The New York times announced today that Eliot Spitzer “has informed his most senior administration officials that he had been involved in a prostitution ring.”
Spitzer gained his initial fame as an attorney general who went after the misdeeds of Wall Street. Ironically, while attorney general he also prosecuted at least two prostitution rings and, according to the Times, expressed revulsion and anger towards those involved.
If the New York Times is correct, then he apparently overcame his revulsion and anger. I will try to resist the temptation to make a remark like “from prosecuting to prostituting.”
When I read the article, my first thought was to wonder whether this was another case of the Times acting on mere rumor-as was done with John McCain and his alleged involvement with a female lobbyist. However, the story does seem to be more than mere rumor. But, my reaction does indicate, in some small way, how the reputation of the Times has declined.
My second thought was about ethics and decisions. While Spitzer’s case is fairly dramatic (anything that involves a politician and a ring of prostitutes is always dramatic) it does illustrate an all too common scenario: a politician who professes one set of values, yet acts in ways directly contrary to those values. This raises the question as to why intelligent and ambitious people do such things that seem so contrary to their interests and their values.
In regards to the values, the easy and obvious answer is that such politicians, like most people, profess a set of values that either they do not believe or do not have the commitment to follow.
No one who wishes to be well thought of can endorse values that would be regarded as flawed so perhaps Spitzer and others simply say what people want to hear in regards to ethics, while not believing what they say. Hence, their failings would be no surprise-they do not believe what they said and hence do not act in accord with those principles. In this case, they could be blamed for not believing in what is right-and also for lying about it. This, of course, assumes that there is choice (see below) and that there is right and wrong.
People also do believe in principles yet fail to act upon them. For example, almost all people praise honesty, yet everyone lies (except you and I, of course). People fail to live up to their principles for various reasons.
One old explanation was that people lacked the will to f0llow through on their principles. This was (perhaps still is) known as moral weakness: you know what is right, but lack the strength to resist the temptation of evil or to do what is right, but difficult. In this case the person can be faulted for weakness-s/he should have been morally stronger.
A modern explanation is similar to that of the current account of addiction-put crudely, the person’s neurology is such that he or she simply does such things. There is no will, no choice-nothing but (as Hobbes would say) matter in motion in accord with physical laws. In this case, their can be no blame. As Kant argued, without free will the notion of ethics lacks a foundation. It would be irrational to blame a storm from knocking a tree on your house-it just acts in accord with physics and cannot do otherwise. Likewise for people-they are just biological “machines” who act in accord with the laws of physics as well (in this case, the specific laws governing neurological and social activity). In this case, talk about morality in the classic sense is pointless-but, of course, we cannot do otherwise. Hence, I’ll move on from this-either freely or in accord with my neurophysiology (perhaps both).
A person might agree with a set of principles yet decide to act against them because of the appeal of something they value more. For example, Spitzer might be honestly revolted by prostitution and regard it as wrong-yet value what he (allegedly) got from his involvement more than sticking with his principles.
Whatever the reason, the situation does not look very good for Spitzer. Whatever the reason, most people dislike misdeeds and react accordingly. No doubt many who will condemn him conceal misdeeds of their own-some perhaps far worse than those attributed to him.