Are Americans witnessing the triumph of ignorance, selfishness, greed, and incompetence? If so, we ought not to be surprised. Outside of religious values tied to particular beliefs, dogmas and ideologies, we just don’t talk about morals. OK – sometimes we do love to ascribe some negative values (vices, really) to certain others: greediness, vanity, laziness, boastfulness. But when we attempt to describe our moral foundations as a nation, or even try to unpack what “American values” mean, we get tongue-tied. We often seem to have lost the vocabulary of secular morals, and we stumble forward without recognizing moral dilemmas in our path. Our inability to articulate a moral quandary might go some way in explaining the flailing soul-searching now happening about Charlottesville.
Has the notion of secular, universal moral values lost its appeal? Moral principles certainly have become obscured by politicized law-making, and “ethics” has come to mean only dry, tedious rules about disclosure and behavior. The voices of secular morality and ethical principles are largely notable by their absence. Gone are the days when people of the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt labored hard to help craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now we have a Secretary of State in Rex Tillerson who lacks a moral vocabulary. He has consigned freedom, dignity, and human rights to irrelevancy, at least whenever these principles fail to align with what “the leadership” has identified as our economic and security interests. In the era of America First, our nation is self-maximizing, which arguably nations ought to be. But should there not be some moral constraints that we consider?
And yes, there is the commander-in-chief, the 45th President of the United States of America. Donald Trump does a credible job of being the incarnation of maximizing self-interest and eschewing moral determinations, even as he holds the office in which our many institutions of government were meant to be guided by. That guidance was always intended to be an executive function of looking out for the well-being of all Americans, and standing tall for universal moral principles even beyond our borders. But Trump is about winning, about wealth, about power, about Trump.
Trump is ignorant. But the ignorance I’m perplexed by isn’t about lack of education, or a deficient intellect, or even individualism on its own merits, but is more in the sense of ignorance as described by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master:
When we talk of ignorance, it has nothing to do with stupidity. In a way, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is an intelligence that works exclusively in one direction. That is, we react exclusively to our own projections instead of simply seeing what is there.
Given such ignorance at the top, what direction are we going in? While it is now popular (and in many contexts warranted) to deprecate Trump, you may think I’m being too harsh if I ascribe ignorance to all those who adhere to modern economic dogma. The goal is “every man for himself” – and it is usually assumed to be the men and not the women who are out there heroically forging their respective individual “did-it-my-way” destinies, unconstrained by concerns about others. Individualism has become our unwritten national creed, and the foundation of our economy.
Arguably Trump is more a symptom or byproduct of the trend of unapologetic individualism, and not a leader of a new agenda. He’s already demonstrated – time and again – his lack of empathy, competence, judgment, or the temperament of a real leader. Trump is more about rule than leadership; he serves himself and his family. His “projections” are about winning, not about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. As president he’s turned his back on decades of global American leadership grounded in a moral agenda that once spoke to most American’s sense of common identity, common destiny, common decency, common good. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, America has personified and projected a new identity – America First. That doctrine is the natural outcome of an amoral, every-man-for-himself world view.
It’s the wrong direction.
The self-made man (or woman) is a myth. Every person is the product of care and nurture by others, everyone is interdependent, and all identities are intersectional. Allowing certain identities to be isolated, assaulted, and dehumanized as was done last weekend in Charlottesville, or by Trump the week before in his tweets about transgender service men and women, is anathema to respecting human dignity. It is wrong. It is immoral.
But we just don’t talk about human dignity or morality. We’re too busy making money, or accumulating power – or wishing that we were.
A country devoid of explicit secular moral leadership and moral accountability – especially the wealthiest, most powerful country on the planet, is a danger. If it were only that Trump and his cabinet of millionaires and billionaires lacked morality, our system of government would find a way to correct course. Perhaps we will yet make such a correction, but to date there have been precious few leaders within the party in power – the Republicans – who are finding their moral voice. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a change; House Speaker Paul Ryan has now become the first Republican leader to comment on President Donald Trump’s remarks Tuesday, declaring that “white supremacy is repulsive.” Yes, it is. What do you suggest that we do about this, Speaker Ryan?
The nation is churning. We all know that something is very wrong. We can feel the acerbic threat to any pretense of a shared commitment to civility, to decency, to higher principles that make life worthwhile. It isn’t all about money and power. Sometimes it’s about care, duty, social justice, equality, fairness. and reciprocity. Where is that leadership? That accountability?
The United States of America as a nation has always had its flaws. Like all other nations we have our hypocrisies and our human failings, but we do have a national legacy of commitment to a larger moral mission. It may have reached its apogee with our contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the Marshall Plan, with the Civil Rights Movement, and with the Great Society. We still have remarkable individuals and some courageous leaders who exemplify human dignity and integrity, who champion human rights…but in the United States such moral exemplars have largely given up the field to another type of leader: Homo economicus.
This term, coined at the end of the 19th century in the context of John Stuart Mill’s pronouncements on political economy – asserts a society in which relationships between humans are grounded on a different compass than morality. Under the banner of Homo economicus, we have (largely without any protest) defaulted to the presumption that Americans are by our inherent human nature selfish agents who only make rational choices that optimize our chances of satisfying our own preferences and promoting our own interests.
Homo economicus has a serious flaw, however, although we don’t talk about this. Homo economicus is amoral.
What happens when an amoral leadership model is used to guide a leader’s response to an egregious moral dilemma like the flagrant flag-waving, heavily armed “celebration” of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia/transphobia, and intolerance that led to three deaths and nearly a score of injuries in Charlottesville? We get Trump and his vicissitudes, as he flounders about without benefit of a moral compass, blaming “many sides” for the violence. He has demonstrated no moral judgment, and is only responding to his sense of self-interest (even if that rationality is dubious). Trump in ignorant; his world is one in which there are only winners and losers. But that world isn’t reality, and his projections of his worldview fail to lead us as a nation to a place of healing and solidarity.
We cannot place all of the blame on Donald Trump. Labeling Trump and his ardent but highly biased followers as America’s problem is much too simple. We get closer to the mark if we look at nearly the whole White House staff and cabinet, and notice how unprincipled and self-interested they are. Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka do not exemplify any positive moral virtues. Ultimately, we get the government we deserve (although gerrymandering is a factor that cannot be dismissed). And how do we reconcile Trump’s win to such inconvenient facts as the 53% of white women voters who cast their ballot for this man, despite his boastful and repulsive sexism? How do we make sense of the unsettling fact that millions of Americans failed to vote at all? How do we square the circle of Russian interference in our democratic election, never knowing if that is what made the difference?
Try to think back to the last in-depth deliberation you were involved in, or even in earshot of, that centered on secular morality. You can’t remember one, can you? Consider how our institutions of governance are replete with technocrats, subject matter experts, policy specialists, economists, and political scientists all of whose world views default to the premise that all human beings are primarily – and perhaps exclusively – motivated by a fervent desire to maximize their self-interest. Homo economicus rules, unopposed. Few if any of those institutions of government have ethicists (in the moral sense, not the legal sense) on their staff.
Has America become a land of individualism run riot, quite literally? I would like to suggest that the time has now come for Home reciprocans. This model of humanity presumes that instead of self-interest, people are motivated by a desire to cooperate and take into consideration the benefits to the community. Under a Homo reciprocans view, people care about each other’s well-being.
As Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard succinctly observes:
We must simply understand that our own well-being and the world’s cannot rest on indifference to the happiness of the other or on a refusal to care about the sufferings around us.
Just imagine that! We’re all in this together. Let’s chart a new course ahead.