U01: Weighing in on Right and Wrong While a Nation Hangs in the Balance

It has been a tumultuous few weeks—ahem, several months—in our nation, don’t you think? There has certainly been no shortage of hot-button issues to tiptoe around at the water cooler. But the one that I can’t seem to shake is this whole immigration and refugee issue. What is right, and what is good? And for whom is it right, and good, to care? Everyone has a position, but even the outer edges of the issue are not so much black and white as they are ash and eggshell.

Consequentialist Ethics and Public Policy

Operating out of a utilitarian consequentialist ethic, President Trump signed a series of executive orders during his first week in office to essentially “wall” us off from our neighbor to the South; expel undocumented immigrants for any one of a number of reasons, including having an unresolved criminal charge; temporarily ban anyone coming from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.; significantly reduce the number of refugees our country will accept; and permanently halt the entry of all Syrian refugees. From a utilitarian perspective, he claims this is what’s best for the safety and security of the American people. The specific executive orders in question here even carry the following titles:

In signing these orders, President Trump has asserted that the current process for vetting immigrants is tragically flawed, and that granting sanctuary to refugees inevitably opens us up to attacks from terrorists, who would cause terrible harm to our citizens and undermine the freedoms our nation values most. This may not be a bad idea on the surface, but many of the President’s opponents have claimed that he has mischaracterized the majority of refugees seeking asylum here and the motivation of many documented or undocumented immigrants. In doing so, the President may have severely miscalculated the costs and possible outcomes of his decisions. Using the same utilitarian consequentialist ethic, opponents of the President’s orders (like Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham) can logically claim that his decisions may actually cause more harm than good to Americans, making us targets for terrorists and less safe precisely because these actions belie the very principles of freedom on which our nation was founded. Many opponents might also espouse the common good approach of consequentialist ethics, because their concern is not only for Americans but also for all people around the world, who are fleeing persecution or seeking a better life. So how could people operating out of the same ethical theory arrive at very different conclusions?

It’s all in the application.

Former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, reportedly said that President Trump was looking for a legal way to ban Muslims from the country. And so, the executive order on immigration is permissible…or at least it was, until a week ago when a federal judge in Washington state placed a temporary hold on the order, ruling that it was unconstitutional. You might say this judge found that based on his interpretation of the Constitution, and the adverse consequences the order was likely to have for the people of his state, he was obligated to stop the order. Trump appealed, and the 9th Circuit court denied his appeal. So, the debate rages on, and it appears that this will continue to be litigated in the courts. I see this as childish behavior from a bully who doesn’t get his way. In fact, narcissism, anger, denial and passive-aggression regularly come through in his words and actions, exemplifying vices or character flaws that may lead to further behavior that endangers the people he is responsible for leading (PSY 533, Lesson 2).

Americans outraged by Trump’s executive actions have taken to the streets in protest, while the President has resorted to tweets to respond to any and all opponents. It feels as if a new civil war is about to break out. Only this time, the battlefields are not Antietam and Gettysburg, they are Facebook and Twitter. Maybe the most disconcerting part of all of this is that the leader of the free world, who swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” has been called into question for the legality of his actions by seemingly everyone, within the first two weeks of his presidency. Because we expect more skill, more knowledge, more measured reasoning, and more integrity from the person holding the highest office in the land, I think the whirlwind of unpredictability has thrown the country for a loop.

But why is this refugee crisis and immigration battle the issue – among the many issues – that I can’t shake? The one I can’t stop thinking about? The one I wish I could ignore, but can’t? I am a white, educated, female, middle class, American, who has enjoyed many of the freedoms President Trump says he wants to protect and preserve. Shouldn’t I be relieved? But I feel more grief than relief, because beyond my race, gender, socio-economic status, and culture, I ascribe to an entirely different ethic that informs how I view right and wrong about this issue, and many others.

An upside-down kingdom ethic

I am a Christian, whose ethic is born out of my belief in God as Creator of both a world I can see and a realm I cannot. I uphold Scripture as the standard for faithful and joyous living, and in it I read God’s command to love Him with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:27, ESV). And I look to Jesus as the ultimate example of sacrificial love, the one who moved toward the marginalized to offer life (John 4:1-26). Although scholars from Brown University have asserted that mixing religion and ethics (the “Divine Command Approach”) can become murky, I see strong parallels between what these scholars have called supererogatory ethical action and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This is one story Jesus used to teach people the high value of showing mercy and what it meant to be a good neighbor.

