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Is the President Amoral? Does it Matter?

I planned on writing this post a few weeks down the road, but it turns out that I need to write it now.

On Wednesday the New York Times[1] published an anonymous op-ed by a senior official in the Trump administration. This senior official claimed that he was part of a resistance that, although still certainly conservative, is working to thwart much of the President’s agenda.

Here are the official’s own words: “We believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic…The root of the problem is the president’s amorality [italics mine]. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” (You can read this letter in its entirety here.)

There is some public debate about how wise it was for the New York Times to publish this op-ed. Some argue that the anonymity of the author decreases his credibility. Others argue that the op-ed will alienate hard-core Trump supports and strengthen suspicions of a “Deep State” operating in the White House, working to thwart the President.

It may or may not have been wise of the New York Times to publish the op-ed, but the op-ed is absolutely right in pointing out something critically concerning: the President’s amorality.

This is not the first time someone has addressed this issue.[2] Such accusations have dodged Trump’s entire presidency.

Here is the issue: pretty much all of us have known for some time that the President’s morals are dodgy or completely AWOL. And yet, somehow, he was elected President and even now a large group of people support him.

This suggests that the supporters either doubt that the President is amoral or believe that his lack of morality is unimportant.[3]

This concerns me.

I have a special stake in this issue because I teach ethics at a local college. I find my job extremely meaningful because I believe that I am training our country’s next generation of leaders to help create a more moral and ethical country.

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My job becomes a lot harder if the President is amoral and a large number of people in the country are untroubled by his amorality.

So, in this post, I will argue that the President is, indeed, amoral and that his amorality does matter, a lot.

What is Morality?

First, if we are to attempt to investigate whether the President is amoral, it is important that we get a clear understanding of what morality is.

Our moral principles are the principles that guide the habits we adopt and the character we form. And of course, the ideal is that we adopt good morals so that we act well and form good moral character. But what does it mean to have good morals?

If we are to have good morals, we must be guided by a higher principle.

Human beings always act with some motive such as our urges, instincts, emotions, wishes, ideas, principles, concerns, reasons and so forth.

Some of our motives for acting, however, are better than others.

For example, if we lie in order to protect someone from being killed (say in the instance of lying to the Nazis in order to protect from death the Jews we are hiding in our house), this seems to be a better motive for lying than lying because, for example, we have destroyed a neighbor’s property and wish to avoid punishment.

As another example, if someone kills another person in self-defense, that motive is generally considered morally acceptable, whereas if someone kills another person out of anger, that motive for killing is not considered morally acceptable.

And surely we will not be good people if we let our impulses or passions dictate us every moment of the day. Impulses and passions are often bad motives for acting because they can lead us to harm ourselves or others.

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A Legitimate Question

A legitimate question at this point is, “How do we know which motives are good?”

There is a lot of philosophical disagreement about this issue. But philosophers and people, generally speaking, believe that better motives push us to act in some kind of reasoned, consistent way that brings about a higher good for ourselves and other people.

Higher goods pertain to our spiritual capacities, such as our capacities to be honest, kind, courageous, empathetic, wise, just, honorable, fair, equitable, and humane.

These are, by and large, uniquely human capacities.

So, for example, lions in the jungle do not get together and deliberate about how many antelope they have killed and whether or not this is fair and kind to the antelope. They do not debate about whether or not there might be a more just, peaceful, and beautiful way of living.

But human beings can deliberate about these higher goods, and good moral principles help us to make good decisions about these issues.

Aristotle sums this up nicely when he says,

“Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech.

And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like…”[4]

Because we can deliberate about good and evil, humans have the ability to achieve a higher good than the reality we might achieve if we were merely dictated by instinct and no morality.

But we can only pursue a higher good and discern between good and evil if we follow good moral principles. If we follow bad moral principles, we tend to destroy this higher good.

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What are Bad Moral Principles?

Bad moral principles apply only to ourselves instead of people in general, and they neglect higher human capacities.

For example, I may adopt the moral principle, “I can cut in line whenever I want.” This is a bad moral principle because it only really applies to me. Line-cutting only works if everyone else has to follow a moral law, but I don’t have to.

In addition, line-cutting does not help me or anyone else to achieve any higher good—like higher goods of compassion or empathy or caring for other people or the ability to put the needs of others or the public good ahead of my own.

Or, as another example, let’s say that I adopt a moral principle, “I will be the richest person in the world.” While nothing wrong with wealth per se, this is a very narrow metric for action and neglects higher aspects of human existence and spiritual capacities.

It also fails to take into account that a person who makes this his sole guiding moral principle may make decisions to pursue wealth that are actually very bad decisions and harmful to himself and others.

So if we are to be moral, we must adopt good moral principles. Of course there is also philosophical disagreement about what moral principles are the best ones, but here are few different principles philosophers have argued for over the years:

Act in such a way that you exhibit virtues like courage, love, honesty, generosity, compassion in your actions. Act like a virtuous person would act. [5]

Act so that you are always following a good rule such as the 10 commandments or the golden rule. Or, always act in a way that you could will your action to become the law for everyone.[6]

Act so that you bring about the greatest amount of happiness and least amount of pain for the most people.[7]

These aren’t the only moral principles that philosophers have come up with, but these are three of the most well-known ones.

