I have tired of suppressing legitimate ethics issues regarding the various Presidential candidates, especially the most obviously unethical ones, Hillary and The Donald, for fear of having this pan-ethics blog mired in the swamp of politics. For this day, at least, I’m going to stop wrestling myself to the ground and stop holding back my rising gorge, and focus specifically (though maybe not exclusively: you never know) on the 54—or is it 22? I get the number of Bill Cosby victims mixed up with the announced Presidential candidates sometimes—on the pack of Republicans and Democrats with designs on the White House. So look out, Jeb, Ben, Chris, Ted, Carly, Jim Gilmore), Lindsey, Mike, Bobby, John, George, Rand, Rick, Marco, Rick, Donald Trump, Lincoln, Hillary, Martin, Bernie, Professor, Jim (Webb)….this is
Unethical Presidential Candidates Sunday!
First up…Hillary Clinton gave us a new rationalization! Say hello to Rationalization 19A, the latest addition to the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List, #19A The Insidious Confession, or “It wasn’t the best choice.”
When Hillary Clinton first used her poll-tested, Campaign War Room generated description of her arrogant, defiant, incompetent and irresponsible (and possibly sinister) choice to send official communications on a private email server as not “the best choice,” I recognized it as misleading and dismissive, but assumed it was just a wan variation on my least favorite rationalization, the dreaded #22, “It’s not the worst thing.” Hillary used the same phrase this week, cementing my conviction that it is a talking point, but also making its real meaning clear.
“It wasn’t the best choice” is really a sneaky sub category of Rationalization #19:
The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!”
This is a legitimate defense if, in fact, an individual has been accused of not being perfect. Usually, however, it is an attempt to minimize the significance of genuine misconduct. When an act suggests that more than an honest mistake or single instance of bad judgment was involved, and that an individual’s conduct indicates a broader lack of character or ethical sensitivity, “Nobody’s perfect!” and “Everybody makes mistakes!” are not only inappropriate and irrelevant, but are presumptively efforts to change the subject. The fact that nobody is perfect does not mean that it isn’t necessary and appropriate to point out unethical conduct when it occurs. It also does not argue for failing to make reasonable assumptions about the ethical instincts of the actor if and when the unethical nature of conduct strongly suggests that it is not an aberration, but a symptom.
What Hillary is doing is different, concocting a way to frame her misconduct as less than a mistake, simply not the best choice, in retrospect, of course. After all, after the results of a decision are known, it is no shame to say “well, now I know that I should have done something else.” The best choice is often illusive: who makes the best choice every time? As with its parent, #19, 19A falsely changes an accusation of wrongful conduct into one of less than perfect or ideal conduct. Unlike it, however, Hillary’s variation even rejects the proposition that the choice that was made was a mistake. A mistake implies error, which implies wrong. No, Clinton insists, I made no mistakes. It simply wasn’t the best choice. But isn’t it outrageous that I’m getting all this criticism because I made a perfectly reasonable choice that after all sorts of analysis and debate we realize could have been better?
19A is a framing trick, and a slick one. “It wasn’t the best choice” is insidious because using the guise of an admission, it invites acceptance of the false premise that there was nothing wrong done. It slyly takes the possibility of wrongdoing off the table, unlike #22, Comparative Virtue, which accepts it. By doing this, the wrongdoer poses as just an imperfect but sincere official, doing the best she can. Such a framing permits the wrongdoer to avoid the indignity of an apology. Hillary has repeatedly refused to apologize for her conduct.
In a sentencing hearing, a defendant who describes his crime as “not the best choice” tells the judge that for him, a criminal act is always among the practical options. This is what Hillary’s statement means as well. Remember how her husband asked Dick Morris to take a poll to determine whether lying or telling the truth about Monica was the “best” option? Hillary is exactly the same: unethical conduct is an option, and if it works, it was the best option. If it doesn’t work, and if the wrongdoer gets caught, well, it seemed like a good choice at the time.
Ethical people don’t think like that. Trustworthy people don’t think like that.
Using a private e-mail server that violated evolving government policy on responsible e-mail use, jeopardizing secrecy and classified information, keeping classified information out of State Department channels where they could be tagged and protected in a timely fashion, destroying any of the e-mails without subjecting them to official review and lying to the public about what she did (did Hillary have Dick Morris poll for her, too?) were not choices that, in retrospect could have been better. They were choices that she knew or should have known were irresponsible and unethical when she made them. She had an obligation, not to make the “best” choices, which are often impossible to determine except in hindsight, but to make ethical ones, which she did not do intentionally, placing her own agendas over her duties to the nation.
That’s a rotten choice.