The Three Circles, Prime Directives, And President Trump [With Addendum]

I can’t believe I have never written about this diagram before, but apparently I haven’t. That’s my fault, and a major one.

The diagram, the creation of my friend, attorney John May, shows the inter-relationship of the three ethical systems professionals must employ when they face ethics problems. For although we tend to think about making decisions in one context, there are several, and which sphere—these are circles after all—we choose will often determine what balance of values, principles and outcomes dictates the ultimate course.

Here are what the circles represent:

The Big Circle, in yellow, includes the ethics culture that we all live in. It includes our nation, society, community, family, and friends, and is a messy, inconsistent, multi-faceted, often contradictory melange of traditions, religion, customs, literature, history, heroes, fables, family influences, teachers, peers, laws, and more. This the largest system of all, the sun to the planet-sized influence of the other two systems. within it are not only the often competing ethics theories of Reciprocity, Absolutism, and Utilitarianism, but also all the variations in between and beyond–Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Marx, and many others. In his invaluable book “The Science of Good and Evil,” Michael Shermer posits that despite all the internal inconsistencies, the Big Circle is remarkably functional, agreeing on what is right and wrong perhaps 97% of the time. The disagreements are in the realm Shermer calls provisional ethics,  akin to what Ethics Alarms is referring to when it cites The Ethics Incompleteness Principle. These are the troublesome problems where the usual principles don’t always work.


The Core Circle, in green, represents the values, principles, beliefs and the priority of these for an individual–you. It comprises all of those, plus such core qualities as conscience, self-esteem and courage. It’s location in the Big Circle varies with the individual. A section of it even may protrude outside Big Circle, representing the degree to which a person does not embrace the values of his or her community or culture.

Finally, there is the Compliance Circle, in red. That circle defines the special ethics of a profession, and includes ethics codes, traditions, aspirational values and professional obligations and duties.

Notice that part of the Red Circle is outside the Yellow one. These are the values about which a profession is bound to adhere to at all costs, even though the society at large often and even usually does not have the same ethical priorities. Quoting Star Trek, this is Prime Directive territory. In Gene Roddenberry’s fictional Star Fleet, it was forbidden to use the immense power a starship could muster to interfere with a planet’s inhabitants and their conduct, even to prevent what appeared to be a horrible wrong.  This principle would be repugnant to the the public at large. For example, if a starship had an opportunity to stop a genocidal race from wiping out another race on its planet, the Prime Directive would make it a crime to do so. The Big Circle would certainly view this as monstrous, but the Prime Directive wisely holds that interference must be avoided.

Every professional aligns its priorities different from other professions and the culture as a whole. This is one of the defining characteristics of a profession. The Big Circle would want a doctor to let a bloodthirsty dictator die on the operating table, but the surgeon’s prime directive, “Do no harm” takes precedence. As I have often discussed on Ethics Alarms, the public believes that lawyers should not defend guilty criminals, not keep their confidences when revealing them would point to their guilt. Zealous representation and the duty of confidentiality are prime directives for lawyers, however. Professional ethics in practice often seem unethical to non professionals.

When a professional abandons its prime directives and adopts the Big Circle’s priorities, it ceases to be a trustworthy profession. Thus journalists now decide how to report the news according to what they think is in society’s best interests according to their own biases and preferences. That’s how the public conducts itself, but it isn’t journalism. The prime directives of ethical journalism are objectivity, unfiltered and direct communication of facts, and independence, without consideration of what the consequences public knowledge of the truth may be. American journalism is no longer a profession.

I was reminded of John May’s diagram when I was trying to explain to a commenter why President Trump’s decision to support Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race can be ethical even while the news media and others complain that he has a duty to try to stop such an unfit candidate from polluting the Senate. President trump prime directives and his ethical priorities are delineated in his oath of office:

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Executing his office means doing his job as defined in the Constitution. Preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States, however has taken on special meaning in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and the unprecedented efforts by “the resistance” and the Democratic Party to overturn the election by any means possible. Never before hs a party taken the position, as many elected Democratic office holders now do, that a President can be impeached and thrown out of office based only on a majority party’s determination that he is generally unfit to serve. Were the President to be impeached and convicted according to this theory, which is contrary to what the Founders intended and wrote, then democratic election of the President would be subject to the will of the legislature. The Constitution and the democracy will have been permanently scarred.

Moreover, the duty of a President to faithfully execute his office includes making a good faith effort to foil efforts to interfere with his office.

There is no question that members of the U.S. Senate have an ethical duty to preserve the integrity of that body above any partisan or legislative objectives. Thus Republican Senators are correct to oppose Moore. However, while he may be an unfit Senator, Moore’s election threatens none of the President’s ethical mandates. The President can veto any bad law he supports because of his miserable character and inadequate intellect. Moore does not support the Rule of Law, but as a Senator, there is no way he can obstruct the Rule of Law. A Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, however, poses a clear and present danger to President Trump’s Presidency, as well as to the viability of the Constitution.

