Moral Fact Check: What Trump Got Morally Wrong at His Rally

President Trump was in Melbourne, Florida for a campaign-style rally on February 18th. Here is the video:

Based on the transcript provided by Vox, I’ll provide a brief recounting of some of what Trump said, along with the moral facts that support or contradict his statements.

Mr. Trump suggested that the central question of ethics, “How should I live?”, is not answered by fake news.

We are not going to let the fake news tell us what to do, how to live, or what to believe. We are free and independent people and we will make our own choices.

Mr. Trump is correct. Fake news does not answer the question, “How should I live?” The answer to this question is determined by the moral facts, and we discover them not via newspapers – whether real or fake – but via moral reasoning.

Mr. Trump praised the practice of requiring the removal of two protections per every additional protection.

We’ve just issued a new order which requires that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.

This practice is only morally permissible when the protections that are removed are ineffective for their protective purpose, or are otherwise impermissible in themselves. Imagine, by analogy, an order which requires that for every one new prisoner, two prisoners must be released. As stated, this rule is too broad in order to be morally permissible. In order to be morally permissible, the rule must specify that the released prisoners (or the eliminated protections) ought to be released (or eliminated) for independent, moral reasons.

Mr. Trump expressed affection for uncritical support.

I saw this man on TV just now, you. I just saw him on television. He said I love Trump. Let Trump do what he has to do. That’s my guy right there. Come here. Come here. No, I just. I’m coming in. That’s okay.

In fact, letting someone act without criticism is incompatible with loving them. As the succeeding New York Times reported, Mr. Trump restored the bust of Winston Churchill in the oval office. In a 1939 interview with The New Statesman, here is what Churchill had to say about criticism:

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”

Partly for this reason, Immanuel Kant was wise to write about friendship that, “from a moral point of view it is, of course, a duty for one of the friends to point out the other’s faults to him; this is in the other’s best interests and is therefore a duty of love” (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:470, translated by Mary Gregor).

Mr. Trump implied that concern for physical safety is sufficient to justify the avoidance of a very small risk.

And I’ve taken decisive action to keep radical Islamic terrorist the hell out of our country. So you probably read where we want to enforce the laws as existing. And so we signed an order a couple of weeks ago, and it was taken over by a court originally by a judge and then a — yes, it’s very sad. The reason is for protection and safety. So the statute is so plain and so clear.

Here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe.

Very often, doing the right thing involves taking on risks, and partly because of this, fulfilling our moral obligations can be difficult. Thomas Aquinas writes as follows about the virtue of fortitude:

“[I]t belongs to the virtue of fortitude to guard the will against being withdrawn from the good of reason through fear of bodily evil. Now it behooves one to hold firmly the good of reason against every evil whatsoever, since no bodily good is equivalent to the good of the reason. Hence fortitude of soul must be that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils: because he that stands firm against great things, will in consequence stand firm against less things, but not conversely” (Summa Theologica, II.II, Question 123).

Of course, taking in a limited number of refugees and immigrants poses very little risk at all – so how much more is it our moral obligation to do so!

Mr. Trump makes ethical concern fundamentally self-regarding.

We want people that can cherish us and the traditions of our country. We want people that are going to be great for our country. We don’t want people with bad, bad ideas. We don’t want that.

In fact, ethical concern is essentially other-regarding. Both Mr. Trump, who professes to be a follower of Jesus, and anyone who wants the United States to be operated according to Judeo-Christian values, should pay heed to this teaching of Jesus:

“What reward do you get if you love only those who love you? Why, even tax-collectors do that! And if you are friendly only to your friends, are you doing anything out of the ordinary? Even the Gentiles do that! Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (The Gospel According to Matthew, 5:46-48).

What obligates us to help refugees is that they are fleeing death and destruction, not that they are fleeing death and destruction and they love us.

Mr. Trump commends moving beyond identities constituted by a set of values, to identities constituted by flag and country.

Let us move past the differences of party and find a new loyalty rooted deeply in our country. We are all brothers and all sisters. We share one home. One destiny and one glorious American flag. We are united together by history and by providence. We will make America strong again. I promise. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again. Greater than ever before.

In fact, moral norms override norms deriving from historically contingent nationalistic commitments. So, insofar as “differences of party” track differences in people’s fundamental moral values and commitments, Mr. Trump’s suggestion contravenes the demands of morality.

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4 thoughts on “Moral Fact Check: What Trump Got Morally Wrong at His Rally”

  1. Congratulations on your inaugural blog post!

    If I were to criticize the same quotes in this speech, I’d be more inclined to say that his statements are generally inoffensive and benign on their face, but in practice, they’re being used as soothing propaganda to gloss over the disturbing aspects of his actions, policies, etc.

    Although I don’t support President Trump, I find several of these critiques to be off the mark, for the following reasons:

    You take Trump’s paraphrase of a supporter, “I love Trump. Let Trump do what he has to do,” and characterize this as “letting someone act without criticism.” But I’m not sure that’s a correct interpretation of what Trump said. The key phrase in Trump’s statement is “what he has to do,” but does that really mean whatever he wants? The phrase “has to” should arguably be understood as limited to whatever is necessary and appropriate to accomplish his legitimate goals. The supporter might mean not that Trump should be free of any criticism (which would of course be wrong), but that he shouldn’t be hamstrung by obstructionism.

    “taking in a limited number of refugees and immigrants poses very little risk at all – so how much more is it our moral obligation to do so!”

    This overlooks the possibility that we could help them more effectively by not taking them in to the US, and instead chipping in for them to be taken in by other countries closer to home, where they’d tend to assimilate better and our money would be spent more cost-effectively.

