On a thread about the hysterical doom-sayers in response to the US’s exit from the Paris accords on climate change, one dedicated defender of progressive orthodoxy, lacking a genuine rebuttal for the proposition that the social media and pundit panic was nonsense (for there is none), defaulted to the argument that the withdrawal was unethical because the President’s stated motives for it were untrue. This raised two issues, one centuries old, and the other, an irritating one, of more recent vintage.
In order to sanctify many of the Obama administration’s policy botches, many people have adapted aggressive versions of three prime rationalizations on the Ethics Alarms List: #13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”; #13A The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”) and #14. Self-validating Virtue. To refresh your memory:
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. The words “it’s for a good cause” have been used to justify all sorts of lies, scams and mayhem. It is the downfall of the zealot, the true believer, and the passionate advocate that almost any action that supports “the Cause,’ whether it be liberty, religion, charity, or curing a plague, is seen as being justified by the inherent rightness of the ultimate goal. Thus Catholic Bishops protected child-molesting priests to protect the Church, and the American Red Cross used deceptive promotions to swell its blood supplies after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Saint’s Excuse allows charities to strong-arm contributors, and advocacy groups to use lies and innuendo to savage ideological opponents. The Saint’s Excuse is that the ends justify the means, because the “saint” has decided that the ends are worth any price—especially when that price will have to be paid by someone else.
13A The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”)
This sub-rationalization to the Saint’s Excuse is related to its parent but arguably worse. Rationalization 13 is one of the really deadly rationalizations, the closest on the list to “The ends justified the means”:
The Saint’s Excuse is that the ends justify the means, because the “saint” has decided that the ends are worth any price—especially when that price will have to be paid by someone else.
But while the wielder of the Saint’s Excuse typically at least has a beneficial or valuable result to claim as justification for unethical and inexcusable acts, the desperate employers of 13A only have their alleged good intentions, which may be the product of emotion, misunderstanding, ignorance or stupidity. How a bad actor intended his unethical conduct to turn out is no mitigation at all. The underlying logic is that the wrongdoer isn’t a bad person, so the wrongful act shouldn’t be held against him or her as harshly as if he was. The logic is flawed (it is the same logic as in The King’s Pass, #11, which holds that societal valuable people would be held to lower standards of conduct than everyone else) and dangerous, encouraging the reckless not to consider the substance of a course of action, but only its motivations.
The Saint’s Excuse attempts to justify unethical actions that accomplish worthy goals The Road to Hell attempts to justify unethical conduct even when it does undeniable harm, just because it was undertaken with admirable intent.
14. Self-validating Virtue
A corollary of the Saint’s Excuse is “Self-validating Virtue,” in which the act is judged by the perceived goodness the person doing it, rather than the other way around. This is applied by the doer, who reasons, “I am a good and ethical person. I have decided to do this; therefore this must be an ethical thing to do, since I would never do anything unethical.” Effective, seductive, and dangerous, this rationalization short-circuits ethical decision-making, and is among the reasons good people do bad things, and keep doing them, even when the critics point out their obvious unethical nature. Good people sometimes do bad things because they are good people, and because of complacency and self-esteem they begin with a conviction, often well supported by their experience, that they are incapable of doing something terribly wrong. But all of us are capable of that, if our ethics alarms freeze due to our environment, emotions, peer pressure, and corrupting leadership, among many possible causes. At the end of the movie “Falling Down,” the rampaging vigilante played by Michael Douglas, once a submissive, law-abiding citizen, suddenly realizes what he has done. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks incredulously. Indeed he is. Any of us, no matter how virtuous, are capable of becoming “the bad guy”…especially when we are convinced that we are not.
This has led to the seeming absurdity of recent arguments, some accepted in court, that the same conduct can be right or wrong, depending on whether the conduct is based on “good” motives, and who is the actor. Since, to take one random example, Barack Obama is obviously good and means well, even inept, poorly planned and irresponsible policies are ethical. Because President Trump is a villain, the same conduct emanating from his dastardly motives would make the same conduct unethical. I have dealt with this biased approach before and will again, but not today.
It is the second, older question that concerns me at the moment, and that is whether human motives should be used in the analysis of whether conduct is ethical or not. The conundrum come up repeatedly in one of my favorite ethics books, “The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.“
Obviously the actor’s motives matter greatly in that individual’s determination regarding whether his or her potential conduct is ethical. All ethical problem-solving methods include “Honestly assess why you believe this is an ethical course.” The object is to eliminate bias, self-deception, and conflicts of interest. When Alexander Hamilton was deciding whether to support his rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the disputed Presidential election of 1800, over Aaron Burr, he had to ask himself, “Am I doing this because I really think Jefferson will be best for the country, or because I detest Burr and will get great pleasure out of personally blocking him?” Fortunately, he probably concluded that both were the case, but the unethical motive didn’t invalidate the main one..
