Do the Ends Justify the Means?
By now everyone should know that Bob Woodward’s book Rage, recalls phone conversations with President Trump about his reactions to the coronavirus back in February. Many questions have been raised ever since about his motivation in leaking some of those conversations on September 9, about two months before the election. Some people are trying to deflect the question and turn it on Trump because, after all, he made the remarkable comments and admissions, not Woodward. In an interview I had with Canadian TV (CTV), I said both Woodward and Trump were at fault because they placed their own self-interest above the public interest. The following analysis explains why I came to that conclusion.
Is it coincidental that Woodward’s book is coming out on September 15? Of course not. Anyone who thinks Woodward is not recounting those conversations now given the impending election and sale of his book is turning a blind eye to the self-serving behavior of Woodward. We judge people on their ethics by what their intent is in doing or saying something. For Woodward, it was in his best interests to withhold the disclosures. In other words, it was selfish behavior that delayed acting to protect public health by seven months.
Woodward claims he waited this long because he wanted to confirm what Trump had said and gather more facts before “blowing the whistle.” This is nothing more than a rationalization for an unethical action. Moreover, Woodward himself said that by May he believed what Trump had said in the interviews about the severity of the virus was true. Why didn’t he disclose at that time, some four months earlier? Just imagine how many thousands of lives could have been saved if he had done so.
Those who support Woodward basically are invoking the don’t “kill the messenger” defense. After all, Woodward isn’t guilty of making the statements by Trump that illustrated his “ethical blindness.” That’s true but if Woodward had come out earlier his actions would have been consistent with protecting the public interest, something that was not on Trump’s radar, and essential to ethical behavior. Having written hundreds of blogs as the "Ethics Sage," I have never seen a more blatant disregard for the public health and safety then by both men.
In interviews about the conversations and his role in withholding the information, Woodward is quoted as saying, “If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know.” Really? We knew that the coronavirus was five-times more deadly than the flu back in February.
According to Woodward, Trump had said that COVID-19 was worse than what he had been saying publicly, that it’s transmitted through the air. The fact that Trump told the public one thing, that the virus would go away with little damage to our health, and Woodward another is no surprise. We’ve come to know that Trump will say anything to anyone especially if he perceives it will benefit him. In other words, Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder. It’s all about him, all of the time. That’s why he agreed to speak to Woodward. In his mind there would have been some kind of benefit to him, although what that is escapes me.
It seems to me that reporters (Woodward claims he was acting as an author) have an ethical obligation best characterized as full disclosure. In other words, ethical behavior requires that a person disclose fully all the information that the public has a right or need to know, with no left-out facts or slanted truths. In ethics we look at lying two ways: a lie by omission and a lie by commission. Woodward was guilty of the former. By failing to fully disclose what he knew and when, he lied to the public.
The bottom line is both Woodward and Trump acted unethically by holding on to the information until it was convenient to disclose it. In both cases we could say that they were acting in a way where the ends justify the means. For Woodward it is to sell books plain and simple. Delaying the information was just the instrument to get what he wanted from selling the book. It’s not surprising that it is already on Amazon’s best seller list.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 14, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .