Alexander McCall Smith: This column is private and not to be read

A shortage of honourable politicians means we must look to Kant for moral guidance, writes Alexander McCall Smith.
John Profumo, seen in 2005, quit the Cabinet in 1963 for lying to MPs about his affair with Christine Keeler (Picture: Chris Young/PA)John Profumo, seen in 2005, quit the Cabinet in 1963 for lying to MPs about his affair with Christine Keeler (Picture: Chris Young/PA)
John Profumo, seen in 2005, quit the Cabinet in 1963 for lying to MPs about his affair with Christine Keeler (Picture: Chris Young/PA)

The moral life is far from simple. There was a time when most of us had no doubt at all about what we should or should not do. We were told what was done or not done. There were Commandments. There were oaths administered by the scouting and guiding movements. There were role models to look up to. There was the expectation that politicians who lied were expected to fall upon their swords, or at least resign. Today, serial mendacity in a politician seems to be disregarded – indeed it might even propel one into high office. Remember Mr Profumo, who after uttering one untruth went off in voluntary exile to do good works in the East End of London for decades before he was welcomed back into respectable society. His exclusion today would be for an afternoon – at the most. O tempora, o mores is the muttered refrain of those who observe how things have changed.

And yet, in spite of this seismic shift in the landscape of public life, there are still subtle moral issues that confront us in the leading of our day-to-day lives. One of these is the question of how far we should restrain ourselves in our curiosity as to how our friends and neighbours conduct their lives. How others live is, after all, a subject of abiding interest to most of us, and yet at the same time we are usually aware of at least some restraints on how much we should try to find out about others.

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Take the case of conversations in a restaurant or coffee bar. Should you listen to what is being said at neighbouring tables, or should you deliberately close your ears to conversations to which you have not been formally admitted? These conversations are often fascinating, and if you are by yourself at a table, then the temptation to listen is in almost irresistible. And yet that is an act of intrusion – a form of eavesdropping, which is generally regarded as unacceptable. If one would not listen at a keyhole, then surely the same must be said for other situations where one attempts to hear what is being said.

The difference, of course, might lie in implicit consent. If you conduct a conversation in a public place, then you might be said to consent to others hearing what you have to say. Indeed, an argument might be made to the effect that it is wrong to conduct any form of sensitive conversation in public as you have no means of knowing whether those about you actually want to hear what you have to say.

A variation on this is the mobile phone conversation. The frustrating thing about such conversations is that we overhear only one side, and again it is not the eavesdropper who is being rude – it is the person on the phone who is showing discourtesy. The polite thing – indeed the right thing – to do if you are having a telephone conversation in public, is to switch to speakerphone mode so that those about you can hear what the other person is saying. Quiet coaches are all very well, but there is a strong case for noisy coaches too, in which those using their mobiles would be obliged to plug them into a public address system so that everyone in the coach can hear both sides of the conversation. That, in my view, is common courtesy.

Now for a tricky one. In Edinburgh, where we have a very advanced recycling culture, every householder is given a blue plastic box into which empty bottles and jars can be put out for collection. These come with a frilly plastic cover that can be stretched out over the top of the box, thereby making it impossible for prying eyes to see what is inside. In reality, most people lose these quickly and therefore put out their boxes without any cover. That means that if you walk along the street you can see exactly what your neighbours have been drinking. This is very interesting information – irresistible to most (although I must point out that I have steadfastly averted my eyes). But it really is very interesting to count the number of whisky bottles or check up on the vintage of the recycled bottles. And champagne ... who would imagine that so much champagne is consumed in the EH10 postal code? However, most of the empty bottles I have seen have been very cheap brands.

As to other bins left out by neighbours, some people like to look into the food recycling bins that the council provides. Again, that is not something that should be countenanced. Food waste is private, and it is no business of ours what other people consume, fascinating though it may be. Of course that recycling effort is particularly laudable, and those councils – such as Edinburgh – that provide that facility deserve the highest praise. Many people do not know, of course, that the waste in those little grey bins is taken off to a secret council location and processed into food for students. Students don’t know that, I believe, but I am sure that they would be unlikely to object. After all, those who were students some time ago remember the rubbish we ate and it is hard to imagine that this reprocessed food waste is any worse. In fact, it might be healthier. (I have been unable to verify this information, by the way, and it is no doubt untrue, but I do like to think of the council making the best possible use of food waste, and I think this suggestion really should be taken up by the authorities.)

Looking into the recycling bins of neighbours is undoubtedly an unacceptable intrusion, on a par, perhaps, with the reading of people’s postcards. Hold on, you say – a postcard is specifically designed not to be confidential: it is an inherently open communication. I am not convinced of that. Admire the picture, yes, but do not read what is written on the other side, or, if you must, give it only the quickest of glances.

The moral life is not simple. However, nobody can go wrong if they accept the principle of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. That is an idea that has been recycled many times, but remains as powerful today as it was when Kant first recycled it. More of that another time – or times perhaps. (By the way, this column was not addressed to you, was it, and I’m slightly surprised that you’re read it. Please disregard what you have read, and certainly do not pass it on to any third parties.)