In making this case, I have no delusions that the President reached his decision to support Moore by considering the unique ethical mandates of his office, or the special prime directives of national leadership generally.  President Trump doesn’t do ethical analysis. I don’t believe he knows what ethics is. The President has no Core Circle, and isn’t aware of his Compliance Circle. He just sort of bounces around inside the Big Circle. Round and round and round he goes, and where he stops, nobody knows,

Nonetheless, whether he knows it or not, the President’s  decision to support Roy Moore is ethically defensible within the Compliance Circle.

ADDENDUM: I want to make sure this is clear: all three circles can house an ethical decision. Although professionals are supposed to hew to tbe Compliance Circle in their professional conduct, that doesn’t mean that a professional cannot or will not decide that he or she cannot follow the professional mandates because they will lead to an unjust or absurd result, In such cases, a professional may make a pure Green Circle decision, based on personal values and conscience. In other circumstances,  professional may defer to the Big Circle, to public opinion and cultural mores, even though it is not a course he or she personally supports. That is a Big Circle ethics choice. It is likely to be popular, but professionals, especially leaders, are expected to base their decisions on more than “the wisdom of crowds.”

A complete, competent, ethical adult considers the perspectives and values of all three circles in the course of facing an ethical dilemma or conflict. Only following the Big Circle marks one as a coward and a sheep. Ignoring the other two circles to satisfy the Core Circle in all cases yields to bias and narcissism. And a professional who ignores the concerns of the culture and society and will never heed the demands of his own conscience to obey the Compliance Circle at all costs is a robot. True, three circles make ethics more complicated. They also tend to make our ethics decisions better.

23 thoughts on “The Three Circles, Prime Directives, And President Trump [With Addendum]

  1. “if a starship had an opportunity to stop a genocidal race from wiping out another race on its planet, the Prime Directive would make it a crime to do so.”

    That “Prime Directive” is some pretty heady stuff!

    Might an example of that have been the Star Trek episode “City On The Edge Of Forever?”

    Captain Kirk goes back in time & falls in love with a very fetching Joan Collins in the 1930’s and must allow her to die in a car accident before she begins a Peace Movement that allows Hitler to conquer the world.

    It aired in 1967, perhaps another reason you were so fond of that year?

    • Might an example of that have been the Star Trek episode “City On The Edge Of Forever?”

      That episode wasn’t so much about the prime directive as messing with the timeline. It turned out that if Joan Collins’ character did not die in the traffic accident, she would’ve headed an anti-war movement that would’ve resulted in delaying the US entry into World War II, allowing Nazi Germany to develop the atomic bomb first. So letting her die was more a matter of self-preservation, or at least the preservation of the Federation as it was when they went through the Guardian of Forever.

      A classic example of the prime directive in the original series was A Private Little War, where the Klingons tried to help one faction over another by providing them incremental advances in technology (i.e. flintlock rifles) along with the metallurgical advances to build them. The prime directive motivated the Enterprise crew not only to kick out the Klingons, but also to equalize the odds by providing similar technology and tech data to the other side.

    • Most of the rationalizations have applications where they are legitimate. A leader has to act assertively according to the crisis or situation. FDR defied Congress and assisted Russia and Great Britain prior to our entry into World War II, despite a law forbidding him from doing it. Those were special times.

      A Presidents duties would NEVER dictate supporting a Senate candidate who could be counted on to undermine his leadership. It’s not is job to police the character of the Senate. His job is to maximize his ability to be an effective President.

      I don’t even see this as a “special times’ situation. It’s an easy call.

        • Of course! And the Alabama GOP had an obligation not to nominate him. And the run-off voters had an obligation not to vote for him. And the Senate has an obligation not to seat him. These are all THOSE party’s ethical duties. It’s not the President’s job.

  2. A Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, however, poses a clear and present danger to….. the viability of the Constitution.

    Evidence for this extraordinary assertion?

    • I explained that. The Democrats, if their rhetoric, supporters and chair is to be believed, want o impeach and remove the President without the Constitution’s required conditions. Whether they can or will, the threat to the integrity of the democratic process, the institution of the Presidency, the Separation of Powers and the Constitution cannot be chanced.

        • I believe what is true: this Democratic party has engaged in unprecedented efforts to undermine the electorate’s choice and the Constitutional government by numerous means, and is per se untrustworthy. All is a matter of record.

        • Speaking for me, not Jack, I believe the Democrats would trump up (pun intended) articles of impeachment, and that sufficient House Democrats would vote it out as a true bill, regardless of the constitutional validity of the charge under the constitution.

          I also believe there is no practical way for the Democrats to elect sufficient senators to convict him considering that even if Democrats swept every seat in the Senate up for election in 2018, they could not attain a majority sufficient to reach the conviction threshold. Knowing this, Democrats in the Senate would do exactly what the Senate Republicans did during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial — grandstand, and fail to convict.

          But the impeachment and subsequent trial would paralyze the government for five months at least, just like it did when Clinton was charged, and the fallout would, in my opinion, be even more unhealthy for our republic than that disaster. It is remotely possible an insurrection could break out, and I don’t want that to happen.

