As Bill Clinton might say (and probably has, maybe more than once), it depends on what your definition of “wrong” is.
Millions of Texans were left without electricity this week in the middle of the state’s power crisis following a massive winter storm. The Senator’s wife Heidi sent text messages to friends and neighbors complaining that their home was “FREEZING,” and that she wanted the family to escape on the 17th to someplace warmer, at least until Sunday. The mission, if her husband chose to accept it: get to the luxury Ritz-Carlton in sunny Cancún, Mexico. The destination is apparently a family favorite. The GOP Senator did accept, and the Freezing Cruzes fled Houston, hopping an afternoon flight. The consensus of the news media, the commentariat and social media was that…
In fact, you would think Cruz had been caught having a secret romantic rendezvous with a goat. Incriminating photos of Cruz and his wife boarding the flight launched a full-fledged scandal. How dare he flee a crisis when his state was in misery? Ted responded by playing the Parent Card, explaining he had flown to Mexico “to be a good dad” and to chaperone his daughters and their friends, and he promised he was coming back yesterday, which he did.
When he returned, Cruz admitted that his family trip had been a mistake. That is undeniable.
But was it unethical? Was it wrong?
One reason Cruz’s escape to warmer climes was a mistake was that it came on the heels of so many Democratic Party mayors and governors violating their own “don’t travel,” “stay out of crowds” and “celebrate Thanksgiving with your immediate family at home” edicts. The “laws are for little people” behavior of our elected class is still raw in everyone’s minds, and the news media was primed to go Medieval on any Republican who could be accused of following the same arrogant pattern. For all his flaws, Ted Cruz is a smart man and an astute politician. He just barely won re-election. How could he not know that leaving his constituency FREEZING while he, a millionaire with options they didn’t have, got out of Dodge (Do NOT tell me that Dodge City is in Kansas, you know what I mean) would look terrible?
This can be framed as a classic ethics dilemma, an example of unethical considerations overcoming ethical ones and muffling ethics alarms. Cruz was FREEZING himself. His family was unhappy, and his wife and children were lobbying him to go. The family/public service conflict is real and has had a greater influence on our elected officials’ conduct, and thus the journey of our nation, than we tend to think. Or maybe less—a large proportion of our leaders—I am tempted to say “most”—are pretty lousy parents and spouses, and their responsibilities on the home front are routinely delegated or ignored. I often describe non-ethical considerations as creating a giant magnet pulling the clapper on the ethics alarm away from its proper function. Often these non-ethical considerations are power, prestige and personal advancement, and for politicians, they work against the family’s need.
Cruz’s decision can also be analyzed as an ethics conflict, with ethical considerations on both sides of the equation, but pointing to opposite conclusions. Cruz’s duties to his family are ethical ones, just as his duties to his state, office and party are ethical duties. In ethics conflicts, the relative expected consequences of the opposite courses must be balanced as objectively as possible without being tainted by rationalizations.
There are many rationalizations that would point Cruz to Cancun. Among them (and I’m sure I missed a couple):
The Biblical Rationalizations, like “Judge not, lest ye not be judged,” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The Trivial Trap (“No harm no foul!”)
The King’s Pass “Just this once!”
The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
The Road To Hell, or “I meant well”
Murkowski’s Lament, or “It was a difficult decision.”
Ethics Accounting, or “I’ve earned this”
The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants”
Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)
Frederick’s Compulsion or “It’s My Duty!”
“The Favorite Child” Excuse
The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”
The Comforting Accusation or “You would have done the same thing!”
The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”
The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
Ethics Jiu Jitsu, or “Haters Gonna Hate!”
“Convenient Futility,” or “It wouldn’t have mattered if I had done the right thing.”
Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
The Hippie’s License, or “If it feels good, do it!”
The Universal Trump, or “Think of the children!”
The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
The Paranoid’s Blindness, or “It’s not me, it’s you.”
Twenty-six rationalizations, just sitting out there ready confound the Senator’s ethical decision-making process!
This situation was a perfect opportunity to apply, carefully, the Twelve Questions devised by Harvard Business School Professor Laura Nash in 1981. Let’s do it now:
1. Have you defined the problem accurately? In other words, “What’s going on here?” If the truth is that Cruz just wanted to get out of Texas and had the opportunity to do so, then that’s an ethics dilemma, and the ethical course—stay and suffer with your followers like good leaders do, is obvious. If it’s an ethics conflict, family vs. job, then there is a more difficult problem.
2. How would you define the problem if you stood on the other side of the fence? This one might have made the difference. From the other side of the fence, meaning outside his family, the situation looks like the elite and aristocratic being in charge of a government that is supposed to be democratic. It is irresponsible to foster such a perception.
3. How did this situation occur in the first place? N/A
4. To whom and to what do you give your loyalty as a person and as a member of the organization? As a person? The family. As a member of the Texas GOP, the Republican Party, and a citizen of the state who has been elected and is trusted to represent its citizens? To ask the question is to answer it.
5. What is your intention in making this decision? Get warm and make the family feel that they come first, when so often they do not.
6. How does this intention compare with the probable results? Oh, that intention will be fulfilled. But Cruz had to consider the blow-back, which was absolutely predictable, as an undesired result.
7. Whom could your decision injure? Ted Cruz. The Republican Party.
8. Can you discuss the problem with the affected parties before you make your decision? No, he could discuss the problem with half of the affected parties, all those in favor of one course of action. The fact that Cruz knew he couldn’t discuss the matter with his party, advisors, and constituents should have told him what the ethical course was.
9. Are you confident that your position will be as valid over a long period of time as it seems now? I’m sure this never popped into Ted’s mind. He was not playing ethics chess.
10. Could you disclose without qualm your decision or action to your boss, the head of your organization, your colleagues, your family, the person you most admire, or society as a whole?
Let’s see…His boss? That would be Texans. NO. The head of his organization? NO. Colleagues? NO..at least not the smart ones. Family? Sure! The person you most admire? That would be Ted. Society as a whole? Well, we have the answer to that one now, don’t we?
11. What is the symbolic potential of your action if understood? If misunderstood? DINGDINGDINGDING! Cruz was only thinking about the real, tabgible, crisis-related consequences of his brief escape. He is a U.S. Senator, and has no power (just like Texas!) in a situation like this. It is literally not in his job description. However, Cruz’s profession is politics, where perceptions are crucial. A Senator leaving Texas for Mexico looks like the captain leaving a sinking ship by luxury yacht while the passengers remain trapped.
12. Are there circumstances when you would allow exceptions to your stand? What are they? #12 is unnecessary, because the actual circumstances are an exception to his “stand,” which was, “I can’t do anything here, and my family is cold and miserable. There’s no harm in me leaving for a few days, and it will be good for the family.”
The Verdict: Cruz’s decision was wrong because it was incompetent. He’s a politician, and a leader, and both require trust. His getaway appeared to be disloyal and a breach of duty, and for leaders, appearances that undermine trust must be avoided at all costs. It was an unethical decision because it looked and felt unethical, and because a politician must maintain the appearance of trustworthiness, and because a leader must have public trust to be effective, Cruz’s action was, in fact, unethical.
Source: New York Times