G.O.P Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul has pulled off a record-worthy achievement: he has earned Ethics Dunce status twice in a week’s time, something no one else, even serial Ethics Dunces like Sen. John Kerry and Tom DeLay, were able to do in the nearly seven years the designation has been in existence. He did not earn it the old fashioned way, however, as the old Smith-Barney ads used to say. Most Ethics Dunces do something, but in both cases Paul has proven himself worthy by what he says he believes. This makes him kind of a classic Ethics Dunce. He literally doesn’t understand basic ethical values, or if he does, can’t articulate them.
His original title came as a result of his stubborn insistence to Rachel Maddow of MSNBC and others that the Federal government should never regulate the conduct of private businesses, as in the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of racial discrimination by private establishments. He did this while steadfastly condemning racism and discrimination, but refusing to waiver from the bedrock Libertarian principle that the government shouldn’t extend itself into private conduct to this extent.
Now, some libertarians, libertarian-sympathizers and others have accused Ethics Alarms of calling Paul unethical because I disagree with him. I didn’t call Paul unethical; I called him an Ethics Dunce. Often there is no difference; here, there is. Paul’s ethical priorities are confused, and it implicates his judgment. Allowing whole communities to privately discriminate against minorities would permanently and disastrously undermine equality, justice, fairness and peace; history has shown that clearly. It has also shown that whatever the burden private citizens have had to endure by not being able to exclude blacks and other minority groups from service in their businesses, the burden on the citizens who would have been discriminated against would have been far, far worse, and the consequences to society as a whole unendurable. Paul’s belief that, nonetheless, individual freedom should trump equal opportunity and the right of all to the pursuit of happiness violates the Golden Rule, Utilitarian principles, and even Kant’s absolutism, as it fails the test of Universality. If everybody excluded African-Americans from getting bank loans, using hotels, going to movies, eating at restaurants, shopping, getting medical supplies, and buying houses in neighborhoods they wanted to live in, would it be a country we would want to live in? Paul elevates the ethical value of autonomy above all others, even when it will harm the autonomy of others. I have no problem at all declaring this ethically indefensible. I would love to hear or read an ethical defense of it that addresses real world realities rather than abstractions, but I doubt one exists.
Defenders of Paul, like radio talk show shouter Mark Levin, have made the argument that his statements to Maddow (and elsewhere, where he has made the same objections to the Fair Housing Act) are irrelevant to his qualifications for the Senate. “Nobody’s trying to repeal the Civil Rights Act!” screamed Levin. “This is all a trap! It’s irrelevant to anything!”
How a potential Senator reasons is irrelevant? How he balances ethical considerations and experience with real world realities, how he applies philosophy and ideology to life is irrelevant? Would it be irrelevant if Paul announced that, all things considered, giving women, blacks and non-property-holding white males the vote was a violation of the Founders’ intent, and probably was a mistake? By Levin’s logic, yes; after all, there’s no way the right to vote will be taken from any of these groups. How, though, can voters trust the judgment of an elected official who reasons this way? They can’t, or at least, they shouldn’t. Furthermore, if Paul really thinks prohibiting private discrimination is wrong, isn’t he obligated to try to lift the prohibition? Is “Yes, he’d do that if it were possible, but not to worry: it can’t happen!’ a persuasive argument for a Senator’s competence and trustworthiness? I don’t think so.
Paul himself came close to earning himself a traditional Ethics Dunce by blaming Rachel Maddow for his current plight. I am not usually a Maddow fan; she is so blatantly ideologically slanted that her spin on news stories makes me dizzy. She could not have been fairer to Paul however. She was pleasant, respectful, didn’t rush him, and asked all the pertinent questions, including her kicker: “And should Woolworth lunch counter should have been allowed to stay segregated? Sir, just yes or no.” Paul ducked the question. His integrity didn’t permit him to say no, and he couldn’t quite summon the courage of his extreme convictions to say yes, though that was the only answer that would have been consistent with his answers. She is an easy scapegoat for Paul, much hated as she is for race-baiting the Tea Partiers and bashing Sarah Palin, but for him to blame his disturbing answers on her probing questions is unfair and cowardly.
Accountability, however, appears to be another ethical principle that Rand Paul doesn’t quite get. He criticized President Obama’s excoriation of British Petroleum and its partners for the Gulf oil disaster, not for the legitimate reason that Obama was trying to deflect legitimate criticism for his administration’s response to the crisis (which he was), but because it was “un-American” for a President to beat up on a corporation for its drilling operation to cause human, financial and ecological devastation. Why? Well, as he put it on “Good Morning America,” “Maybe sometimes accidents happen.” “We had a mining accident that was very tragic,” he analogized, “but then we come in and it’s always someone’s fault.” Paul thinks that’s wrong. Again, he is ethically out to lunch.
When a mining company or an oil company, or a circus, or a bomb plant, or an airline or a chemical manufacturer, puts human lives, homes and life savings at risk in order to do business, it must accept responsibility and be accountable when something goes wrong. They must know this is their duty, or they may not take proper precautions. This is something the military, which has some of the most well-articulated ethics codes in the world, has always understood. If there is a disaster or a terrible failure, someone always must be held accountable. “Mistakes happen” is an evasive response, a useless response, a cowardly response, an unethical response, and a dangerous response. If disasters “just happen,” then there is less incentive to make sure they don’t “just happen” again. Never mind that in both the oil spill and the Kentucky mine disaster Paul referred to, there is ample evidence already that the disasters didn’t just “happen.” The fact that Paul so cavalierly jettisons the requirement of accountability for those who accept huge profits for incurring huge risks affecting human life and property shows a logical and ethical disconnect.
This raises a conundrum: if given a choice for Senator between a candidate who has lied to misrepresent his credentials (Connecticut’s wishful soldier, Richard Blumenthal) and a candidate who is straightforward about beliefs that implicate his judgment and ethical priorities, who would you vote for? I’m glad Rand Paul and Blumenthal are in different states.