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Socrates says this in Plato’s Apology

Which is the Right Moral Principle?

If you were hoping I would tell you the moral principle you should adopt, you may be disappointed because I am not going to do that in this post.  I will explore such issues in another post someday, but ultimately you must decide what principle (or set of principles) you believe is best.

No one can decide that for you.

What I wish to point out is that if someone, a man for example, wants to be a moral person, that man must follow a moral principle consistently and must try to get better and better at applying it in the moral decisions he makes.

These basic ideas about morality will help us better understand what amorality is.

What Does it Mean to be Amoral?

First, please note that just because someone has morals that are different from you (or me), that does not mean the person is amoral.

There can be two people who are both moral and reasonable but who come to different moral conclusions about an issue because they use different moral principles to judge the issue or because they apply the moral principle differently.[8]

Certain moral judgments can also become very controversial when we face a scenario that has no clearly good moral outcome. For example, in war sometimes military officials must make legitimate strategic decisions in which innocent civilians are killed.[9] These situations are tragic, and moral disagreement is especially common in tragic situations.

I have given these examples to point out that people can hold moral principles and still disagree about which moral principles are the best to follow in a certain situation or the proper way to apply moral principles.

We should also note that someone could have moral standards but be pretty bad at following them because the person is inexperienced at making moral judgments in certain situations[10] or because the person has a weak will.[11]

To recap: amorality does not pertain to different moral standards or to a disagreement about how to apply moral standards. Amorality also doesn’t pertain to someone who lacks skill at applying moral standards or who has a weak will and so regularly fails to apply a moral standard.

Amorality pertains to a lack of any clear, consistent moral standard.

Amoral people are often motivated almost purely by emotions or impulses or self-interest (without regard to interest of others).

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Is the President Amoral?

The question now is whether the President is amoral.

Of course, it is impossible to see directly into anyone’s heart and to know for certain what is going on. However, it seems highly likely that the President is amoral.

Here are three of the clearest indications:  1) He consistently acts in a self-contradictory way that undermines any higher good for himself or for the country. 2) He does not clearly and consistently learn from his mistakes or show any desire to do so. 3) He does not listen to moral and reasonable people around him.

It would be impossible in this post to catalogue all the self-contradictory behaviors the President demonstrates. Here are a few. The President regularly accuses the news of being fake (without any clear evidence to back up this claim), but he regularly promulgates fake news himself. (I have written more about this here.)

The President claims to want to Make America Great Again, but he regularly and consistently engages in petty Twitter wars with people in our country and with leaders of other countries in such a way that diminishes the reputation of the United States and undermines its credibility. (And he does this in direct opposition to people in his own administration who counsel him to behave differently.)

The President criticizes NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem because he argues that this shows disrespect to our veterans and our country. But the President frequently disrespects decorated veterans who disagree with him and displays a deep ignorance of and disregard for the Constitution, which thousands of military personnel have died fighting to protect.

Some might argue that he makes mistakes like this because he is a new president and is figuring things out. This explanation might hold merit if the President showed an eagerness to learn from his mistakes and a desire to listen to people in his administration who counsel him to act more wisely.

The President does neither of these things.

Rather, he continues to make the same kinds of mistakes, and he publicly derides or fires people who challenge him.

This suggests that the President’s overriding principles for acting are not moral principles but rather reckless self-interest, chaotic emotions, and thoughtless impulse. And, by the way, this pattern has been evident the President’s entire life, which we can see in his past relationships and business dealings.

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Is Donald Trump Really All That Different from Other Presidents?

I have heard some people argue that most politicians and, therefore, Presidents are amoral.

This statement doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. There have certainly been presidents who had significant moral failings. The most memorable ones in recent history are Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. I would argue that Nixon’s issue was more of a problem of bad moral judgment and Clinton’s problem was a problem of an extremely weak will, rather than a problem of amorality.

But let’s say those two Presidents were, indeed, amoral. This certainly doesn’t suggest that all Presidents are amoral. If we examine the lives of many of our past Presidents, it is possible to find many examples of Presidents publicly espousing moral principles, even if they were not perfect at following them, and we also notice them willing and eager to learn from their mistakes and to listen to the people around them.

Donald Trump is in a league of his own when it comes to amorality. This is one of the reasons, I believe, so many people, even past Presidents (both Republican and Democrat) and other Republican politicians have been so vocal in their criticism of Trump.

They know something is wrong, and we should listen to them.

Does Trump’s Amorality Matter?

Some people argue, “I don’t care if he is amoral. I just want the economy to prosper.”

Indeed, many people voted for the President knowing that he had questionable morals, but they voted for him because they thought he could strengthen the economy.

I want to point out that when we reason in this way, we are saying more or less, “I don’t care what the President does as long as he makes us money.”

There are two practical reasons that the above reasoning is bad reasoning.

First, if the President is amoral, any good he does for our country is purely accidental. He does this good, not because he thoughtfully follows moral principles that bring this good, but because it just happens to line up with his own current self-interests or emotions or impulses.

