Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Trump's Ethics

Ethically, how defensible is Donald Trump as President? That is, how do his actions comport with the traditional ethical prescriptions? These “what you should do”s come in two distinct flavors, the religious, and the philosophical. We will examine both of these sets.

Let’s start with the ones he most clearly violates.

Kantian Ethics

Immanuel Kant’s basic principle is to ask yourself, before undertaking an action, whether it could be universally applied. If such application would be beneficial, follow through with the intended course, but if not, do not. For example, do not murder someone – for if everyone did so, then, you know, there’d be no people left. Kant also warned against certain actions which were self-negating – if everyone did it they would cease to exist even as concepts. Lying and stealing are good examples of this – if everyone stole then the very meanings of property, ownership, and theft would cease to be meaningful designations in our society. So too lying – imagine a world where everyone had to lie. Truth, lying, and meaning would be rendered…meaningless.

Since Trump is an inveterate liar it seems that he would not pass the Kantian test. Many of his actions, if made universal, would unquestionably harm our society, for example his decisions which made him a failure as a businessman or not paying workers for their labor.

Utilitarian Ethics

The simple credo of the Utilitarians was to maximize good and minimize bad, usually understanding that good is more or less synonymous which healthy pleasure, and bad with harm. This seems to be the default ethical stance of most folks, particularly when faced with messy choices – try to secure the best outcome for the greatest number of people and mitigate the resultant harm necessary to the fewest possible. The train full of passengers, and the baby on the tracks dilemma, with you at the switch for the tracks, is a classic example. Most folks flip the switch, preventing the trainload of passengers from flying off a cliff, at the expense of the one child.

Of course, Trump is not a utilitarian. The healthcare plan he has endorsed is the inverse – to harm many millions, and kill tens of thousands at least, to the benefit of a very few. His whole ethos of scamming the vulnerable to line his pockets is clearly not good utilitarian practice.

Christian Ethics

Focusing on the New Testament, and what I think most Christians would profess is the central ethical tenant of their faith, we are dealing with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Like Kant and the Utilitarians this is not a perfect guide (what of masochists?) but is a rule of thumb. The rule extends across Christian sects, and is equally embraced by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects. We could also add, as general guidance, Jesus’ behavior to be emulated: humility, poverty, and kindness, and the Beatitudes from Sermon on the Mount, blessing the meek, the poor in spirit, and the merciful alongside the peace-makers.

Professedly, Trump is Presbyterian. Yet it is difficult to imagine he would wish others to mock him, slander him, sexually assault him, incite violence against him, or many of the other behaviors he has inflicted upon others during his campaign and continuing into his Presidency.

Islamic Ethics

Typically, Islamic ethics have certain admonishments to adherents which are agreed upon despite distinctions of Sunni, Shiite, or Sufi. Hospitality, refraining from materialism, humility, and an aversion to, I guess we’d call it machismo? Desires and passions need to be curbed, in general, as we see in so many religious traditions. Interestingly there are specific regards to how consistently the morals are applied, and that the more you do them, the better a person you are, which is sometimes implied in other faiths, but sometimes not in such a clear-cut fashion. Importantly, avoiding evil deeds is insufficient – you must actively try to stamp them out in your communities.

Pretty clearly Islamic faith is out of line with Trump’s actions. A man who plasters his name on everything, gets into the wrestling ring, and tries to make himself a big man by bullying others would all be frowned upon. Not to mention refraining from materialism – the man is obsessed with gold.

Buddhist Ethics

Considering the derivations of Buddhism into sects, let’s focus on the core aspects, notably the Eightfold Path. Some exhortations of this credo are to avoid sensuality, lying, and harming others, and to embrace kindness, poverty, and meditation. Desire is the root of all suffering. The view of oneself as anything but impermanent, or to see a distinction between life and death, is not in adherence with the way. By embracing transience and avoiding desire one can reach nirvana – although exactly how is debated by differing paths (spoiler alert: the disputes concern the amount of meditation needed).

Could Trump be a Buddhist?


Now we cross into trickier territory, where the answers aren’t so obvious.

Hume’s Ethics

The ethics of David Hume are unusual, and what prompted Kant to create his contractual system outlined above. Hume was a sentimentalist, arguing that our ethical choices are not merely rational, but essentially influenced by our feelings. This may well be true, but becomes problematic as a prescriptive doctrine. From this comes a sort of ‘do what makes you comfortable’ approach, with Hume firmly guided by the optimistic stance that humans are innately empathetic creatures. Rather than base actions on what ought to be, our actions must be based on what is really the case, on a case-by-case basis. Contra Kant, for example, who may say something like ‘always feed the poor’ Hume may ask, but what if all I have is a PB&J, and the person in need a deathly nut allergy?