Years ago, I used this hypothetical, based on the play “Amadeus” and co-written with litigator John May, in a legal ethics course:
Welcome. Welcome. My name is Salvador Yary. You can call me Sal. It’s so nice of you to visit an old man in this miserable place. I know you’re here because I say I killed him, I don’t flatter myself by thinking that you came to hear an old lawyer talk about his famous cases. I did kill him you know. Just as sure as you are sitting there, I had to. After his humiliation. he was dropped like a hot rock by the media. I took him into my firm, pretending to help him but always undermining his confidence. Ultimately it killed him. But I get ahead of myself.
The first time I saw him. I was in my prime; one of the shining stars of the defense bar. I was waiting for a status conference and he was finishing up some inconsequential civil case. His name was Adam Ayus, and he was a cretin. His clothes were offensive, his manners atrocious, He addressed the court as “Hey Judge.” But when he spoke to the jury. it was as though God himself were speaking. It was mesmerizing; it was beautiful. I hated him.
His star rose quickly. He became a darling of the Court T.V. set. where I used to sit alone explaining the latest sensational trial, now this monstrosity shared the camera!
What was worse, the public did not even begin to understand his genius. His brief in Figaro v. Giovanni was extraordinary. Yet the old Chief Judge complained it was “too long,” had “too many footnotes.” Only I, who had always dreamed of possessing such powers, understood the nature of the gifts that had been bestowed on this freak, this offense to the law.
So I waited for my moment to destroy him. and it finally came. He filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family that had lost their loved one as a result of the particularly gruesome medical malpractice by one Dr. Lector. The Doctor was a beast in every sense of the word. He was reviled and vilified by the entire country. I volunteered to represent him pro bono— for free.
In typical, grandstandng, fashion, Ayus had filed suit in Federal Court, because the Courtrooms were bigger. More press could get in. He alleged diversity, of course. No federal crimes here. His client lived in Fairfax and Lector was served in his office in D.C.
There was very little discovery. Lector had filmed his “operation.” There was no question of a breach of the standard of care, more like a breach of table manners. Ayus didn’t even need an expert. I myself filed no discovery and took no depositions. Ayus thought I was being cheap. I just stalled, and stalled, wasting days, and waited for my moment. That moment came when I put my client on the stand.
“Doctor, I have only two questions. One, where is your office?”
“2021 K Street, Washington, D.C.”
And Two, “Where have you been living since this suit was filed?”
“Washington, Virginia. Two doors down from the Little Inn. I dined there last night and had a plate of liver with some fava . . .”
“Yes. Yes. Doctor. That will do. Your Honor, I move to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The parties are not diverse.”
You see, Ayus had confused the Doctor’s little Virginia home town with Washington, D.C.. The Judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. It was not a case that belonged in federal court. And because I had waited until the last possible moment to raise the issue, which I knew from the moment that I read the file, the Statute of Limitations had run in State Court the very day before!
Adam Ayus was undone, humiliated. Everybody shunned him, even Fox News Like I said, I took him into my firm, and watched him dissolve like a slug sprinkled with a little salt. Finally, he threw himself into the shredder.
Ah, I see they’re coming to take me to dinner. I hear we’re having liver. I’ve become quite fond of liver. With fava beans, of course…
After pointing out that this jurisdictional maneuver (which a judge is guaranteed to hate) was the only way Sal could win the case for his client, I asked whether the stratagem was ethical. There are many side issues in the hypothetical but as to the main one, since this was Sal’s only option to win for his client, and because Adam had, in fact, engaged in malpractice, even Sal’s cruel motive didn’t make his conduct unethical.
The problem after the fact is that it is impossible to sort out the many, often conflicting human emotions, motives and non-ethical considerations that go into any act. What someone says or writes about their reasons after the conduct is completed is never reliable or complete. For that reason, many ethicists, including me, believe that the conduct must be evaluated without reference to guesses regarding what the “true” motives behind it were. Was the conduct ethical at the time it occurred?
To further illustrate the principle, imagine an idiot, but a rich and powerful one, who detests a famous and respected community figure. The idiot hates the man because of his race, his religion, his appearance; the man is gay, and the idiot hates gays; he is short and fat, and the idiot hates him for that, too. One day, the rich idiot hear someone on TV talk about ” killing with kindness.” “You can kill with kindness?” the fool exclaims. “I didn’t know that! This is wonderful!”
From that day on, the idiot determines to murder his virtuous rival with kindness. He opens his mansion to the man and his family, He takes care of his pets when the man is on vacation. He contributes money to all of the man’s favorite charities and causes, and lavishes him with gifts. He praises him to the news media, and uses his influence to have him honored with awards. Only he knows that all of this apparent generosity and kindness is designed to commit murder.
Does that make his conduct unethical?