Because I see in the life of Christ an ethic of love, it grieves me when other Christians claim that refugees are not a biblical issue. No matter how you slice it, I think choosing to welcome the stranger is a moral decision…and an ethical one. I am encouraged by the actions of a diverse group of evangelical leaders, who have taken a public stance on the side of vulnerable refugees of all faiths. Their collective statement to President Trump and Vice President Pence more clearly articulates my moral and ethical stance on this issue than I ever could. It gives me hope that Christians may yet let go of the division of partisan ideologies and live up to our label as followers of Christ.

Setting aside President Trump for a moment, I know I have been convicted to practice being a neighbor more freely in own my comfortable, suburban environment. I have Muslim neighbors in my development, but I don’t know which house is theirs. Some mornings, if I’m running late to work, I will see them waiting at the bus stop. I’m not sure what class these adult women are headed to, but I always smile and nod. The thing is, I don’t know them, and I want to. Because when you get to know someone personally, it breaks down barriers. I recently got one of those “Neighbor Signs.” Maybe you’ve seen them? It says in Spanish, English and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we are glad you’re our neighbor.” It’s in my front yard now as a word of welcome. But I’m hoping it will open up more conversation, despite a probable language barrier, and opportunities for true friendship. Maybe this is the smoother developmental progression our course author described in lesson 4? Certainly, I see the conviction I have felt to move toward my neighbors as my unconscious thoughts becoming known, and the events of the last three weeks and the constant barrage of news headlines have played a primary role in causing me to more consciously consider my own room for growth (PSY 533, Lesson 4). I guess I can be grateful for that.

 

References:

Bonde, S., Firenze, P., Green, J., Grinberg, M., Korijin, J., Levoy, E., Naik, A., Ucik, L., & Weisberg, L. (2013, May). A
framework for making ethical decisions. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/academics/science-and-technology-studies/framework-making-ethical-decisions

Burke, D. (February 8, 2017). 100 evangelical leaders sign ad denouncing Trump’s refugee ban. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/08/politics/evangelicals-ad-trump/index.html

de Vogue, A. & Jarrett, L. (February 9, 2017). 9th Circuit rules against reinstating travel ban. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/09/politics/travel-ban-9th-circuit-ruling-immigration/

Kraybill, D. B. (2011). The upside-down kingdom (Updated). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press.

McCain, J. & Graham, L. (January 29, 2017). Statement by Senators McCain & Graham on executive order on immigration. Retrieved from http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/1/statement-by-senators-mccain-graham-on-executive-order-on-immigration

PSY533. (2017) L02: Vices. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l02-vices?module_item_id=21902131

PSY 533. (2017).  L03: Normative Ethics.  Retrieved from
https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l03-normative-ethics?module_item_id=21902142

PSY 533. (2017). L04: Cognitive and Developmental Approaches to Ethical Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l04-overview?module_item_id=21902149

Simon, S. (Interviewer) & Horsley, S. (Interviewee). (February 4, 2017). Immigration Ban Halted By Federal Judge [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from NPR Weekend Edition Saturday Web site: http://www.npr.org/2017/02/04/513424541/immigration-ban-halted-by-federal-judge

Trump, D. (January 25, 2017). Executive order: Border security and immigration enforcement improvements. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement-improvements

Trump, D. (January 25, 2017). Executive order: Enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/presidential-executive-order-enhancing-public-safety-interior-united

Trump, D. (January 27, 2017). Executive order: Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states

Wang, A. B. (January 29, 2017). Trump asked for a ‘Muslim ban,’ Giuliani says – and ordered a commission to do it ‘legally.’ Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/29/trump-asked-for-a-muslim-ban-giuliani-says-and-ordered-a-commission-to-do-it-legally/?utm_term=.76cd27b6a703

3 Comments

  1. April Eustice February 13, 2017 at 2:14 AM #

    Hi Rachel,

    When I saw the subject of your post, I was very interested since my blogpost also touches upon the recent turmoil that our country has been going through under the presidency of Donald Trump.

    As a person who is not affiliated with any particular religion, I understand and respect the views you have on the subject of the intake of refugees into our country. This is because, I believe that not just on religious grounds, but on humanitarian grounds, the right thing to do would be to “help our neighbors” in their time of need. It is unfortunate that we have a self-serving, narcissistic president, who practices unethical leadership and is only looking to further his political agenda. This makes it abundantly clear that his decisions will have negative repercussions for the people of this country and the world at large.

