Public and Private Ethics

Dealing with ethical issues is never easy, but issues in the public domain carry a host of extra factors that can make the task much more complicated.  Try as we might, we cannot always follow the same principles as we would in our private lives .

Public ethics are ethics that apply to people collectively.  Examples are: making decisions or making communications that affect the whole population or a significant section thereof.  They may also refer to activities conducted in public or at the behest of the public, such as politics.  Going to war is an extreme example, but stopping guide dogs from going on public transport is also an example.


Public and private ethics tend to operate under different standards, and it is for this reason that we need to consider how they might relate to each other.  Questions to explore include:



The ultimate good


The ultimate good I would say is firstly the freedom for everyone to live as they choose, then secondly the free embracing of truth and love as preferred lifestyle.


Clearly there is great potential for these two varieties of good to diverge.


Imposing of one ethic over the other


Typically this refers to the individual trying to impose privately held values over other people.  Hardline religious people, for example, may try to impose the values of their faith over others, as in denial of same-sex marriage, abortion or euthanasia.  The same applies to people who are socially or politically extreme, whether conservative or progressive.


The reality, we find, is that people resist these attempts to be imposed upon.  The urge to be free is so fundamental that, no matter how persuasive the arguments of hardliners or even influencers might be, they maintain their own right to make up their own mind.  Apart from being a matter of principle, this stance recognizes the force of individual circumstances.  What might be right for one person is not necessarily right for another.  Also, what might be right for a person now may not be right in ten years’ time, for time and place can be very persuasive in ethics.  Ethics are situational as well as absolute.


Influence of one ethic over another


This is a hard issue to address, if only because there is no obvious correlation between freedom on the one hand and truth and love on the other.  Truth and love are values or standards whereas freedom is only a state.  Perhaps the connection, if there is any, is through the fact that freedom implies respect – mutual respect – which is a part of love.


If we truly love, and if through truth we acknowledge the essential uniqueness and individuality of others, then it should follow that we allow them freedom.  The converse does not necessarily apply, but if we are free and know we are free, we are ipso facto liberated from influences which hold us back from the pursuit of truth and love.  These then become our natural state.


Conflict of values


Notwithstanding these fine sentiments, there are many situations where public and private ethics necessarily clash.  An obvious (though admittedly extreme) example is war.  Individually we might be committed to living in peace, living and let live, but when our own existence or that of others we care for is threatened, we accept the necessity of war.  We even accept the prudence of maintaining and equipping a defence force, which in turn means we accept the arms trade.


In a situation as complex as this, we are forced into constant re-evaluations of choice.  We might, for example, accept as a general principle the keeping of a defence force but not increases in defence spending or the use this force in certain deployments, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Obviously the reverse may also apply: we may want greater defence spending if this is likely to benefit victims of oppression, as in Ukraine, and we may be very unhappy at the withdrawal of Western support from Afghanistan.


There are no easy answers to this sort of dilemma.  In a paper on wrongdoers I proposed the following guidelines:



In terms of the public and private ethics divide, this comes down to two general propositions.  Firstly, no matter what we may think and do privately, the public domain introduces an incalculable number of additional considerations, with all sorts of possibilities for action and outcome.  Humbly we have to concede that this is so.  Secondly, this bigger stage means we have to accept a smaller role and step back, allowing others the space to play their part.  We may still feel heavily invested emotionally, especially if pursuing a public issue is the thing that gives most meaning to our life, but we have to accept reality, seeking to influence outcomes but without dictating them.


When we make choices, in public ethics as well as private, we have to take the largest view possible.  We have to pursue the goals that we are committed to, but equally we have to admit that there are other goals also worth pursuing – goals which in our fixated state we may overlook.  Even if, for example, we seek the greatest good for the greatest number, which would appear to be a sound principle, could we really have on our conscience a significant wrong to the lesser number?


In addition, whatever goal we seek when we pursue an issue in public ethics, and however worthy the outcome might be, can we really live with ourselves if the getting there does violence to ourselves?  Again the paramount example is warfare.  Ridding the world and innocent people of a tyrant is a wonderful goal, but are we personally prepared to kill to get there?


Still another consideration is the validity of our own motives.  We might reasonably want to stop traders from charging exorbitantly high prices for weekend trading.  There’s plenty of ethical reason for doing so, but how much of our thinking is governed by factors of personal benefit?  We might think of invoking one or other of the great philosophers and their wisdom, e.g. Kant and his principle of universality (an act is sustainable only if it can be made into a universal law), but who has time to go through this sort of process too often?




Freedom for all is a choice out of public ethics, truth and love is a choice out of private ethics.  We may and indeed should follow both.  The baseline requirement for our public ethics is that we uphold universal freedom to choose.  But while we should do our best to encourage the universal pursuit of truth and love, we cannot in good conscience, as a matter of public ethics, impose these standards.  This is the dividing line.

As with everything else in life, the line is that we will finish with some sort of balance.  We may not like it, but that is the unavoidable reality. 

We might like to have a simple approach to life in which there are just a few rules that will get us through all or most situations.  To a degree it is possible to find these rules and to observe them faithfully and with good effect.  Be honest, be moderate, show goodwill, be respectful and kind, look for beauty in all things – these are examples of rules that many people who are fundamentally good would choose to live by.  The measure of their success in so doing is all around us, for it is evident in the high degree of civilisation we enjoy, that is, the extent to which we can consider ourselves distant from the savageries of antiquity.


But simple principles are challenged by the complexities of differing cultures, differing value systems, differing economies, differing individual circumstances, and so on.  How can we reconcile, for example, an ethic where merit is assessed by years of formal study with another ethic where bush learning is paramount, together with connection with the relevant spirits of the area?  And how can we judge all same-sex adoptions to be wrong when there are individual cases that are spectacularly successful?


When we make our own assessments on right and wrong, we do best when we leave all the participants in the matter some room to move.  This is broadly the most creative approach.  As a baseline we should at least have a situation where everyone is free to act independently.  If we do not give this right of freedom to each other, we have no business pretending we are properly human, however much we disagree with people’s choices.


To the limits of our ability, which in the public domain may be modest (indeed most likely is very modest), we are entitled to do whatever we can to influence outcomes.  We can agitate, for example, against the use of fossil fuels, ill-treatment of minorities, and spending more on defence but less on human services.  We have the ability and indeed the duty to uphold the highest standards; but ultimately we have to weigh our personal convictions against the rights of others.  In some instances we may justify taking extreme action by saying it is merely an inconvenience to those others; but if we chain ourselves to a bridge and stop traffic, as some do, might that not prove more than an inconvenience?  Do we have the right ourselves to take extreme actions in defence of our own moral positions, or should we rather go so far then simply enough: the rest is in the hands of Providence?


Whatever the rights and wrongs of each issue, and however far we choose to push our own personal ethics into the public sphere, the overarching reality is that balance must prevail.  Positions on ethical matters change over time, and it might be said that in the long run – the very long run – the “better angels of our nature” win – but there is still an imperative that balance of some kind is preserved, and the sheer unwieldiness of the public domain is the perfect medium for ensuring that this is so.  And, we have to assume, will continue to be so.