“I like to take everything personally because you do better that way.” Donald Trump, November 16, 2018.
We can all provide examples of Trump’s unethical behavior, for instance his incessant lying. But I’m not interested in a litany of his misdeeds here. I want to dig deeper and offer an explanation for why Trump is destined to behave unethically.
At the beginning of Plato’s Republic there is a discussion of the meaning of justice. No conclusion is reached regarding what it means to be just, but several principles are fielded that don’t make the grade. One of these defines justice as helping friends and injuring enemies, which proves to be transparently inadequate. What if your friend turns out to be a bad man and your enemy a good one? Would it be just to help a bad man and injure a good one? Certainly not. The same logic applies to the question of how to determine what is ethical: it shouldn’t be understood simply in terms of helping friends and injuring enemies. To take an obvious example, if you discover that your friend or brother is the Unabomber, the ethical course involves informing the police before more innocent people are injured or killed. One has a duty to do so, even if he is your friend or brother. Ethics cannot be reduced to the idea of helping friends and injuring enemies.
But what about loyalty, you ask? Isn’t it ethical to be loyal to our friends? Isn’t loyalty a virtue and therefore ethical? Certainly loyalty is a virtue, and generally speaking we should try to be loyal to friends, family, and country. But like other virtues, there can be too much of a good thing. At some point courage carried too far turns into rashness, for example. And loyalty carried too far can lead one into a briar patch of immorality through overlooking unethical acts because they were committed by friends.
Enter Donald Trump. There is little question, judging by his deeds and words, that he makes loyalty a top priority in his relationships. If you have any doubts, ask poor Jeff Sessions, a loyal follower if there ever was one, except on the issue of recusing himself from the Mueller investigation. By recusing himself, Sessions was adhering to a well-established principle that public servants should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. But Trump demands absolute loyalty, and Sessions failed to meet the bar. (Loyalty can easily turn into a demand for obedience when it is not mutual. So perhaps we are not dealing with genuine loyalty with Trump, but simply a demand for obedience masquerading as loyalty, given that loyalty is unidirectional for him.)
We now have all the ingredients needed to understand why Trump will never be able to stop engaging in unethical behavior. Trump is a firm believer in helping friends and injuring enemies, which dovetails with his win at all costs mentality. It’s an us versus them—or me versus him or her—world for Donald. His opponents aren’t merely adversaries. They are enemies. Combine this aggressive posture with his demented sense of what loyalty involves and you have something of an unethical perfect storm. Friends are those who are loyal to Trump, and loyalty makes them good, even if they may be bad. In Trump’s black and white world of friends and enemies, it doesn’t make any difference if his enemy is a good person or if his friend is a bad one, because what matters is whether Trump can count on them as a loyal friend.
Trump’s views on friendship, enemies, and loyalty leads to an ethical dead end. In order to be ethical we must be able to achieve a degree of impartiality. We must be able to see the world in terms of what is good for others, even when what is good for others may not be to our advantage or interest. Trump simply can’t do this. He is incapable of impartially analyzing people and their deeds. His friends will always be seen as good, even if they are actually bad, as long as they are loyal and serve his interests.
Trump is famous for his unwillingness to apologize. This is often understood in terms of his not wanting to look weak. But it also says something else about the man. No one can be ethical who is unwilling to accept that his or her own actions or words may be wrong. To be ethical involves a willingness to see that we can be wrong, often because self-interest clouds our judgment. Mr. Never Apologize will not reflect on his own actions and will not criticize himself, because self-criticism in his warped universe is a kind of disloyalty to himself.
One can add up all of the ways that Trump’s behavior has been unethical. If you wiped them off the planet and gave Trump a clean ethical bill of health, a new start, it wouldn’t matter. Given his personality and guiding principles, he is fated to behave unethically. In other words, he is a bad man.