On January 27th President Trump signed an executive order instituting a 120 day ban on refugees entering the United States plus a 90 day ban for most citizens of Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The order also indefinitely banned any Syrians from entering the United States. President Trump has stated his ultimate goal is to protect the safety and security of American citizens by improving background checks to make sure terrorist are not admitted inadvertently. The executive order ignited nation wide protests and debate. Since the executive order was signed the media, and politicians, have been very focused on the topics of: immigration law and policies; power and authority; economic impacts; and constitutional rights. These topics are very complex and both sides will continue to argue their cases based on their interpretation of the law and precedents. The debate over President Trump’s executive order deserves another perspective, a perspective that seeks to understand the ethics of the executive order regardless of what political side of the debate one is on. Through the exploration of ethical theories a strong case can be made as to why the executive order should be supported; it can also make a strong case as to why it should be opposed.
The Political and Legal Debate. The United States Justice Department argues the President has broad power to act unilaterally on questions of immigration and national security, and that judges only have limited powers to second guess such decisions, the laws on immigration and related matters favor President Trump (Wang, 2017). Legal precedents have traditionally accorded the chief executive complete and nearly unchecked power to deny foreigners permission to enter the United States. In 1950, the United States Supreme Court said the exclusion of aliens is a fundamental act of sovereignty and inherent to the executive power. Further support of the Supreme Court’s position was endorsed by congress in 1952 when they adopted a provision saying the president “may by proclamation and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens and any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants whenever he thinks it would be detrimental to the interest of the United States” (Lowry, 2017). President Trump campaigned on the concept of America first which included several promises such as reinforcing the laws of our nation and to keep Americans safe through border control. Opponents of the executive order concede that a President has some power but they say President Trump overstepped that by banning Muslims from specific countries. They contend this violates the core principles of the constitution. Justice Department lawyers have responded to this position stating most of those affected by the ban have never entered the United States before. Such a person they say “requests a privilege and has no constitutional rights” under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling (Wang, 2017). The Justice Department references eight instances dating back to President Reagan when presidents blocked residents of certain nations including Cuba, Libya, Russia, Somalia and Yemen from entering the Unites States. In addition to the legal debate many have argued on the premise of religious discrimination, that President Trump is banning Muslims under the disguise of national security. If this is the case why does the executive order not include Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia; Indonesia has the highest population of Muslims, 2.63 million.
Shortly after the executive order was introduced a Seattle federal judge suspended its implementation. As of February 9th the Federal appeals court upheld suspension of the executive order. The current debate over immigration and the executive order is entrenched in partisanship and political animosity. It appears the debate will remain focused on law, power, discrimination, constitutional rights and the right versus the left.
The Ethical Dilemma. The Islamic State has caused a crisis abroad and domestically. Syria and Iraq have been turned into war zones yielding massive civilian casualties. The UN says at least 6,878 civilians were killed in acts of violence in Iraq in 2016; the UN states the true figure is likely to be higher as the organization has been unable to verify reports of casualties in the Mosul area. The UN reports the total number of civilian deaths in Iraq since 2014 is more than 19,700. According to recent reports from Amnesty International the Syrian regime has executed up to 13,000 people in secret hangings carried out in military prisons near Damascus since 2011. The report claims Bashar Al-Assad’s security forces tortured prisoners and carried out mass hangings; the victims are overwhelmingly ordinary citizens who are thought to have opposed the government. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in September 2016 that more than 300,000 people including 86,000 civilians have been killed since March 2011. The Islamic State has also declared Jihad on the United States and has issued a detailed manual calling for the mass murder of American Citizens. We know Islamic militants have slipped into Europe disguised as refugees; since 2015 three have been arrested in Germany according to its domestic intelligence agency (the BfV) (Shalal, 2016). All of this has led to a refugee crisis and the need to make difficult and ethical decisions, to do the right thing.
Ethical Theories Exploration. President Trump, as the leader of the United States, took an oath to protect the constitution and to serve as the country’s commander and chief. This comes with the responsibility of protecting American citizens. Additionally, for over 200 years the protection of fundamental human rights has been a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States. As such, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect of human rights embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence, the United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies and prevent humanitarian crises. Ethics is concerned with the kinds of values and morals an individual or society finds desirable or appropriate (Northouse, 2015). Ethical leadership revolves around a leader’s decisions; through these decisions there is an opportunity for both benefit and harm to others. Ethics are centered on right or wrong hence the exploration of ethical theories in regards to the executive order.
