Dear Roger Scruton
11th March 2000
The relevance of a person’s private conduct to his or her fitness for public office is once again making the news. Should it matter that a candidate for mayor of London, New York or Paris, may have reneged on promises given to the women (or men) in his (or her) life and, very possibly, have lied to them into the bargain? I remember David Mellor’s then mother-in-law being quoted as saying that a man who cheated on his wife could not be trusted not to cheat on his country; similar doubts have been expressed about Steven Norris’s trustworthiness were he to be elected mayor of London. Most of my French friends regard these Anglo-Saxon attitudes with a mixture of incredulity, amusement and-it has to be said-some worldly-wise contempt.
This apparent cultural difference has often been remarked on. Before jumping to generalisations, however, we need to ask whether the notion of personal integrity may not itself vary significantly from one culture to another. After all, there are many games based on the ability to deceive, but nobody thinks any the worse of the most successful players of, say, poker, in any of the other areas of their lives. And whether we, in our Anglo-Saxon culture, approve of it or not, deceiving one’s partners in domestic or sexual intimacy might be regarded as a game which has no bearing on how a person is to be trusted or judged in the “more serious” public spheres of his or her life.
It is commonly assumed that if moral rules exist at all, then they must be of universal application; and that any such rules as may apply to politicians must do so irrespective of the context or culture to which they belong. In fact, however, it would seem that there is a deep cultural relativism at work here; individuals tend to adopt their own culture’s prevailing assumptions, and hence not only to judge others’ behaviour, but actually to behave themselves, accordingly. Thus, if an “Anglo-Saxon” man cheats in his private life, he may indeed be the sort of person who may be ready also to cheat in his public capacity; while there may well be no justification for making the same assumption in the case of a Frenchman or an Italian. So while the British and the Americans on the whole may be right to…