The issue with Public and Private

The following article brings together two people to talk about a certain issue. They speak for themselves and their short pieces exploring the issue are put next to each other. The aim is to encourage you, the reader, to engage and evaluate their arguments; and maybe even respond with your own piece.

The issue on the table, that frames the following pieces, is the question of how far the private beliefs of public officials should be respected and upheld. The background for this topic is an interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg, which you can view here as a primer.

Theo Poward – Public Servant, Private Beliefs

Our secular, modern, liberal society prides itself on its tolerance. This tolerance is bought on the separation between a persons public and private life. In this way a person can hold whatever beliefs they want, follow any theological tradition, support any political cause and it can never be used as a reason to discriminate against them publicly, so long as they keep it to themselves.

But what if a person lives in the public eye? A politician for example, who’s job it is to be a public servant. They are scrutinized and judged exactly for the content of their beliefs. So what space do they have for keeping said beliefs private?

One answer is to divide their political and religious beliefs. But this divide is not only rarely respected by the media and other who would judge and assume based upon the label Muslim, Christian, Jewish. It is also not in keeping with how somebody sees their religious beliefs. They are not separate and private, never coming out into public life. They underpin and inform action in both public and private.

The divide between public and private has nothing to do with the content of the beliefs, it has everything to do with how willing that person is to compel or even force others to adhere to their beliefs. How much space does this person leave for people to disagree and live their lives differently.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, on the issue of abortion, argues that while he fundamentally disagrees with abortion, he would not have the political ability to change the law and make it illegal, and therefore would not attempt to do so. How is this different from Jeremy Corbyn arguing that while he believes that we should abolish the monarchy, if he became prime minister he would not go about attempting to abolish the monarchy, for political reasons.

Both of their opinions are unpopular and not of immediate importance to any prime minister. Politicians and public figures should not be forced to share this type of belief if they don’t want to. The only meaningful conception of the divide between public and private is this. In each case the person chooses what they wish to make public, what they wish to keep private, and that is to be respected by others. For public officials, or people in positions of power, they should be open about beliefs that will influence how they wield that power. Otherwise the same rule should apply.

Chris Lynch – How Tenable is the Public/Private Distinction?

‘Secularism’ can be generally understood as the belief that religion should not be part of the affairs of the state. Beyond this rather minimal definition, disagreement is rife. How much room should the secular state make for religious belief? Should religion be treated purely as a private matter? One liberal argument that seeks to square private conscience with public integrity suggests that the individual has the right to decide what they want to keep private and what they are happy to share publicly, unless they are a public official whose beliefs inform their political action. This is controversial, especially when it comes to the religious – or political – beliefs of public officials.

This month politician Jacob Rees-Mogg was an object of criticism for asserting his belief that abortion is always morally wrong and that ideally it should be illegal in all circumstances. Rees-Mogg then avowed that he would not seek to change the law on abortion, and that his belief was a matter of private conscience. For many liberals, the fact that Rees-Mogg included the crucial privacy clause – that he didn’t intend to enforce his belief publicly – was sufficient to show that it was proper that his belief be respected a private commitment. However, in practice this conception of a private/public distinction seems difficult, perhaps impossible, to maintain.

Firstly, religious beliefs are not straightforwardly private in their extension: after all, for most believers their belief that there are moral duties or ethical imperatives can and arguably should govern their conduct in public life. To claim that we can restrict all religious belief to a domain inside people’s heads misunderstands the nature of religious beliefs and can be seen to unfairly violate people’s integrity to live their lives as they believe they should. Consequently, we may face a radical dichotomy: either refuse all religious believers the right to their beliefs unless they are strictly private (which quite plausibly very few such beliefs are), or else dramatically extend freedom of belief and action in a way that eschews the traditional public/private distinction and grants religious commitments much greater public prominence.

Secondly, turning to public officials, let’s suppose we require public officials to publicly assert their beliefs whenever those beliefs causally influence their decision-making or action as public officials. What should we do if public officials refuse to do so, or qualify their statements of belief in a misleading manner, or lie? Unable to penetrate their minds, we are faced with the inevitable prospect that some public officials might not reveal every conviction motivating their actions. Perhaps they shouldn’t – in which case, the public/private distinction as I’ve characterised it is undesirable. Or perhaps they should, but we know that they cannot or won’t – in which case, the public/private distinction as I’ve characterised it looks impossible.

Now we turn the discussion over to you. Do you agree with none, one, or both of our writers? We want to hear from you, leave a comment or contact us if you want to write something to continue the conversation.

Image is an amalgam of Jacob Rees Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn‘s official portraits both by Chris McAndrew and are licensed under CC by NC 4.0