stupid of you to think otherwise in the far past, I do not think it is fair to held you accountable for that view now, definitely not to the extent it would cost you your job. Perhaps a public apology but that’s it. Ultimately, I guess the “while on a public role” rule reinforces the idea that we do expect public officials to be examples of, promoters, and representatives of certain behaviors almost as much as the content-relatedness one, so it is less acceptable of them to commit certain wrongs while they should be the embodiment of the higher standards of the code of conduct we want to live by.

    • Viktor

      Thanks for the comment, Giorgia! Yes, I think we’re on the same page on this one. Some questions at the symposium were addressed to me about the time of the private wrong, and whether different standards to private conduct apply before and during office. My understanding was that this related to, say, committing the wrong while performing the public function versus committing the wrong a few months prior. My response was that there shouldn’t be much difference – that if we establish that some private conduct during the mandate calls for resignation, then that offers the same grounds for disqualification from taking up the function in the first place, in the circumstances described.

      If the questions at the conference were more along the lines of what you are suggesting, then yes, I agree that time should most definitely be a factor. People make mistakes, and should, in most cases, not suffer a life ban from office for some foolishness in youth. The point, I think, is not even limited only to private wrongs, but may be relevant to wrongdoing in general (probably with the exception of some very grave offenses). Imagine a politician who was first elected into some local government in his late twenties or early thirties. Because of his or her inexperience, but also negligence, s/he fails to avoid entering some situation of a minor conflict of interest, which gets him or her thrown out of office. Should that kind of wrongdoing ban such persons from pursuing office some years from then? Probably not. So I think the point says a general story about wrongdoing. It would now be interesting to see whether there are any differences in thinking about private wrongs and public wrongs, if we believe both should disqualify people from office. Should private wrongs be more easily forgotten or forgiven? How so? Perhaps these considerations would draw us closer to working out the relevant principles.

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