There are no Private Choices?

I taught Sunday School this past week, and in preparation I came across the following quote from the manual:

Elder James E. Faust said: “Private choices are not private; they all have public consequences. … Our society is the sum total of what millions of individuals do in their private lives. That sum total of private behavior has worldwide public consequences of enormous magnitude. There are no completely private choices” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1987, 101; or Ensign, May 1987, 80).

Unfortunately we never got around to discussing the quote during Sunday School. I also haven’t spent a lot of time learning theories of public/private distinctions (maybe Chris H. can help us out here). On the one hand I tend to believe that human beings are interconnected; and that our private beliefs/actions have public consequences. On the other hand I can see how such a position can lead to attempts from institutions such as the government (or church) to pervade every aspect of our lives in order to mitigate the public consequences (something I’m not such a fan of). I’m torn, so perhaps some of our readers can clarify the issue for me. Are there no private choices?

12 Replies to “There are no Private Choices?”

  1. I think it makes more sense to say there are no private consequences. Sure, you make your own choices in private, but the consequences are the far reaching aspect of it…it affects everyone around you for good or for ill.

  2. “maybe Chris H. can help us out here”

    There is much that I can help with around here.


    The public/private dichotomy has typically been something like this: Those thing which happen outside the home are open for public scrutiny and public regulation. Those things which happen behind closed-doors are you own business.

    This has been a particularly strong line of argument within liberal thought. Locke’s idea of property largely centered on the idea that one needs private property in order to have a space of ones own.

    Hobbes also contributes to this by idealizing the personal space whereby one can do art and science. This private space should be free from the intrusion of our neighbor and the state.

    I think the idea is that we should have a private space where we can be ourselves (though this is more John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberty). Within the walls of my home I can practice my religion authentically.

    This also provides a sphere where our sexual and intimate lives are played out. It is our business and not that of the outside world.

    One critique of the public/private dichotomy has been the liberal feminist critique (the one that I will outline comes from Susan Moller Okin — my hero). The argument goes that by ignoring the private and domestic realm, we have traditionally turned our backs on gender inequality, abuse (of both woman and children), and such things as rape.

    I tend to think that this distinction is an important one, but not an absolute one. People should be largely able to live as they want, particularly within there homes. To be able to do this we need a certain amount of privacy. However, abuse and inequality, even within the home, have an impact on the freedom and prospects of all, particularly the disadvantaged.

    That is a start.

  3. Kind of off topic, but in public administration research, where distinctions between what is a public organization and what is a private organization are often important, one current approach (largely associated with Barry Bozeman) is called “dimensional publicness” in which organizations are not conceived of as public or private, but as falling in different places on multiple scales related to publicness and privateness in funding, influence of political authority, etc. Basically nowadays thinking of any policy or organization as purely private or purely public leads to missing something important about it. All private organizations (and presumably behaviors) are affected by public policy, and all public organizations are influenced by markets, especially in the age of outsourced shadow government we are currently living.

  4. I can see the logic behind a statement like this. In saying that what happens in the outside is the consequence that happens inside is probably true, especially when it happens with a large number of people. For instance, if everyone was privately exercising corporal punishment at home, everyone would probably have a public opinion about it, either for or against it. On a smaller scale, if everyone is privately printing all of their documents on recycled paper instead of regular, the recycled paper companies make lots of money and trees are saved. These consequences are present, though less obvious, when the number of people doing the action is decreased.

    So you see, there are consequences in the outside world for private choices. The question is how much they matter in the long run. If a couple decides to make a “private choice” to engage in S&M, the companies that provide their products do get more business, but overall, the world is not affected in a very meaningful way. Therefore, private choices are not really private, but most of them, individually, may as well be.

  5. There is a growing focus on the private lives of families in the UK with the blame for societies decay being blamed on poor or abesent parenting.

    On my mission I saw this. We would be verbally abused on the streets by youths who were from abusive families. It is a sad and vicious cycle.


