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A private affair, or not?

by Peter Singer

PRAGUE — Can a public figure have a private life? Recent events in three countries have highlighted the importance of this question.

In the French presidential election, both candidates tried to keep their domestic life separate from their campaign. Segolene Royal is not married to Francois Hollande, the father of her four children. When asked whether they were a couple, Royal replied, “Our lives belong to us.” Similarly, in response to rumors that President-elect Nicholas Sarkozy’s wife had left him, a spokesman for Sarkozy said, “That’s a private matter.”

The French have a long tradition of respecting the privacy of their politicians’ personal lives, and French public opinion is more broad-minded than in the United States, where an unwed mother of four would have no chance of being nominated for the presidency by a major party.

Indeed, last month, Randall Tobias, the top foreign aid adviser in the U.S. State Department, resigned after acknowledging that he had used an escort service described as providing “high-end erotic fantasy” — although Tobias said he only had a massage.

In Britain, Lord John Browne, the chief executive who transformed BP from a second-tier European oil company into a global giant, resigned after admitting he had lied in court about the circumstances in which he had met a gay companion (apparently, he met him through a male escort agency). In resigning, he said that he had always regarded his sexuality as a personal matter, and he was disappointed that a newspaper — The Mail on Sunday — had made it public.

Candidates for public office, and those holding high administrative or corporate positions, should be judged on their policies and performance, not on private acts that are irrelevant to how well they carry out, or will carry out, their public duties.

Sometimes, of course, the two overlap. The Mail on Sunday and its sister paper, The Daily Mail, justified their publication of revelations by Browne’s former companion on the grounds that they include allegations that Browne had allowed him to use corporate resources for the benefit of his own private business. The company denied that there was any substance to these allegations.

As the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Tobias implemented the Bush administration’s policy that requires organizations working against HIV/AIDS to condemn prostitution if they are to be eligible for U.S. assistance. That policy has been criticized for making it more difficult to assist sex workers who are at high risk of contracting and spreading HIV/AIDS. Arguably, the public has an interest in knowing if those who implement such policies are themselves paying for sexual services.

Where there is no suggestion that a matter of personal morality has had an impact on the performance of a business executive or government official, we should respect that person’s privacy. But what about candidates for political leadership?

Since politicians ask us to entrust them with sweeping powers, it can be argued that we should know as much as possible about their morality. For example, we might reasonably ask whether they pay their fair share of taxes, or inquire about their charitable donations. Such things tell us something about their concern for the public good. Similarly, the revelation three years ago that the then-Australian opposition leader and aspiring prime minister, Mark Latham, had assaulted a taxi driver and broken his arm in a dispute about a fare was relevant for those who believe that a nation’s leader should be slow to anger.

But does the legitimate interest in knowing more about a politician extend to details about personal relations? It is hard to draw a line of principle around any area and determine if knowledge of it will provide relevant information about a politician’s moral character. The problem is that the media have an interest in publishing information that increases their audience, and personal information, especially of a sexual nature, will often do just that.

Even so, whether people choose to marry or not, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, even whether they pay to fulfill their erotic fantasies or have fantasies they can fulfill at no cost, tells us little about whether they are good people who can be trusted with high office — unless, of course, they say one thing while doing another.

If we could cultivate a wider tolerance of human diversity, politicians, business leaders and administrators would be less fearful of “exposure” because they would realize that they had done nothing that they must hide.

Prostitution is illegal in most of the U.S., including Washington D.C., and this could be one reason why Tobias had to resign. But when New Jersey Gov. John Corzine was involved in a serious road accident last month, it became known that he violated his own state’s law by not wearing his seat belt.

By any sensible measure, Corzine’s violation of the law was more serious than that of Tobias. Laws requiring the wearing of seat belts save many lives. Laws prohibiting prostitution do no evident good at all, and may well do harm. Yet no one suggested that Corzine should resign because of his foolish and illegal act.

In the U.S., at least, breaching sexual norms still brings with it a moral opprobrium that is unrelated to any real harm it may do.