Moral justice in the Republic of Trump
“Last of all comes the tyrannical man; about whom we have
once more to ask, how is he formed out of the democratical?
And how does he live, in happiness or in misery?”
2400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote his seminal work, Republic. In it, Plato explores the definition of justice, the creation of a just city-state, and the just man. He also warns of the dangers of a tyrannical city-state and how it is formed from a democratic society.
One of the characters in Republic, a philosopher called Thrasymachus, claims that:
- Justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger
- Justice is obedience to laws
- Justice is nothing but the advantage over another
Thrasymachus believed that moral values (and ethics) were social constructs, and were simply reflections of whichever political institution was in power. Plato, on the other hand, rejected this relativistic view, suggesting instead that justice must be absolute, designed to bring happiness to citizens of a just city-state. Plato’s fear was that democratic societies might one day succumb to populist fervor, and in so doing, elect a tyrant to rule over them. In such an event, Plato’s belief was that the definition of moral law ought not to change, and that the bar for ethical behavior should be a common one.
Have we, in fact, elected our Thrasymachian tyrant? Our leader elect is certainly fond of suggesting that he is the consummate deal-maker, and that he always wins by applying leverage to get what he wants. You might wonder what difference does this make – after all, if he delivers on his campaign promises, won’t we all be for the better?
There are two fallacies with this argument. The first – as we are learning – is not to take Trump’s words literally. Indeed, he has already started walking back many campaign promises. The wall may not be built. Obamacare may not be fully repealed. We will not apply a religious test to immigrants. Hillary may not be prosecuted. Why make such promises at all, if not for the sole purpose of getting yourself elected at any cost?
The second fallacy is believing unquestioningly that our lives will be improved during this administration. Thrasymachus claimed that justice is advantage of the stronger over another. Who’s the other party here? China? Mexico? The American people? If you’ve campaigned on a platform of empty promises, then the only ones duped are the people that elected you. Such is the Art of the Deal.
This is why ethics are so important in political institutions, and why every American President in modern history has gone out of his way to avoid the remotest perception of any conflict of interest. It is to avoid any concern, any fear, that the actions of our leaders are not motivated by a “duty of care” to those that elected them, but rather to themselves.
Trump proclaimed, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” While technically true, Title 18 Section 208 of the US Code was written because the presidency has so much power that any executive action could potentially create a conflict. Note the nuance here. The law doesn’t say that presidential conflicts of interest are acceptable. It merely provides a shield to the president because anything he or she does could create the perception of conflict. Taking advantage of this to shelter your business dealings is the Thrasymachian definition of “Justice is nothing but the advantage over another.”
To be fair, Trump stated that he would hold a news conference on December 15, presumably announcing that he was removing himself from his businesses to avoid any conflict of interest. While details are very sketchy at this point, it’s important that he’s recognized that, despite the law, it is not in the public interest to give any perceptions of conflict. Although details of how his children will be (or not be) involved remain to be seen, this is an important first step.
This is a new era for our country. Never before have we had a President with such a vast business empire prior to assuming office, with connections and interests spanning the globe. Byron tells us that power corrupts, while Plato acknowledges that tyrants see justice as the strong winning out over the weak. A leader of a democratic society, elected free and fair, must avoid any semblance of tyranny by subjecting himself or herself to time-tested rules of moral justice and ethics. By doing so, the people can be assured that their interests remain the primary motivators for the actions of their elected leaders.