Why There are Two Sets of Rules
A great deal has been said about the double standard we seem to have in America where one group feels entitled to different behaviors than the others. Take the recent cases of politicians doing things that others are restricted from or prohibited from doing during the pandemic. I’ve blogged about the hypocrisy before. Here are some recent examples of the dual set of standards.
Senator Ted Cruz was caught flying to Mexico for a family trip while Texans were told to stay home. Or CA Governor Gavin Newsom caught having dinner for ten at the French Laundry, an upscale restaurant in Napa Valley, while Californians were under strict rules about eating indoors and congregating with others. Then there was Nancy Pelosi caught on camera in an indoor hair salon while Californians were prohibited from doing so.
More recently, U.S. special envoy for climate John Kerry was caught without wearing a mask on an American Airlines flight to Washington, D.C. Kerry was not in the process of eating or drinking. Kerry said dropping his mask on a flight was "momentary" after a photo surfaced showing him without a mask on. This violates American's requirement for all passengers to wear a mask on board, in accordance with directives from the CDC and TSA. This follows Kerry's faux pas back in 2019 when he took a private jet to a climate conference in Iceland. His response: "If you offset your carbon -- it's the only choice for somebody like me who is traveling the world to win this battle." By saying "somebody like me", Kerry is clearly stating he is entitled to use a private jet for traveling regardless of the carbon emission threat to the environment.
Political hypocrisy is nothing new. A recent case in point is GOP Representatives Louie Gohmert and Andrew Clyde who were fined $5,000 for bypassing newly-installed-metal detectors as they entered the House of Representatives floor. These security measures were put in place following the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Ethics is about intent. Was the action of a person motivated by a sense of entitlement? If so, they are following a different set of rules than others who do the right thing even if they object to what that is according to the rules. The intent of Gohmert and Clyde was clearly to take advantage of their position and, shall we say, their station in life. One way to explain these and other entitled behaviors is a sense of arrogance and self-absorption.
To be sure these are not unique American problems. Mark Machin, the head of Canada's largest pension fund, had to resign after disregarding public health advice and travelling to Dubai for a dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
What are the ethical principles when examining a behavior or action from the perspective of right versus wrong? Here are a few and how they apply in these and other situations.
Entitlement. Some people feel entitled to do things that others would not or should not. A good example is vaccine tourism, which I blogged about earlier in the month. Here, wealthy or well-connected people (e.g., Mark Machin) jumped the Covid-19 line by flying to places like Dubai to get their vaccine sooner than would have happened if they followed the rules.
Appearances count. We hear a lot these days about the “optics” of a situation. If something looks bad to the public, or someone takes advantage of their position, there is an appearance problem. Appearances count when we are talking about ethical behavior.
Fairness above all else. People need to be treated fairly. There shouldn’t be two sets of rules. Consider, for example, “Operation Varsity Blues” where wealthy and well-connected parents made payments to middlemen who then brokered the admission of their kids into prestigious colleges and universities. So-called “pay to play” actions break down the level playing field that should exist so that the well-to-do are not favored in the admission process of their kids than ordinary citizens.
Accountability for one’s actions. One reason these kinds of entitled behaviors occur is the person who trades on their position in life or wealth are not held to account. This has been changing with the advent of the cancel culture. Social media picks up on such things and rallies the offended parties to speak out about objectionable actions or words of another and shun them from society.
These kinds of behaviors have one underlying theme, which is psychological entitlement. I will blog more about it next week but let me make a few points. Psychological Entitlement holds that people with a greater sense of entitlement are less likely to comply with the rules – i.e., Covid-19 guidelines, than others that do comply. Such people do not feel the need to wear masks in people or practice social distancing. They feel that is for others, not themselves. It is selfish behavior motivated by a sense of deservedness. They believe they are more important than others.
The case of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the sexual harassment charges against him is interesting from the point of view of entitlement. Did Cuomo feel entitled to say things to female staffers or make certain gestures that others should not do? How can we explain his actions given he was an early supporter of the #MeToo movement? He also introduced a Women’s Equality Act proposal in June 2013 that included banning “sexual harassment in every workplace.” Cuomo seemed not to realize that the objectionable words he said to female staffers could create a hostile work environment. In this case, Cuomo suffered from ethical blind spots, that is he didn’t see how his actions would be taken as inappropriate by the staffers.
It is no wonder so many Americans feel disconnected from their government. They witness the double standard or may have been on the wrong side. They wonder about the lack of accountability. Many have come to believe that politicians are tone deaf when it comes to acting in the best interests of the public, not their self-interest.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on March 23, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.