Leadership and the Humanities

Judgmental privacy and the special obligations of leadership

Terry L. Price * *

Keywords: privacy, political leadership, autonomy, liberalism, John Stuart Mill, sex scandals, special obligations


This article defends the claim that followers are justified in using what would be considered private behavior to assess a leader's fitness. In defense of this claim, I make a liberal, autonomy-based argument. The argument is liberal in that it does not appeal to the intrinsic wrongness of the behavior in question. Rather, it appeals to the fact that leaders have voluntarily taken on special obligations to followers to behave in ways that promote, rather than detract from, the causes to which they are collectively committed. To make this argument, I consider whether Mill's analysis in On Liberty could be applied in leadership contexts to derive some special privacy protection for leaders, and I conclude that such an application ultimately fails. I conclude that judging the private behavior of our leaders does not inappropriately threaten the value of autonomy when their behavior would interfere with discharging these obligations. The special obligations of leaders extend, then, even into their private lives.

Author Notes

I want to thank Jessica Flanigan, David Lefkowitz, and two anonymous reviewers at Leadership and the Humanities for their very helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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