A main goal of normative ethics is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. Further, normative ethics include consequences of our behaviors to others, following proper rules for behavior, and developing good character traits. Consequentialism focuses on the end result, if the end results of a person’s actions causes more good than harm they are judged as ethical. If they cause more harm than good then they are considered unethical. Typically, actions are judged on what is best for the larger group, such as a society, and not an individual. This makes it acceptable, in some circumstances, to cause harm to an individual if it benefits the larger group; if the good of the group greatly outweighs the harm to the individual (PSY, 533). As of 2016 the U.S. limit on refugee admissions is 110,000, it is likely this will drop to 50,000 in 2017. The current U.S. population is approximately 324 million. If President Trump wants to temporarily ban all, or a percentage of total refugees, from entering the U.S. to protect 324 million American citizens one could argue the ethical notion that what is useful is good, a cost-benefit analysis, and an example of utilitarianism. On the other hand, if you look at the staggering number of deaths of innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq the argument can be made exactly how much good versus harm are we doing? Do we really know how many Americans could possibly be harmed by allowing un-vetted refugees in? Duty theories could argue President Trump is choosing to take his position, his executive order, based on his professional obligations as the president of the United States in order to protect American citizens and therefore he is acting ethically. On the other hand, it could be argued that he is acting unethically as part of his role as president is to protect human rights domestically and abroad. Right theories suggest a person’s actions are morally sound if they adequately respect the rights of others, or at least as many as possible. This theory allows for the argument that President Trump is acting ethically by upholding the laws and rights of American citizens as oppose to negligently allowing non-vetted individuals to enter the U.S. that could pose a security threat. On the other hand, it can be argued President Trump is not acting ethically as he his not respecting the humanitarian rights of innocent civilians and leaving them in harms way. Contractarianism/contractualism theories state a person’s behavior is morally justified if the actions are in accordance with what any rational moral person would do in a given situation (PSY, 533). Is it unreasonable and irrational for the President to put mechanisms in place if he feels there are problems that need to be addressed before more refugees from these countries enter the U.S.? However, it could also be argued that a rational moral President would protect the refugees and allow them in. Through the lens of virtue ethics President Trump is often accused of putting himself in an unfavorable light. His rhetoric can easily be interpreted, or deliberately misconstrued, to make him look like a bad person who judges and dismisses others based on gender, race, religion, etc. Supporters of President Trump could argue the opposite when it comes to virtue ethics arguing he is willing to take an unpopular position especially among politicians and is more committed to doing the right thing for the U.S. and its citizens as opposed to acting in ways that are centered on his political loyalties and his personal desires for re-election.
Meta-ethics is concerned with how right and wrong are determined. Meta-ethical theories focus on the creation of ethical standards rather than behaving in an ethical manner; they serve as the groundwork for ethical thinking and action (Lefkowitz, 2003). Objectivism-subjectivism is at the core of the question: what is moral truth? Is it objectively known or entirely at the discretion of the individual? Subjectivism is through the eyes of the individual; that moral truths are determined at the individual level and that ethical statements are illogical because they do not express immutable truths. This leads to the concept of ethical relativism which can be summarized as “what is right for me, may not be right for you” (Lefkowitz, 2003). Therefore, President Trump’s way of thinking, his ideology of America first, which he campaigned on defends his morals and the executive order. For some opponents, who do not share the belief of America first and put human rights above the laws of any country will see President Trump and his order as immoral. Objectivism suggests the individual is a minor portion of reality, and that morality stems from the world at large. Ethical naturalism is the idea the world must function in a knowable way, as such people are ethical when they know their place in society (Lefkowitz, 2003). On the side of objectivism moral guidelines and rules are based on reason and humanity as opposed to emotion and faith; it is a general idea that the greatest good in the world is to be happy as long as it is not done at the expense of another. This could argue the executive order is not ethical, although it has the potential to protect some it leaves others in harms way. Ethical egoism is the idea that happiness is a moral obligation of the individual, acting in ways that put one’s self interests first. Ethical universalism is the idea that concern for society or groups at large is most important for determining what is right or wrong. To summarize, the end justifies the means or choose the lesser of two evils. Ethical universalism could defend the executive order, President Trump is acting in the best interest of the U.S. and is doing what he deems is most important for the country and its well being. Hence, the end justifies the means, if Americans are kept safe from terrorism than it justifies leaving refuges in harms way. Essentially, it could be debated what lives do we attempt to save, ours or theirs mentality, and are some lives more valuable than others. Opponents could argue President Trump is not acting ethically as his decision to protect the U.S. by banning some refugees comes at the expense of their lives and that he is purely acting on his desire to exert his authority and personal beliefs.
Ethics is a complex moral relationship between people based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion and shared vision of good. Ethics is about how we distinguish between right and wrong, or good and evil in relation to actions and character of human beings. This begs the question, what is the ethical value of President Trump’s intentions and executive order. Through the exploration of ethical theories different points of view to these questions can be supported. President Trump, as a leader faces an ethical dilemma, it could be argued, or not, that he feels compelled, obligated, to do the right thing as such he is forced to make choices among unsavory options.
Lefkowitz, J.L. (2003). Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lefkowitz, J.L. (2003). Normative ethical theories: II. Consequentialism. In Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology (pp.65-81). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lowry, Rich. (February, 2017). Retrieved from http://newyorkpost.com/2017/02/06/sorry-trumps-immigration-order-is-totally-legal.
Northouse, P.G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oak, CA: SAGE,
PSY 533. (2017). L03 Ethical Theories. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l03-introduction?module_item_id=21902141
Shalal, A. (2016, November 29). Suspected Islamist. Reuters. Retrieved from http://reuters.com/article/us-germany-security-idUSKCN0VE0XL
Wang, Christine. (February, 2017). Retrieved from http://cnbc.com/2017/02/06/justice-department-files-response-arguing-to-reinstate-trumps-immigration-order.html.