U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Debate opening: Personal and Public Morality

All the Ted Kennedy talk has sent me pondering a perennial question of mine–just how much does personal morality or ethics have to do with public morality or effectiveness? In the United States media in recent years, politicians’ morality is often linked to their behavior in the home (or in Argentina). But the issue goes back much further, at least to King David and Bathsheba.

How do you think about this relation, through the intellectuals you have studied? Part of the question is how you would define what is good in the private and the public. It seems to me that as much as this is linked to the American Protestant heritage, it has also not been a constant in American politics (see Ted’s brother in the Oval Office, and the media’s silence). Is a “good” person in the home the same as a “good” person in office? Or rather, how would you complicate this question, based on your research?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    I run into this problem with Mortimer J. Adler—with different angles over the course of his life.

    At the times when his public persona seems most pure, or in touch with real issues, his private life is a total damn mess. At other times, when his public persona seems like a paradoxical mixed-up mess, his private life is basically spotless. But since Adler was, and wanted to be, a public intellectual, I have to think of him somewhat as political historians do when they analyze individual politicians.

    I think you have to analyze these folks in terms of the greater good(s) they accomplish rather than by their incongruent personal lives. Looking for, or finding, consistency is a bit chimerical. The Protestant myth, however, in American culture seems to demand that we look at politicians more as ministers than fallible public servants.

    – TL

  2. I guess my question is, not can we find consistency, but can we find relationship? Is it important to analyze private lives, or only public? Early biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, never talked about his philandering, but David Levering Lewis weaves it into his discussion of Du Bois’ ideas and ambitions. I think it is tremendously interesting that Du Bois married his intellectual inferior and had affairs with his intellectual peers. I also don’t think anyone has sufficiently probed how this affected his ideas on Women’s Rights (he was normally considered ahead of his time), or his other ideas. I do that a bit in my own work, but I have found throughout that I shy away from discussing personal morality. Similarly, there was a huge blow up in the NAACP office in the 1930s. Was this because Du Bois’s and Walter White’s egos and methodologies were incompatible, or because they had a legitimate difference of opinion on segregation and legal strategy? Well, both to some extent. But what is the extent? What is the relationship?

    –LLK

  3. Tenured Radical provides an interesting answer to this question in a tribute to Teddy Kennedy that opens with his famous car accident, but for some reason I can’t copy the url.

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