Sunday, March 04, 2012

Public Vice and Private Virtue

In the wake of Andrew Breitbart's recent and surprising death, there has been much discussion both of how we should speak of the dead and to what degree we should judge another—if at all—based on his public versus his private persona.

I have little to say on the first issue. Though, given Breitbart's (and Hitchens' before him) attitudes to the dead—one need only read his comparisons of the then-recently-deceased Edward Kennedy to human excrement—he surely cannot have expected to be eulogized in death by his opponents. And, personally, I cannot see why we should praise in death those whom we would gladly damn in life; here we would have been in agreement.

As to the second issue, there is of course the question whether we should judge one another at all. But, surely Breitbart had no problem with judging others. I believe he was wrong to do so on partial and heavily edited evidence, but there is no doubt that human interaction and moral maturity require that we judge one another both positively and negatively. So, I've no problem with informed judgment, only the prejudicial sort pushed by the pundit and polemical class, of which Breitbart was himself an exemplar. 

But, then, how should we judge a figure like Breitbart? Many, especially those who had private interactions with him, have claimed that he was a good husband, a good father, a good friend. This may all be true. But, they have made a further claim, that for all these reasons we should see him as a good man. The argument here seems to be that one's private character is the center of one's being, the real core, the real identity, and the only correct basis for judgment. One's public actions, it seems, even when those actions involve the destruction of another person's lives in order to further one's own agenda—with the justification that the agenda will ultimately be better for everyone—or the manufacturing of evidence or the unwillingness to admit obvious errors or self-aggrandizement or eternal bloviating, are not as important as one's private homelife. 

That this account is wrong-headed seems so clear to me as to need almost no explanation, but I must be nearly alone in this. So, a few words on this seem in order. My standard response to this line of thought in a student is to point out that by most reports Hitler was kind to animals and could not stand to see or hear of animal cruelty, but surely this one private virtue does nothing to ameliorate his public vice. Similarly, as Lifton makes clear in The Nazi Doctors, physicians who worked in the concentration camps often continued to be good fathers and husbands and, shockingly, were often quite nice to the children in the camps—Mengele was beloved of the children in the Gypsy camp and regularly brought them gifts—right up to the moment they would have them liquidated. Similarly, by his daughter's reports, Stalin never used his vast power for self-enrichment, showing some modicum of private virtue in this one area. 

Now, of course, these are extreme examples and it is suspect to put too much weight on extreme examples. But, my very small point is that public vice and private virtue can well live in the same being. This very fact does not justify disregarding one's public persona and vices in an evaluation of the person. 

So, I would argue that, in a case where someone has regularly dishonestly attacked others, leading in some instances to the loss of their livelihood and reputation, and been quite willing to use other human beings as means to an end, one has demonstrated vice, public vice. And, inasmuch as our actions both flow from and form our characters, there is no question that shows a bad character. In such cases, the claim that this person was—in his private life—virtuous, can be discarded as of little to no importance in an evaluation of the person as a human being. 

I say this first, because he has nonetheless demonstrated vice; second, because this very bifurcation shows a failing as a human being to approach anything like integration; and, third, because the combination of public vice and private virtue shows a lack of shame not shown in the opposite combination of public virtue and private vice and a capacity for shame is itself integral to the formation of virtue. 

I make no claim to virtue, but for those who make some claims for themselves or others, it had better extend beyond the private sphere.

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