For a Trump apologist the problem remains that of empathy. Hume’s model insists upon a view of humans who wish to perpetuate dignity and decency. The Enlightenment Scotsman would almost certainly not condone his attacks on a free press, or advocating killing the innocent families of criminals.

Hindu Ethics

This is complicated – the most so of the faiths. In essence, most Hindus would agree to following dharma, which is essentially the 'right path'. Non-violence is a big part of it, but not always – sometimes violence is justified with certain provocation, for example. Self-restraint is a part of it as well, as is notions of purity which are mixed with honesty – a lack of hypocrisy in one’s actions is important. Some provisions are clearer – against stealing and sexual covetousness – others more oblique, such as a general admonishment against desire in most forms. In some ways these ideas should be equally familiar to adherents of the Ten Commandments of Christianity as a Zen Buddhist.

Naturally since Trump steals money in wages unpaid, scams, casinos, and possibly money laundering, not to mention sexual coveting (with three wives and a vulgarity attached to his dealings with ‘Miss’ pageants) he would be a bad Hindu. And I mean, come on: self-restraint?

Confucian Ethics

Confucius’ teachings say that relationships are paramount, most notably those of family. Parents come first, especially ancestors, and filial piety is key. Your attitude toward strangers is seen as secondary to honoring and being loyal to your own kin, and older generations take precedence over the younger. Still, due consideration is needed for those around you who keep you secure – your colleagues, for example, even if they be of inferior rank. They make your life possible, after all. Essential to his ethics, too, is that honesty is the supreme virtue. Without it the rest is worthless.

An argument that Trump, with his family and loyalty, is a Confucian in disguise? No. Consider ancestor worship – surely Donald Trump’s immigrant forbears would be disgusted by the practices he espouses against a group which includes his four grandparents and even his own mother. Plausibility of a Confucian Trump evaporates when we recall the critical virtue of  honesty.

Aristotelian Ethics

Finally we get to the pre-Christian philosophy of the Greeks. Indeed, it was Aristotle’s ethics (which I somewhat profess to be my own) which made me consider this project in the first place. Aristotle’s ethics are achievement-based, that is, the emphasis is on making the most of yourself. You need to fulfill your potential – life is a race in which you are trying to beat your own best time, to strive to your greatest heights. It aligns with arĂȘte – creating a life of virtuous character and conduct. What is virtuous? “Doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.” These right actions must be done with intent to count as virtuous. Further, moderation is essential to defining virtue, for excess and deficiency are both to be avoided.

When I considered Trump and Aristotle, initially I paused. Was his success the most reprehensible counter to my own Aristotelian adherence? For, regarding making the most of yourself and achieving personal validation – Trump is undoubtedly a case-study to make us wary. But it is the other aspects taught in the Nicomachean Ethics which give me heart. Trump is not a model of moderation, nor, in his bumbling, haphazard campaign and first six months in office have we seen much of the “right thing” done in the right way or at the right time. The man may be too stupid to be an Aristotelian, to be honest. Courage, gentleness, generosity, truthfulness, gregariousness – all are specifically cited by Aristotle as examples of his moderate mean course of action. All are out-of-step with Trump's actions.

As such my fears are put to rest. So long as Trump continues to be a boastful, mean-spirited, liar whom actively goes out his way to be cruel in harming his fellow citizens, harming the prestige of his office and the prestige of the nation, and harming the very planet I will continual to be comforted that no person professing moral traits – of any philosophical school or of any religious doctrine – can align themselves with this wretch, without exposing themselves to equal parts of censure for hypocrisy proportionate to his disregard for all of humanity’s ethical norms, morals, teachings, and virtues.

Happy 4th of July.

Post Script Bonus:

Ferengi Rules of Acquisition

In the world of Star Trek the ethical codes of Earth are decidedly progressive and utopian. World peace, money abolished, San Francisco is the capital... yadda yadda. However, the Ferengi (aliens that look like weird bats) have the Rules of Acquisition, which is all about deals and backstabbing. Notoriously untrustworthy and greedy, the Rules are inviolable, and from a prescriptive guide on how to interact with others. In that way they constitute a sort-of ethics. Some examples include: "Once you have their money never give it back." "It never hurts to suck up to the boss." and "Every man has his price."

Despite the promising examples above consider the following few violations (of many): Rule 2 - "Never spend more for an acquisition than you have to." (Trump Taj Mahal?) Rule 74 - "Knowledge equals profit" (The man doesn't read and celebrates the poorly educated). Or Rule 229 - "[p]Latinum lasts longer than lust." (No comment.)

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