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Ethics in the Era of Trump

Ethics vs Values

Has the Trump presidency been marked by ethical behavior? How would we know? Why should we care?

Ethical behavior is important in all aspects of life because it reflects our character: who we are and what we stand for. Ethical values, such as honesty and kindness, inform ethical behavior. The short answer is President Trump has not acted in an ethical manner on many occasions and the voters should consider it when deciding whether to support him in 2020.

At a minimum, Trump stretches the truth. Some would say he lied in the State of the Union speech when he said: “I have also made an ironclad pledge to American families: We will always protect patients with preexisting conditions.” The Trump administration has been trying to undermine this provision. He also tends to use exaggerated language when praising his own actions like he did when he characterized the phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky as “perfect.”

As for kindness, let’s not forget that during the 2016 Presidential election, he called Senator John McCain a loser because he was captured by the North Vietnamese. These are unkind words that lack empathy for someone who spent 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war, is considered to be a war hero and admired by millions of Americans. Trump’s feud with McCain started in 2015 after McCain commented that Trump had “fired up the crazies” at a campaign rally. Rather than take the moral high road, Trump lashed out because McCain didn’t support him.

It’s not all bad for Trump especially when we look at how he has promoted American cultural values that we hold so dear. These six values were first introduced in American Ways: An Introduction to the American Culture: individual freedom and self-reliance, equality of opportunity and competition and the American dream and hard work. Ethics v values

Trump has often spoken about these values and his actions have promoted a stronger economy, lower unemployment rate, higher median income and so on. Fair-minded people should give him credit for fostering the economic independence of Americans. This is his real strength and why we can’t simply dismiss him because we don’t like the way he does or says things.

While Trump has been good for the economy and economic freedom, his management style leads much to be desired. In many ways, the President has normalized incivility in society although it started before him and lots of other people have contributed to the decline in civic discourse. Still, we now have a more divided country than ever before.

Trump’s supporters tend to put substance over style and dismiss questionable behavior while his detractors emphasize the way he does things over what he has accomplished as President. Some critics have labeled him a bully. He might verbally shove others aside to get his way.

Ethical behavior demands consistency: treat others the way you wish to be treated (The Golden Rule). Trump’s style is more akin to situational ethics. Right and wrong depend on the facts of each situation. For example, he ordered a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, a well-known terrorist and head of Iran’s Quds Force. On the other hand, he judged it as being wrong to strike Iran after its attack on an oil tanker because it may have killed 150 Iranians.

From a strict ethical point of view (Rights Theory), killing is always wrong. It doesn’t depend on the situation. Individuals are members of humanity and have a right to exist and flourish. Admittedly, this may not be a wholly realistic viewpoint in today’s fractured and violent world.

So, what’s the conclusion about Trump and ethics. It can be summed up this way: Just because we have a right to do something that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The phone call to Zelensky is one such example. It’s also wrong to refer to others in unflattering ways (i.e., sleepy Joe Biden). Back in 2018, he referred to pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford as “Horseface.”

In deciding whether to re-elect President Trump, we should weigh his unorthodox approach to leadership and questionable management style against his accomplishments in creating a stronger economy, enabling economic equality by providing job opportunities to more Americans than ever before, and promoting self-reliance. Some voters like his in-your-face approach to decision making. However, being aggressive is one thing; being insulting is quite another.

It all comes down to character. Should we care that Trump tends to lash out at others, call them out when they criticize him and makes disparaging remarks about perceived enemies? After all, his style is simply a reflection of the prevailing culture of American society today. Perhaps this is why a substantial portion of the American electorate approve of his job performance.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 10, 2020. Dr. Mintz's Ethics Sage blog was recognized as one the top 100 in philosophy (#23) by Feedspot ( He recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website: Follow him on Facebook at: