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Danger Lampost

Futurist & Technology Consultant,

TEDCRED 20+

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Should a public official caught in an extra-marital affair resign or be forced to resign?

It seems American politics is constantly filled with news stories of high ranking public officials who get caught in an extra-marital affair, and then either resign or are forced by political pressures to resign. Had I more time to research this debate, I would see if I could find any statistics on the relevance of this issue in different countries. But I was thinking that would be a fascinating call out to TED members in other countries for your point of view on this issue, both in your own country and in the United States.

Some studies show about 50% of Americans have an extramarital affair. So I would expect that a significant percentage of our elected officials are having affairs. Should they all resign?

Is there a contradiction here? Should we hold our elected officials to a higher standard than we (as citizens) appear to hold for ourselves?

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    Nov 13 2012: To be honest as long as it does not lead to corruption or a matter of national security, who gives a rats toenail .
    Might prove that they may be arrogant and self righteous but then most public officials are, but then it also proves that they are human like everyone else.
    Clinton was doing a great job running the country unfortunately "the affair" just gave the detractors the ammunition they needed .
    Here is a question for you If a blind eye had been turned to Clintons" indiscretions " shall we say, do you think the US would be in the position it is in now?????
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      Nov 13 2012: I tend to agree that the concern ought to be whether there is suggestion of corruption or threat to national security. But another consideration is that in the contemporary social context, such a situation is so interesting to so many, it creates a tremendous distraction for the public and policy-makers from important issues. While all eyes are suddenly peering into that person's personal life, things may be going on quietly elsewhere without notice to which the public ought to be giving that abundant attention.

      This, I think, is why so many who resign say that they do not want to create a distraction.
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        Nov 13 2012: : Agreed but then again if the moral majority and the tabloid media did not make such a fuss about it would people really care that much????

        It is actually a sad reflection on society that they are more worried about some-ones love life than they are with the big picture. Especially if it involves politics.

        Unfortunately that is also true for celebrities or pretty much anyone in the public eye I guess it is just part of the tall poppy syndrome.

        The thing that people forget it is us the public that put them either in the position they are in or up on pedestals in the first place so why are we so shocked when w find out they are human like everyone else.????
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        Nov 13 2012: Here, here!
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    Nov 13 2012: In his essay entitled “Private Life and Public Office” in West & Berman’s The Ethics Edge, Dennis Thompson discusses what I feel is one of the more pressing problems in our modern day with regard to political ethics. I fully agree with him about how a wrong-headed mix-up about the distinction between personal and political ethics often hurts our public discourse and social environment. In answer, Thompson advances what I feel is an excellent solution: “the claims of privacy of public officials and the criteria that justify publicizing their private lives should rest on the needs of the democratic process”(156).


    In other words, Thompson advances a very reasonable standard by which the private morality of public officials should be publicly scrutinized—what are the reasonable demands of the democratic process itself? Or, at which point is the public official’s private matters of reasonable pertinence to his public duty?


    There are many disadvantages to mixing up private and public ethics, not the least of which is the distraction of the public from pertinent and fruitful scrutiny of the health of the democracy itself. For example, the red herring coverage of former President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky contributed to an impeachment effort which might have robbed the country of an otherwise excellent leader, as hindsight now shows…
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    Nov 13 2012: Any inconsistency and double standard has to be revealed, as both are no healthy feature for official representatives.

    Only if those affairs contradict official standing and/or statements on this matter, e.g. religious values, private concerns then rightfully turn into public interest. And only then. And resignment is mandatory.

    Otherwise it is none of our public business.
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      Nov 13 2012: To put the matter in a different light. Are you able to tell me that you, knowing the full details of your private life, is so spotless as not to generate public objection of any kind, should your secrets get out? I venture to answer "no" for you, for me, for everyone who is human.

      To put the burden of sainthood on our public officials is only counterproductive both to their jobs, and to the health of our democratic union. For we are all sinners.

      But, as Thompson suggests (see my independent post), we should be rightly concerned with the private moral limitation of a man who watches a lot of "rape porn", for example, if he works as a women's rights advocate.

      Let sins not related to office and not illegal be relegated to God and the individual...
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        Nov 14 2012: I do not share your concept of 'sin' or 'sinners' as it originates from religious concepts which do not apply to me. But I agree on the fact, that 'nobody is perfect' and so am I.

        So I do not expect 'sainthood' of anybody, as we all have our flaws, but I do expect discipline, law-abiding behaviour and trustworthiness of public officials, especially because they choose in free will for their positions and knew about the role-model example in their field which came with it.

        If a Secretary of Defense get's a speeding ticket for minor violation, I don't care. If the same ticket goes to the Secretary of Transportation, I do care. If both get cought while driving drunk, I care for both.

        I don't mind if a president smoked marihuana before election, as it is none of my business, but if he was convicted of murder, rape or child abuse, it certainly becomes my business.

        Personally I do not mind adultery as long as both spouses openly agree with it on one another. I consider it unfair, if it happens in secret and treacherous.

        But even though if it happens in 'secret and treacherous' it counts even more unfair to me, if the cheating person would be a confessing Christian as if he was an Atheist, for example.

        I consider myself responsible for whatever I do and say and none of my active deeds happen unintentionally or unreflected. Neither good deeds, nor the 'bad' ones. Yet I do not preach 'water' and drink 'wine' myself, as that would be worse than not being perfect.
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          Nov 14 2012: Saying that we are sinners involves 1. recognizing that we are spiritual creatures, 2. recognizing that we are out of right relationship with our creator, and 3. recognizing that this is the ultimate reason behind our moral imperfection.

          But you are of course free to conceive of your universe in any way practicable to you. Our agreement on this ethical issue constrains neither of us to the other's philosophy...
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        Nov 14 2012: All of us are free to conceive THE universe in very own ways, but the problem started when some of us claimed to know better than others.

        Moral imperfection to me only exist, because the defined moral standards are falsely choosen and absolute in their intention.

        Let's take this moral codex for instance: 'You shall not covet your neighbor's ... wife ...'

        This does not only denies our natural insinct of sexual attraction, it makes it even impossible to almost all of us to fulfill this moral code and therefore condemns us as 'sinners'. It creates nothing but vicious circles and infinite loops of failure, which is not the idea of any helpful moral standard.

        Being a spiritual creature got nothing to do with sin at all! This is the Christian concept of the 'original sin', and therefore applies to their spirituality only. When I came on this planet, I did not have any 'original sin' attached to me at all and ever since.

        To me, doing the 'right' or 'wrong' is neither absolute in its value nor in its nature and anyone who is trying to treat it that way, is doomed to fail.

        So far I identified just a view 'absolute' standards of 'right' behaviour without exceptions and anything else is to be seen and valued within a given context.

        Because of this and if I look back on what I have done, there are not many deeds which I regret or wish I should not have done. And those I do regret, became a constant warning to me to do better next time, as I try to learn from them and not just confess them. Because as I mentioned before, it is just me who is responsible for my deeds and nothing and no one else...
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          Nov 14 2012: What's say we start a reasoned conversation on, say, the 10 commandments? We can solicit from any participant any argument that breaking any of the Ten Commandments is not necessarily absolutely immoral or unethical. Then we can reason together, without irrational anger. Should you or I start it?
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    Nov 13 2012: I guess it depends on whether you consider adultery to be wrong. Here in the UK it is advertised on prime time television, so it seems cosher .
    A few years ago our chancellor of the exchequer was obliged to cut up his credit card. Not the best choice for guardian of the nation's purse.
    Personally if a politician's wife/husband can't trust him/her then I would also be wary of trusting them with public office; but I guess I may be going out of fashion.

    :-)
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      Nov 13 2012: Although I stand on the side of "if it doesn't directly bear on the office of the official, then let it remain private," you might be surprised that I also agree with YOU. Personal immorality does have bearing on all dimensions of a person's actions. But here's the hitch-- nobody can do anything about it. Why? Because we are ALL SINNERS. If we put a sainthood standard on public office, either we'll get a bunch of skillful liars and deceivers, or a bunch of false and unstable hypocrites.

      The best we can do is be humble sinners choosing imperfect but conscientious public officials.
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    Nov 13 2012: I dont think a public official should be forced to resign because of an extra-marital affair.
    But public officials should know the power and influence that they have on people (especially youths) who would look up to them.

    No one is perfect, and no one should be crucified for making mistakes; yet, a public official who chooses to resign because of a character flaw shows himself or herself to be honourable.
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      Nov 13 2012: I agree that this is a dimension of the debate we should consider. Perhaps one of the greatest good a public official can do is to confess before his society that he is failed, and take ownership. Then, has he really failed?
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      Nov 14 2012: It seems more frequent that they resign because they are caught in it, which seems to be more about shame than honor.
  • Nov 13 2012: Unless it's with a financial lobbyist, or a North Korean agent, who cares?
    You can't assume that an indiscretion in this area of an elected official's life means that the person is now totally corrupt.
    Anyone can be totally corrupt and still keep their genitals to themselves. It's not related.
    I think holding an elected official to be higher than the general public is a huge mistake. They are the general public and should be treated with the same disinterest and disrespect.
    Would having an affair get you fired from work? (OK maybe but not usually).
    • Nov 13 2012: "Would having an affair get you fired from work?"
      Depends on the company. If you have an affair with someone within the same company, some companies require the involved parties to disclose it to the HR. Only because they don't want to get involved when things go sour between the couple -- with one person accusing the other of sexual harassment, as an abuse of the higher rank within the company.
      • Nov 13 2012: As I understand it, if we are really talking about Petraeus, then his only omission was not telling the CIA security people. If the affair is known then blackmail is out of the picture and the affair is of no interest to them.
        But you are correct, in any event, bad behaviour, regardless of what it is, leaves the person open to outside influence. That has to be avoided.
        I still dont agree with the idea of holding public officials to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. That leads to expectations of high salary and other entitlements that most people are just not worth.
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          Nov 13 2012: Then The question is how many "affairs" has the CIA/secret service covered up over the years??????

          Theres a thought for you
        • Nov 13 2012: @Gordon Barker: "I still dont agree with the idea of holding public officials to a higher standard than we hold ourselves."
          I agree with you entirely. I only wrote the above comment to point out the extent of the interest typical companies in this matter.

          Also refer to the tongue-in-cheek comment that I made elsewhere in the same discussion.
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    Nov 14 2012: No, as an unfettered, simplistic answer to your question, however

    I do NOT believe we have been given the whole story in this particular instance and that the resignation has little if anything to do with an "affair"......something doesn't quite add up here, this was too fast....too clean....too easy...
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    Nov 14 2012: Ah, true. So all things are actually equal in this respect. I give you that, lol...
  • Nov 13 2012: "Some studies show about 50% of Americans have an extramarital affair."

    Heck, we live in a representative democracy! To truly represent us, we must demand that 50% of the politicians should have a history of extramarital affairs! It's all the people of the _other_ kind that must resign, until we have a representative balance.
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      Nov 13 2012: Don't forget that we should allow a bit more corruption on our public officials' part for the extra burden of having to resist the corrupting influence of power, lol...
      • Nov 14 2012: Don't worry about that. Corruption is already over-represented among public officials.
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          Nov 14 2012: So is the decline of morals in the majority of us
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    Nov 13 2012: I sure would like a significant percentage of our elected officials to resign - affairs or not. Let's include Supreme Court judges in the resignation parade.
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    Nov 13 2012: The question I have is what is the connection with Benghazi the timing combined with the fact that this is the CIA director does not pass the smell test.
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    Nov 13 2012: I think so. It is a sign of infidellity and makes me wonder what other mischief that person is capable of/ I sure don't want someone who cannot keep commitmens in matters affecting some people to be able to break committments that affect many people. I think that elected officials hold themselves above the general public. Note their perks and ability to escape laws that affect the people who put them there to server. Yah ?
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    Nov 13 2012: would that include presidents like Clinton .... absolutely.