    I also don’t agree with characterizing this statement as taking a “self-regarding” rather than “other-regarding” stance:

    “We want people that can cherish us and the traditions of our country. We want people that are going to be great for our country. We don’t want people with bad, bad ideas.”

    The country in question has over 300 million people. So, as an American, when I talk about the American people, I’m talking about over 300 million *other* people. Also, saying “we don’t want people with bad, bad ideas” could certainly be criticized for being vacuous and tautological, but it isn’t inherently “self-regarding.”

    Anyway, why does “ethical concern” need to be “essentially other-regarding”? Why can’t I be a good person and largely care about myself? I realize that most of the classic ethical thought-experiments involve the treatment of other people. But isn’t it an ethical proposition, for instance, that you should be healthy for the sake of being good to yourself, or that you should be intellectually active in order to live the most fulfilling life for yourself? (Of course, those principles could lead to great benefits for others, but I’m just saying that a major benefit, and an ethically relevant one, would seem to be for yourself.)

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    1. Thanks for the thorough engagement, John. And apologies that your comment didn’t go up sooner – it got marked as spam for some reason.

      The key phrase in Trump’s statement is “what he has to do,” but does that really mean whatever he wants? The phrase “has to” should arguably be understood as limited to whatever is necessary and appropriate to accomplish his legitimate goals. The supporter might mean not that Trump should be free of any criticism (which would of course be wrong), but that he shouldn’t be hamstrung by obstructionism.

      I regard that interpretation of the supporter (or more accurately, that interpretation of Trump’s interpretation of him!) as actually uncharitable, because no one could seriously reject the principle that we ought not oppose Trump’s necessary and appropriate pursuit of his legitimate goals. On the other hand, it’s quite common for leaders to dislike challenge and criticism. And as the facesake of the restored bust says, this is very morally important.

      This overlooks the possibility that we could help them more effectively by not taking them in to the US, and instead chipping in for them to be taken in by other countries closer to home, where they’d tend to assimilate better and our money would be spent more cost-effectively.

      I agree with you that, if we can help refugees in a better way by doing something other than taking them in, then we should do that instead. But I think that very few experts and career aid workers in the profession of refugee assistance believe that whatever Trump is going to do for refugees in lieu of letting them in, will fit your criteria!

      The country in question has over 300 million people. So, as an American, when I talk about the American people, I’m talking about over 300 million *other* people. Also, saying “we don’t want people with bad, bad ideas” could certainly be criticized for being vacuous and tautological, but it isn’t inherently “self-regarding.”

      The point is well-taken. I think there is considerable slippage between self-regarding ideas, discourse, and the like, and political rhetoric to a group that appeals to self-regard. I consider the latter to still be essentially self-regarding, and to be essential to the kind of nationalistic rhetoric in question here. But if you press me, perhaps I’ll have to concede that what’s really going on is a kind of group self-regard.

      Anyway, why does “ethical concern” need to be “essentially other-regarding”? Why can’t I be a good person and largely care about myself? I realize that most of the classic ethical thought-experiments involve the treatment of other people. But isn’t it an ethical proposition, for instance, that you should be healthy for the sake of being good to yourself, or that you should be intellectually active in order to live the most fulfilling life for yourself? (Of course, those principles could lead to great benefits for others, but I’m just saying that a major benefit, and an ethically relevant one, would seem to be for yourself.)

      I consider it a decisive objection to some versions of virtue theory that the virtuous person is, ultimately, concerned about their own excellence. I think the most plausible versions avoid this and make excellence dependent upon the really fundamental thing – other-regarding concern and responsibility. However, I did not mean to suggest – and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to correct this! – that self-regarding concern is itself essentially immoral, or even not necessarily an important component of morality. What I would claim instead is that self-regarding concern – at least, in an idealized sort of context* – is morally secondary to, and probably derivative from, other-regarding concern. One way to illustrate this intuitively is to notice that it doesn’t make much sense to think of someone alone on a desert island as being in any distinctly moral contexts, facing any moral challenges, and so on. For this, we’d have to bring in other people. Put simply: I think we are introduced to morality when we are introduced to the needs of others.

      I hope that, at the very least, my replies help clarify where you and I may disagree about the moral facts; and at best, that they help motivate my own position!

      *The point about idealization is to allow that the balance between self- and other-regarding concern will be distorted in conditions of oppression, where there is something morally ugly about thinking of an oppressed person as being most fundamentally obligated to those who are oppressing them.

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  2. Moral Fact Check of the Moral Fact Check:

    Good work – this seems right.

    Any fact check on this statement:

    “That I can tell you, but I know that you want safe neighborhoods where the streets belong to families and communities, not gang members and drug dealers who are right now as I speak being thrown out of the country and they will not be let back in.”

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    1. Thank you for your support, Benjamin! I didn’t address the passage you excerpt, because in it Mr. Trump seems to make a mere descriptive psychological claim about his audience, combined with a descriptive policy claim about who is being removed from the country. Neither of these claims have any specifically moral content.

      However, it is always worth noting one of the morally relevant non-moral facts here, which is that Mr. Trump is presiding over undocumented immigrant human being roundups that reportedly include many people who are not “gang members and drug dealers.”

      So whether or not Mr. Trump is correct that “gang members and drug dealers” are being removed from the country, this does not settle the question of whether the extant policy is morally justified. As professed followers of Jesus, Mr. Trump and his followers will be interested in contemplating an analogical extension of Jesus’ Parable of the Tares:

      Jesus put before them another parable. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while people were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, then went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads of grain, the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants asked him, ‘Then do you want us to go and pull them up?’ But he said, ‘No, because if you pull up the weeds, you might uproot some of the wheat at the same time.'”

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