  3. I once had two compliance circles to deal with (dual-hatted as the military terms it) and my core circle did not always align within the big circle. Those were some interesting times.

    • TM wrote, “I once had two compliance circles to deal with (dual-hatted as the military terms it) and my core circle did not always align within the big circle. Those were some interesting times.”

      There are conflicting conditions that most of us face, especially in military “conflict”, that can wreak utter havoc to our core ethics and if those conflicts cannot be reasonably resolved in a way that settles the soul we can get serious lingering ethical conflicts. Luckily here in the United States there is confidential help available to resolve such conflicts, people just need to ask.

  4. Would the “Compliance Circle” contain the staggering hypocrisy, I mean, difficult decisions painstakingly made by the talented Dr.-Philosopher-Ethicist Dominic Roser (Institute for Ethics and Human Rights/University of Fribourg)?

    According to him, there exists “a moral obligation to abstain from flying.”

    One may verily sense the anguished cost-benefit analysis the author of “The Ethics of Climate Change” is forced to apply to any-n-all activity and its ultimate impact on an increasingly fragile Mother Gaia, whose delicate life hangs in the balance

    He leaves little to the imagination as he bravely, and with seemingly no concern for self, outlines what must be everyone’s priority: addressing the Global Warming that’s here and worse than the models predicted.

    (bolds & caps mine throughout)
    “People of the future generations die through our flights. To put it bluntly, the jetliner in which I sit is like a rocket that is aimed at future humans.”

    Powerful stuff! Yet for the self-anointed, tasked with seeing what the rest of us simply cannot, there remain hard choices; choices immune to scrutiny of the great unwashed and, you know, like, reality.

    But sometimes one has to fly, for example if your mother is dying far away, or WHEN I AS A POLITICIAN HAVE TO GO TO A CLIMATE CONFERENCE.

    Heavy is the head that wears the crown, am I right?

    But it begs a larger question, have these Climate Criminal Charlatans never heard of teleconferencing?

    To wit:

    During the 2007 Bali Climate Conference, it was determined that the island paradise’s airport couldn’t accommodate <b<ALL the carbon-spewing private jets.

    What to do? Hey, howse about just dropping off those fat, pampered pricks, fly to a nearby island airstrip, wait for their charges to dine-n-quaff sumptuous
    noshments while doing NOTHING to save the Planet, then fly back to pick up their over-stuffed nabobs to spirit them home?

  5. Potential problems arise when two different professions, each with their own compliance circle, interact. The example most familiar to me is the conflict that can arise between mental health and legal. An attorney, who is representing a client in an action where the mental state is relevant, sometimes requests that a mental health provider who has treated that client act as an expert witness. There are two reason for this I think. The first is that the attorney truly believes that the provider has the best knowledge of the client’s mental state and can present the most effective testimony, thus adhering to his compliance circle to best represent his client. The second reason is financial. Forensic evaluations and expert witness testimony are very expensive and in the situation I deal with the attorneys are employed by the state and there is no possibility of a settlement to offset expenses.

    If a provider agrees to act as an expert, he or she is then placed in an untenable position: as a provider they must act only in the best interest of the patient but as an expert witness they are sworn to provide a fair and unbiased opinion to assist the court. What if the provider as expert witness is required to reveal information that is not in the best interest of the patient? Woe to the man or woman who tries to serve two masters.

    The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law recognizes the dilemma and has clearly stated that a treating provider should not agree to serve as an expert witness for a patient or to evaluate them for legal purposes. Never the less, there are a few attorneys who attempt to browbeat providers at the agency where I work into taking on the role of expert witness. A provider may act as a lay witness and testify to facts but that is not really what the attorney wants. They need an opinion which supports their case and only an expert witness can provide an opinion.

    An article I reviewed regarding psychiatry and the law made the statement, “Society has recognized the need for confidentiality in psychotherapeutic relationships, just as it has in attorney-client relationships. Attorneys need to understand the ethics of other professions, for it does not advance the cause of justice nor the integrity of the legal profession to ignore the ethical boundaries of others.” I agree with that statement wholeheartedly. Only a few of the attorneys we have to deal with attempt to intimidate the providers, but those few are clearly ignoring the ethical boundaries of our providers and are not advancing the cause of justice or the integrity of the legal profession.

  6. A few observations about the Circles. They are, of course, nothing more than Venn diagrams. Consider the rectangle to contain all possible responses to a particular situation. Each of the circles represents the set of all possible responses (or ethical response set) that fall within that ethical construct (such as the core principles or your own personal principles). Jack’s diagram is just one possible representation of an ethical question and the three ethical response sets. The yellow circle is not necessarily larger than the other circles. In some cases, one circle might be entirely within another circle. In other cases, two circles might not intersect at all. One assumption I made when I devised the circles was that each ethical response set was convex. No donut shapes allowed. I don’t know if this is a realistic assumption, but it makes the diagrams easier to draw.

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