Several weeks ago while listening to NPR I heard a phrase I had not encountered before — ethics experts. These were people with expertise to comment on the conflict of interests surrounding the newly elected President Trump (as if the press needs to hind behind such expertise). This is part of the story in particular:
We are continuing our coverage of the Trump administration’s executive orders implementing a permanent ban on those coming from Syria and a temporary ban of citizens coming from six additional Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.
Now, one aspect of the new policy that has drawn notice are countries that are not on the list, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. And those are the countries of origin of a number of people who carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. starting with September 11, 2001. Those countries also happen to be places where President Trump and his family have business interests.
That’s one reason ethics experts continue to raise questions about how President Trump is addressing potential conflicts or even the appearance of them.
I also noticed that one of the experts to which the reporters turned was — wait for it — formerly in the Obama administration:
One of them, for example, spoke with NPR. That’s Norm Eisen. He’s a former ethics adviser to President Obama, and he’s a fellow now at Brookings Institution. He says that it looks to him like Trump was singling out countries that did not pay him tribute. That was his words.
If Rush Limbaugh brought on ethics experts to comment on Nancy Pelosi, would anyone inside the editorial offices of NPR think such expertise credible?
But we are surrounded now by ethical expertise (though it seems to be fairly easy to come by — a general rather than expert sense).
But ethics experts say the broader conflict between the White House and Nordstrom is more worrisome, raising questions about whether the United States is entering a new environment in which presidents use government to steer money to their inner circles.
Outside ethics experts say Trump’s conflicts-of-interest plan does almost nothing to clear up problems that could arise during his presidency. Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the plan “meaningless.” Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney under President Obama, told Mother Jones that Trump’s plan “falls short in every respect.”
And yet, just six months ago, according to a Google word search, ethics experts were not so easy to come by (even in the midst of all the allegations swirling around both the Clinton and Trump campaigns). One story wondered about ethical food:
Andrew Chignell, a philosophy professor at Cornell University who teaches an ethics in eating course each spring, had a change of heart when he embraced a vegan diet five years ago. But he still identifies as more of a flexitarian when he’s been invited to someone’s home for a meal.
Another commented on the ethics of a judge:
A controversial Nashville judge who retroactively signed orders committing dozens of people to mental health institutions violated ethics rules by doing so, according to a judicial expert’s opinion.
Another link led to the defense of such a thing as an ethics expert:
Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause. It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.
That’s a concern that puzzles me. Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel – that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else. And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.
Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.
But now, after the Trump victory, ethics experts are easy to find.
So when John Fea says that times such as these call for the special work of historians, I’m left wondering what ethical work is left to do once every journalist and editor and academic and Hollywood celebrity has already taken a number to condemn Trump again:
Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals. Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.
But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now. History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions. They counter “fake news” with facts.
In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.
Is the argument for not living like Trump based on evidence or on ethics? Were historians worried about Trump before becoming president? Did they condemn billionaires, real estate developers, adulterers, divorcees, outer borough New Yorkers? Now, when some of the coarser aspects of American society attach themselves to the presidency — as if for the first time — we need historians to teach us how not to be like Trump?
I get it. My friend John finds Donald Trump repellent. (Is that ethical for a Christian who is called to love his enemy? Think Jesus and Zacchaeus.) But again, why gussy it up in the aura of academic expertise? Speak truth to power as a citizen. Do it as a Christian. But as a historian do remember that ethics is a different academic discipline that seldom leaves history as an unfamiliar territory. Moral indignation renders the past something to be condemned for not meeting now’s standards.