Morality Politics

Cyril Ramaphosa and the irrelevance of adultery

Those who think that politicians should be held to a higher moral standard than other influential people seem guilty of an inconsistency. The primary clue as to what should be expected of you is in your job title or description – if you’re a teacher, you should be judged on your teaching, and if you’re a President, you should be judged on how well you preside.

I realise that this is a simplification, in that it is sometimes the case that other factors should influence our assessment of your suitability for a role. But we would typically require some clear link between your “crime” and the job you are employed to perform.

By way of example: if you believe – as most religious people do – that there is a connection between your religious beliefs and your moral standards, it is reasonable to hold your spiritual leader/guide accountable to the standards of your religion.

It would be thus be a fair criticism to say that it’s inappropriate for your pastor to be selling crack to school-kids (whether or not it’s legal to do so), because the role of pastor includes being an example of a lived faith.

Similarly, your investment broker would ideally be financially astute, and refrain from illegal trading and shady dealings (assuming that you care about being a law-abiding citizen, of course).

And in general, the extent to which private and public behaviour overlap is also relevant, in terms of whether you flaunt your apparently incongruous behaviour, or whether you engage in it discreetly, in full awareness that people have certain expectations of you (whether those expectations are justified or not).

This, however, raises the issue of whether we allow for that separation of private and public, and afford people the space to do what their jobs demand of them without seeking out, or judging people on, things that we could – and perhaps should – treat as irrelevant to their performance in those jobs.

On the specific issue of Deputy President Ramaphosa, “exposed” in this weekend’s papers as having engaged in several extra-marital sexual relationships in recent years, the connection between these alleged betrayals of marital trust have no obvious connection to his fitness for purpose as a political leader.

Our moral values are modular, by which I mean that it’s not simply the case that “his wife can’t trust him to not have sex with other women” logically entails “the South African population can’t rely on him to govern wisely and fairly, and in a trustworthy manner”. Sure, it might be the case that you can’t rely on him to do so, but not for this reason.

The causes of, and explanations for, the alleged marital betrayals don’t entail a general lack of trustworthiness, because they are the product of specific circumstances which simply do not obtain in his possible roles as a political leader.

The objection might of course be that you expect your political leaders to share your values. But that’s inconsistent, because you already know of various ways in which they don’t, for example when they differ with your views on free speech, gender equality, secularism or a nation’s moral obligations in terms of its neighbours, to mention a few of an infinite set of possibilities.

We do use these differences to inform our choices when voting, sure, but in doing so we don’t typically expect perfection, or treat any single failure with regard to one of these values as a disqualifying criterion. We instead just use them to inform our overall ranking or impression of the candidate or party.

When it comes to marital fidelity, however, the public response among the outraged seem to treat it as something that should be ranked higher than other moral values, and which serves as an immediate reason for disregarding that candidate’s other virtues.

I don’t expect my political leaders to be paragons of my idiosyncratic set of moral convictions. I expect them to serve the country to the best of their ability, and to set an example in terms of their commitment to things like the rule of law.

When we do treat our political leaders as proxy priests or parents, whereby they personally let us down when demonstrating perfectly human foibles, we are in fact revealing a weakness or blindness of our own – that of having invested an inordinate (and disproportionate, in terms of what their actual jobs are) amount of trust or faith in the characters of our political leaders.

We think we know them, and we think that they are representing us, rather than running a country. So, their failings end up being perceived as a personal betrayal, because part of our own narrative regarding our identities and values has become bound up in these people and what they do or fail to do.

And then, when they are perceived to have failed us – even when we form that perception based on a fraction of the relevant information, and even when that information is possibly the result of an opposition smear-campaign – that failure becomes a challenge to our own construction of self, and our faith in our own judgment, because we have squandered moral capital on someone who now seems undeserving of that capital.

But we should never have expected this level of virtue from them in any case. First, because they are human just like the rest of us, and second, because it has nothing to do with their jobs.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

5 replies on “Cyril Ramaphosa and the irrelevance of adultery”

I agree with what you have said about this with one exception. When a politician continually makes public statements about “Family Values” and promises the people that his/her moral stance about “Family Values” will guide his/her political decision-making, then I think we have an obligation to thoroughly research and publicly expose his/her indiscretions as they would be a reflection of his/her trustworthiness in office.

As an example:
A very important political issue in the US is sex education. The religious have been able to push ‘abstinence only’ sex education classes in some public schools. This leaves teenagers woefully uninformed about birth control and STDs. If a politician makes claims about how ‘abstinence only’ sex education should be promoted in schools because sex should only be for married people, I want to know if he/she is dropping their drawers outside of marriage as this would provide leverage for opposing this politician and their public policies. I think we have a duty to expose the hypocrisy of such politicians as their policies can result in very negative outcomes for those who are affected by these policies.

Sure, agreed entirely, because that’s then direct evidence of their stated platform being a lie. As an incidental aside, that sort of language (family values campaigning) is surprisingly rare in these parts.

I had a feeling “Family Values” was a US phenomenon as it was started by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Pat Robertson has attempted to run for public office. I would certainly want to know about his indiscretions if there are any. 😉

I’m not aware of any Swaggart-type scandals in his case, but hey, anyone who is happy to attribute blame to feminists and homosexuals for 9/11 is already reprehensible enough as far as I’m concerned.

I absolutely agree. When Falwell said it and Robertson agreed with it, I was thoroughly appalled and felt that any politician who had courted these two to get the vote of the “Moral Majority” should be ashamed of themselves.

“Moral Majority” was always a misnomer which politicians should have realized when Pat Robertson’s run for president was such a failure. If Robertson and Falwell did speak for the “moral majority” then Robertson should have been elected by a landslide. I find it most unfortunate that Republicans never learned this lesson. If they had, they might have been able to have some decent candidates running for office. Perhaps they will finally learn that catering to religious fundamentalists was never necessary now that Trump has been elected. Of course, catering to neo-nazis is far worse. Let’s hope every Republican doesn’t go down that path.

I have cancer. My treatment is going well, but after Trump was elected president it made death much more appealing. 😉

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