An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton

By Richard A. Posner | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 4 Morality, Private and Public

Intelligent evaluation of the moral dimensions of the Clinton-Lewinsky mess requires distinguishing between private morality and public morality. The former term refers to the duties that the moral code of a society imposes on people regardless of their office or job, the latter to the duties that the code imposes on people who occupy particular offices (not necessarily public). A lawyer has special moral duties--the domain of "legal ethics"--by virtue of his or her profession, as well as the moral duties that are common to all persons in his society. And so with every other profession and vocation, including that of a political leader.

The distinction between private and public morality was stressed, and precisely in the context of political leadership, by the nineteenth-century economist and philosopher Henry Sidgwick,1 and more recently by (among others) F. G. Bailey.2 But their emphasis is on the tensions, conflicts, or trade-offs between the two types of morality, as when a leader's

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1
See Henry Sidgwick, Practical Ethics, ch. 3 ( 1898). A related contrast, that between an ethic of ultimate ends (as in the Sermon on the Mount) and an ethic of responsibility (the proper ethic for a political leader), is explored in Weber essay "Politics as a Vocation," reprinted in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology 77, 117-128 ( H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills trans. 1946).
2
F. G. Bailey, Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership ( 1988). See also the essays by Stuart Hampshire, Thomas Nagel, and Bernard Williams in Public and Private Morality ( Stuart Hampshire ed. 1978). The tension between private and public morality is, as emphasized in C. A. J. Coady, "Dirty Hands," in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy 422 ( Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit eds. 1993), part of a larger issue, that of moral dilemmas (or "dirty hands"), discusssed extensively by Sartre and other philosophers.

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