Ethics, Politics and Impression Management: Is it Bad to Make a Good Impression?

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I’m wondering about the idea of making a good impression — whether this is manipulative and so to be avoided, or whether it is wise and kind to be aware of how others may view us. I certainly don’t have an easy answer.

This post was prompted by a remark, “You made a good impression there”.

I was uncomfortable with the remark. And I wasn’t sure why: I didn’t think it would be better to make a bad impression!

My Discomfort

I’m someone who values our human ability for awareness very highly. So why wouldn’t I be comfortable with knowing what impression I make? Would it be better to not know? I don’t think it was the knowing about it that I was uncomfortable with.

I think what I was uncomfortable with was the idea that this might have been my aim. Imagine if you read of someone that from their youth they had sought to establish a reputation for virtue. If I read this, the question that would arise for me would be about whether this person sought to act ethically.

Public and Private

The ‘impression’ is a public thing, while ethics is often taken to include our purpose and motivation. (We are usually less upset if someone steps on our toe accidentally than if they do it intentionally — even if the amount of force is the same.)

The awareness of how we are seen and our own intentions and purposes leads to the possibility of ‘managing the perception’. It can also lead to ‘hypocrisy’, that is misleading others about our virtue — setting out to create a false perception of our worthiness or motives.

‘Hypocrisy’ is only a negative if we value a match between private and public. Some people doubt the validity of this — especially for public figures. (An Australian politician defined politics as ‘perception management’. In this view there is no ‘private’ — all that’s real is people’s perceptions of the issue, party or politician in view. In this view the politician sets out to influence the public view for their own purposes — as do the other players — and that is all there is to it. In some circles this view was regarded as cynical and more than a little dangerous.)

Ends and Means

To aim at making an impression is to value an end. We act to achieve ends all the time — getting to the supermarket, making tea, solving a problem and so on — which isn’t usually thought to be a problem.

The problem comes when the ends are seen as ethically loaded. And even if the ends are taken to be ethically exemplary, the questions of the means used to achieve them can be regarded as dubious, or flat out wrong.

The position of ‘the ends justify the means’ is often criticised (and I agree with the criticisms), but concern with means and not the ends produced seems irresponsible. Can we really be comfortable with causing a foreseeable disaster if we are confident of our morality? If one lie will save a thousand people is my ethical purity (not telling the lie) really worth a thousand lives?


My inclination is to forget about the impression I create (the end) and to focus on engaging with what I’m doing (the means). I do realise that this can be an irresponsible position. I haven’t managed to come to a settled position on whether it is good to set out to make a good impression.

My position could lead to not caring about the effect of what I do on others. The phrase, “What you think of me, is none of my business” contains much wisdom, but has its limitations too. What people think of me is one thing, the effect of my behaviour on them may be quite another.

What Do You Think?

My own views on this are still unsettled. I’d like to hear yours. Whether you think concern for creating an impression is a good thing, whether you think some concern is good but too much is bad, or whether you think the whole issue should be looked at in another way; let me know. I’m looking forward to your comments.

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