  6. Perhaps President Faust was trying to say every decision effects not only us but our overall spirituality. Even our thoughts as private as they are effect how we speak and act around others. Our individual spiritual lives carry over into how we look at nature, our role in God’s plan, others, our professional lives and our personal relationships. David’s comments reflect this, when unloved and abused children act toward others in negative ways it effects everyone and add to that the ripple effect to others as well. David felt pity towards those youths and learnt to have more compassion for less fortunate others and decided to treat others with more patience and love. We do learn obedience by things which we suffer. The country of Britian was effected and the ripple effect goes on and on. It is true we all are six degrees removed from everyone else.

  7. I found this quote that I thought casts a different light on the subject as well.
    “There is another responsibility correlated and even coexistent with free agency, which is too infrequently emphasized, and that is the effect not only of a person’s actions, but also of his thoughts.
    Man radiates what he is, and that radiation affects to a greater or less degree every person who comes within that radiation.”
    David O. Mckay “ Free Agency-Freedom-Liberty”

    Each one of us, every spirit has an aura eminating from within that spirit. If we are filled with the Holy Ghost we have a bright and glorious aura eminating from within our spirit. This is how Satan, who does not know our thoughts, can determine that his mental attacks on us are working. If we accept his enticements and think evil thoughts, our aura deminishes. If we resist, then we remain pure and clean with a bright undemished aura. Likewise people around us can sense we are different that other people because we eminate good from us. Christ was always filled with love and those who sought to be good could feel that love from him and were drawn to him. “Light cleaves unto light. Darkness cleaves unto darkness.” That is why He said to “Let your light so shine that others can see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” So something as private as our thoughts effect us and everyone around us. Thanks

  8. kh, thanks for your comments. FWIW, I agree that our private thoughts and private actions impact our spirituality, and they also have public consequences. An issue that I was alluding to in the OP, however, is whether or not this gives us license to exert some form of control over the private lives of others. If there are no private choices, should I be concerned about your every choice? Are you helping your children with their homework, for instance, so that they’ll get a good education and not be a burden to the rest of us? Do you eat healthy food? Are you promiscuous?, etc. Things such as parenting, diet, and sex are usually considered rather private things (although parenting to a lesser degree). Are these not private choices?

  9. What I understand President Faust saying is that eventhough we make choices alone or in our own homes or even in our own minds, the decisions we make have consequences that effect in one way or another everyone else. We don’t control anyone else, but collectively as an individual, family member, community, country or planet all of our choices ( obviously some have greater effect at different levels than other choices) carry with them universal consequences. As an example, what one eats may seem “private” but that decision can carry unintended consequences, such as those who produced those food items will need to produce more to keep up with supply and demand. If we grew it ourselves then those who produce the same food stuffs can not produce as much since there will be one less purchaser of those items in the marketplace, too much supply not enough demand. I can choose to have a greenhouse on my property and grow my own food, but if everyone did that worldwide there would be no more farmers. As far as sex goes, choosing to be promiscuous has negative consequenses for not only the participating parties but society as well. If one or more participants has a std that could be spread to someone else, or unwanted pregnacy could occur. Serious violations of our conscience, like immorality, effects our thoughts and decisions far beyond the “private acts” involved. Most people would agree with you, what someone or people do behind closed doors is there “own business”, nevertheless there are consequenses that effect us all in one way or another. I believe in teaching correct principles and let people govern themselves, providing they don’t violate the rights of others. That includes costing others money in taxes for decisions they make “in private.” Finally in answer to your specific questions ( You were probably wondering how long I was going to take to get there ) yes we need to be concerned to some extent the choices of others by trying to be a positive influence on other’s lives. We should encourage good parenting skills and diet ( word of wisdom issues as well ) and stand for morality in an immoral world. If we help one person in any of these areas you mentioned, we have done good and hopefully the one we have help will help another as well. Their future decisions will be more in line with what God would have them choose and the world is a better place for it.

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