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Behaving themselves in public

03 October 2014

Paul Vallely considers the latest resignations by public figures, an MP and a bishop

WHAT do the week's two resignations tell us about public ethics? Brooks Newmark MP has quit as a minister after sending a graphic photograph of himself, in his paisley pyjamas, to a red-top reporter posing as a 20-year-old female party activist. And the Rt Revd Kieran Conry, the Bishop of Arundel & Brighton, has sent his resignation to the Pope after admitting to an affair six years ago and apologising to congregations for being "unfaithful to my promises as a Catholic priest". The two events have exposed society's inability to make up its mind about consequentialist and virtue ethics.

Neither man did anything illegal, the relativists say. In what other job would a person have to resign after an affair? Where else is sexual conduct considered anybody else's business? The followers of Aristotle, by contrast, talk about the importance of character, concluding that a man who will break promises on personal fidelity cannot be trusted with matters of public morality. Those who argue that "grown adults can do whatever they like as long as both of them are over the age of consent" should try telling that to the politician's wife, four sons, and daughter.

What complicates the issue is that the press played a part in exposing both men. This has brought into play the question of what is in the public interest and what is merely public prurience. Mr Newmark had chosen to campaign for getting more Conservative women into parliament (hence the public-interest claim), but the reporter used honeytrap tactics to lure him, and posted fake photos on social media in the same dodgy way as is used by paedophiles grooming children.

In the case of the Bishop, commentators have entangled the story with issues of clerical celibacy, or some even accusing church authorities of turning a blind eye, as they did with child abuse.

But there is a danger in confusing the core problem with such self-interested and self-righteous side-issues. It is right that higher standards than apply in private life are expected from those in public positions, be they priest or politician. Aspects of character refract through the facets of public life. A Treasury minister would have to go if he were declared a bankrupt. A magistrate would have to step down for drunk-driving. A footballer cannot escape censure for biting opponents on the field of play.

Bad behaviour has wider implications. Mr Newmark has shown himself capable of being a fool, and that affects our judgement about whether we want him in charge of something as important as government policy on charity and civil society. Bishop Conry knows that it is impossible for a bishop to venture moral judgements in one area when he has been found wanting in another.

There is another important contrast between public and private. It is whether a person reacts, when exposed in some foolishness, with shame, a response governed by an external relationship with society; or with guilt, which speaks to an inner relationship with his or her conscience. In either case, we would be fools ourselves to pass judgement.

Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. www.paulvallely.com

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