This is dangerous for our country because it means that if our country’s economic prosperity requires the President to sacrifice his own self-interest or impulse or emotions, it is highly unlikely the President will do so, and there is a strong chance that he will act in ways that hurt our country’s interest (economic or otherwise) in order to benefit his own agenda. (And I believe he is already doing this.)

To do otherwise would require him to hold himself to a higher standard than his own self-interests and impulses. He appears to be lacking this higher standard completely.

Second, prioritizing financial prosperity to the detriment of morality will eventually lead us to decisions that undermine what is most valuable to us: integrity, love, and peace with ourselves.

It means very little if we are a financially prosperous country but are greedy, cruel, prejudiced, and we leave in our wake a string of unjust political decisions and a legacy of people at home and abroad whom we have violated. This is not a good political life, and it does not allow for a good human life.

We have elected moral presidents before who have helped us become better together.

We don’t have to choose between having a prosperous country and a moral president. We must demand both these things together. [12]

Lastly, I want to point out that democracy is based on the notion that even if we disagree with one another and have different moral principles, we all care about the common good and can deliberate together about how to achieve it.

Deliberating about the common good becomes impossible when we lack moral principles and do not care about a common good.

It is not too much to say that amorality erodes democracy, and this is why we cannot tolerate it.

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[1] Apparently the NYT op-ed department knows the identity of the official.

[2] Steven Watts wrote this article in The Atlantic, which shows that the President’s amorality has been the dominant theme of his entire life and business career. This article from the Chicago Tribune explores whether or not Donald Trump is morally fit to be President.

[3] I understand that some people may believe they are making the best of a bad situation and that there was no good choice in the last presidential election. I will address this issue at the end.

[4] Aristotle. Politics. Book 1, Part II. Benjamin Jowett, trans. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html

[5]Virtue ethics promotes such moral principles. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues for this type of moral system, although he would not have referred to himself as a virtue ethicist. The term virtue ethics is a modern invention.

[6]Deontological ethics promotes such moral principles. In The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant argue for this type of rule-based ethical system, although I believe his ethical system is not purely deontological.

[7] Utilitarian ethics promotes such moral principles. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill championed this system of ethics. Mill wrote a book called Utilitarianism which is probably the most influential philosophical text in this system.

[8] As an example, let’s consider the issue of abortion. This issue is one of the most controversial and hotly debated issues in our country, and yet there are moral, intelligent, and even religious people on both sides of the issue. How can this be? If we are to judge well morally about abortion, we must consider all the aspects of a situation. For example, in the case of abortion, we are certainly dealing with the life of a vulnerable, unborn child which deserves our care and protection. But we are also dealing with the life of a mother, and we understand that in certain circumstances, pregnancy and birth can severely threaten a woman’s physical or emotional health or threaten her ability to provide for herself or her other children. This is one of the reasons why the abortion debate is so difficult. It seems like there are many moral standards that are applicable to abortion, depending on which aspects of the situation we focus on.

[9] I am not implying that all such decisions are moral decisions. Certainly, military officials can make immoral strategic decisions that result in civilian casualties. I am only suggesting that there are at least some military decisions made on moral principles (like self-defense in a just war) that, nevertheless, result in civilian casualties.

[10] So, for example, let’s say that a young woman begins a new job in which she discovers that her boss is embezzling money from the company. She tries to do the moral thing but makes a lot of mistakes in doing so because she has never been in a situation quite like this before. Skilled moral judgement takes time to develop.

[11] The Greek term for this is Akrasia (ἀκρασία), a word which means “incontinence” or “lack of mastery” or “lacking command”. Aristotle discusses this in book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics. This is a nice, accessible article on the subject from Philosophy Now (a philosophy magazine for the general public).

[12] Sometimes we may feel like we have no good moral choices in an election, which I think is how many people felt in the last election. While it is possible that circumstances sometimes dictate that we elect a less than ideal moral candidates, it is certainly our responsibility to hold amoral politicians responsible when they are in office, even if we voted for them because we felt like we had no better option. If you voted for the President and you suspect he is amoral, you need to call or write your representatives to support politicians who are speaking out about his behavior. And if you still believe the President is moral, I would ask you to carefully consider the evidence you are basing this opinion on and why so many past Republican presidents and current Republican politicians consistently decry the President’s behavior. I don’t think it’s because these Republican politicians have become unwittingly caught up in a vast liberal conspiracy.

14 thoughts on “Is the President Amoral? Does it Matter?”

  1. It must be very challenging trying to make sense of ethics during times like these. I love that you pointed out how just because a person doesn’t share your same conclusion, doesn’t necessarily mean they are amoral. Everyone has different backgrounds and different every-day battles, and that shapes their moral compass. I think if people could listen to each other and try to understand one another a bit more instead of immediately name-calling and condescending, we could get a lot more things done around here.

    1. It really is a challenge, M.B. You are absolutely, right: moral people can come to really different conclusions on things. There are so many people who believe differently than I do on political and other issues, but I deeply respect them because they consistently try to follow good moral principles. And you are exactly right. We have got to keep listening to and trying to understand each other. Those are two of the most important things we can do to get out of this mess we are in.

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