Public Morality vs. Private Morality (Meaning & Differences)

Private morality refers to how one behaves within one's house or home, which is outside the control of the government and corporate authorities. Public morality, on the other hand, refers to how one is expected to behave in public in government, in the corporate world, and so on.

Some of the significant features of the private realm and which, in most cases, usually govern or guide behaviour within the ambit of that space are feelings, sentiments and emotions - feelings of affiliation, care, nurturance, pity, belief, trust, faith and so on.

Morality in this sphere is usually guided by such feelings. For example, within the family, it is usually advocated that you overlook wrongdoings of members of the family. Similarly, some religions also try to dissuade believers from being vengeful, vindictive, retaliative or engaging in punitive actions.

On the contrary, the public realm is a very formal sphere. Since, there are so many people in the public realm, people who have nothing in common, and who are not related or bound by too much of mutual interest, the state and corporate bodies have to dictate the kind of behaviours considered acceptable. This accounts for the reason why people are mostly controlled by threats of punishments, sanctions and force in the public sphere. In the public sphere, there are objective standards of acceptable forms of behaviour and individuals are usually penalised for violation of such standards.

Problems ensue, however, when people try to impose the ideals of the private sphere in the public. But is this always wrong? For example, imagine that a policeman has collected legally-inadmissible evidence showing beyond doubt that a certain suspect is planning a terrorist outrage, and if the policeman arrested the terrorist then and there the case against the terrorist would fail in court, and the terrorist would walk free not only to make more bombs but also make some credible and (to the police) damaging claims of detention and harassment. The policeman decides to take matters into his own hands when off duty, ambushes the terrorist and kills him, as it happens at the very moment the terrorist was equipped with a bomb he was about to plant.

If we consider the case of the policeman and the terrorist, could the policeman be justified on the pretext of protecting the interest or safety of the public? On the other hand, if a public office holder uses public resources at his disposal to help a friend who is in dire need, say a friend whose child has heart problem and has to be flown abroad for treatment, could he be justified or is it always wrong to do this?

In a situation whereby a member of your family applied for a position, the person is not the most qualified but you are aware that the person needs a source of income so desperately to take care of a sickly spouse and an aged parent. If you were a member of the interviewing panel, would your responsibility be first and foremost to your establishment or to that relation of yours?

Another moral dilemma that is involved with the conflict that sometimes arises with the public and private morality is that, sometimes, a person may be compelled by the public reason to do what she ordinarily would not be expected to do in the private.

Put differently, as a ruler or member of a government, an individual must always be ready to authorise killing or torture if the threat to public safety is big enough; but in private life, the ver very same person should be averse to doing anything of that kind. This suggests that sometimes it is expected that someone should be different personalities in the private and the public realms, because it is held that there are two entirely distinct sets of criteria with which to judge the appropriateness of actions in the two respective domains.

Curtis Crenshaw, however, doubts this point for he argues that our choices and character cannot be divided. According to him, the one who commits adultery in private carries that same deceptive character with him into public life.

On a final note, the dilemma involved with public versus private morality questions whether there should always be distinction between the private and public spheres, or whether such distinction should sometimes be collapsed.

Similarities and Differences between Public and Private Morality

FeaturePublic MoralityPrivate Morality
Sphere of InfluencePublic space, government, corporationsPrivate space, family, intimate relationships
Guiding PrinciplesLaws, regulations, objective standardsFeelings, emotions, personal values
Motivation for AdherenceFear of punishment, social pressureInternal feelings of guilt, shame, desire for connection
Nature of RelationshipsImpersonal, formal, transactionalPersonal, informal, based on trust and affection
Focus on ConsequencesActions and their external effectsIntentions and the inner self
Emphasis onConformity, order, justiceCompassion, forgiveness, care
Decision-Making ProcessRational, logical, impersonalEmotional, intuitive, influenced by personal relationships
Potential for ConflictArises when private behavior violates public normsArises when obligations to family or individuals clash with public duties
Character ConsistencyDebated - should one person have different moral standards in public vs. private?Some argue for a unified moral framework, while others acknowledge situational variations

Additional Notes:

  • The distinction between public and private morality is not always clear-cut, and there may be areas of overlap or grey areas.
  • Cultural and societal norms can influence the specific content and emphasis of both public and private morality.
  • Individuals may adapt their behavior to different contexts and pressures, leading to some variations in how they apply their moral principles.

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