“It’s illegal to break the law” and other things most people know

An open letter to the President, crossposted at Ezra Klein

I have never had any sort of formal training in ethics, beyond a perfunctory overview in an undergrad survey course in philosophy. I’ve learned a lot more about the moral life from novels than from ethicists. The majority of my ethical instincts were probably formed in the contexts of my family, my church, and my friends. In all of this, I am probably like most Americans.

Unless those Americans hold positions at the highest levels of government, apparently.

This week, we learned that the President is ordering his staff to take a ‘refresher course’ in ethics. Now, let’s assume that ethics is in fact something you can learn in a class, even though I don’t necessarily believe that. It strikes me that knowledge routinely practiced is rarely forgotten. Ethical people wouldn’t need a refresher course. Like people who ride their bikes everyday and therefore would never again need to learn how to ride a bike, ethical people have ethical conduct as their first and easiest reflex. But that’s…you know…ethical people. I’m a recovered drug addict and formerly very naughty boy, but I’ve had fewer run-ins with the law in my lifetime than this administration has had in the past few years. From the looks of things, ethical people tend not to have jobs in the White House, and that’s painfully embarrassing for all of us.

Here are a few things I know that the White House apparently does not:

1. It’s illegal to break the law. This is not an ethical principle per se, since the ranges of action covered by ‘legal’ and ‘right’ are not coextensive, nor are those covered by ‘illegal’ and ‘wrong’. Still, it’s handy to keep in mind. A crime is a crime no matter who commits it, and no crimes are really less criminal than others. Telling the truth to judges and juries isn’t optional, and perjury is an actual crime for which one goes to an actual jail.

2. Speaking of perjury…it’s pretty much always wrong to lie. Sure, one can imagine the occasional circumstance in which a white lie might prevent a greater evil, but let’s face it: we all know that such circumstances hardly ever occur in real life. About 98% of the time, we’re just ginning up an excuse for lying. And lying is wrong. Until homo sapiens are something other than physical creatures whose subjectivity is rooted firmly behind our own eyes, lying will always be a big deal, because we really have no way of knowing about the experiences of others except by trusting their report of what it is like to be them. For us to share a world that is more than a raw war of all against all, most people need to tell mostly the truth most of the time.

3. When you made decisions that affect the well-being of others, it’s important to get it right. This is one of the basic reasons why people who make these kinds of decisions tend to be more highly compensated than those who do not. We want the best people to make the most consequential decisions, and because they will be responsible for outcomes, they deserve some compensation for the risk they incur. The compensation is proportional to the broad consequence involved in the decisions, which is why I, who manage two people and some servers, make only a little more than the rest of my fellow non-profit nobodies. The President, on the other hand, manages the federal government and the entire U.S.
armed forces, which is why he lives in a palace with body guards and a personal chef. If he makes a decision, people might die, and he’s supposed to take responsibility for that, no matter how it turns out.

One gets the distinct impression that the Washington establishment – low-value pundits and nominal “reporters” as well as the elected politicians and political staff skeezers – would smirk and chuckle if you said any of this to them. They would regard this sort of talk as naive and idealistic, pabulum for the rubes of the “base”. Washington is far to sophisticated for such simplistic nonsense, and it’s all far too complicated for any of us to understand.

But we, the people who sent you all to Washington and pay all your salaries, we don’t really think it’s very complicated, nor are we impressed by your attempts to spin moral bankruptcy as sophistication. As another blogger recently put it, “Either you’re a man of your word or you’re just a [edited!] liar,” and “crime is crime and lies are lies, no matter which party is in power.” That’s how most of us live, Mr. President. We expect that most of you will mostly live like that as well.

Which brings me to my point. The news reports about the upcoming “ethics refreshers” at the White House all say that the classes will focus on the handling of classified information. Mr. President, that’s not ethical training. That’s teaching people not to violate the law, which covers my first item, but I think I made it clear that compliance with the law is hardly the major substance of a truly ethical life.

We are not impressed, Mr. President. We expect our elected officials to be better than “good enough to not get indicted”.

Let’s be clear about this, Mr. President. Most of us have come to accept the juvenile, manipulative gaming that passes for political campaigns today. It is loathsome and humiliating to us, but we accept it because no one has yet figured out how else to do politics on TV. Neil Postman was right; TV was made for entertainment, and when you put politics on TV, it becomes entertainment.

But governance is not entertainment. When the campaign is over, we expect you to quit dicking around and act in a manner appropriate to the authority with which we have vested you.

Is it too much to ask that you hold the White House staff to a standard of moral excellence rather than merely doing what it takes to get away with it?

The answer to that question may be “Yes, it is”, but you should know that no one will be satisfied with that, and it would explain a lot about your poll numbers.

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