    Thanks for your post,
    April

    PSY 533. (2017). L03: Normative Ethics. Retrieved from
    https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l03-normative-ethics?module_item_id=21902142

  2. Rachel Anne Moury February 13, 2017 at 1:11 AM #

    Joy,

    Thank you for your comment and your thoughts about applying other ethical theories to explain this dilemma – like the deontological approach. You are correct that people have different interpretations of duty, or at least they prioritize one duty over another. It is also true that Christians may have different interpretations of the Bible, or they may point to one passage over another. And you rightfully note that some evangelical Christians have supported, and continue to support President Trump’s executive orders that favor isolationism. I think this is what grieves me most because the word “evangelical” means the good news of the gospel. Yet, politics and religion have been so intertwined in our nation that the word has come to mean “politically conservative Christians.” Even the Church has been divided by fearful rhetoric and half-truths.

    You also noted that the President drafted the orders to make good on a campaign promise, and you’re right. But it is interesting which campaign promises he seems so quick to fulfill, and which he so readily changes his mind about. I would argue that ethical egoism has always been his modus operandi, on the campaign trail, as President, and throughout his entire life. Feinman (2016) has examined other American Presidents who also governed from an egoist perspective, but he contended in his June 2016 article that Donald Trump would be the most dangerous. Sadly, I think that assertion is becoming reality.

    Reference:

    Feinman, R. L. (June 15, 2016). Trump wouldn’t be the first egoist in the White House – but he would be the most dangerous. Retrieved from http://www.rawstory.com/2016/06/trump-wouldnt-be-the-first-egoist-in-the-white-house-but-he-would-be-the-most-dangerous/

  3. Joy Moxon February 12, 2017 at 7:49 PM #

    Thanks, Rachel, for your thought-provoking post. I agree that consequentialism is the purported ethical theory upon which the justification for the travel ban was based. The stated purpose of the travel ban is to protect Americans (Executive Order, 2017), which suggests that the Trump administration believes the potential harm of a refugee waging a terror attack on the United States is greater than the harm of abandoning the American value and tradition of welcoming refugees of foreign conflicts. Opponents argue that refugees are highly vetted (Park & Buchanan, 2017), and the Trump administration has offered no evidence that an alien from one of the seven countries has ever attacked the U.S. (Order, Washington vs. Trump et al, 9th Cir. Ct. of Appeals, Feb 9, 2017). Supporters of the ban may reason that even if such an attack hasn’t happened here, it has happened in Europe, and therefore the risk of terrorism is a valid concern. These conflicting views demonstrate one of the shortcomings of using consequentialism alone to decide complex ethical questions – the consequences of a particular action (or inaction) can’t always be predicted, and people may disagree about the potential consequences (Bonde et al., 2013). In a complex case such as this, it is advisable to consider the problem using multiple ethical theories (Bonde et al., 2013). One such alternative theory is the duty, or deontological approach, in which one might look to religious teachings for guidance, as in your post, Christianity (Bonde et al., 2013). While President Trump has been supported by evangelical Christians, I see little connection between Trump’s position on refugees and Christian teachings. As you point out, and I would agree, the two positions are in direct conflict. Perhaps this demonstrates a weakness of the duty approach – that people may have different interpretations of duty, even when pointing to the same set of rules, e.g., the Bible.

    But I would argue that neither consequentialist nor deontological thinking had much, if anything, to do with President Trump’s decision to issue the travel ban. It seems more likely that the intention behind Mr. Trump’s actions was to make good on a promise he made to those who voted for him (Corley, 2017). On its face, this seems virtuous enough – a leader honoring the virtue of integrity by doing what he said he would do. However, we should remind ourselves of the source of this groundswell of public support for banning refugees from these seven, predominantly Muslim countries. It was President Trump himself, Rudy Guliani, and others, who won votes for candidate Trump by exaggerating threats and playing to voters’ fears about Muslims (Strauss, 2016). I don’t believe that creating public anxiety for the purpose of manipulating people has a place in ethical universalism, which is concerned with what is best for society (PSY 533, 2017). To the contrary, fearmongering and its resulting policy platforms seem more in line with ethical egoism, in which leaders make decisions based on their own self-interest of gaining power (PSY 533, 2017).

    Bonde, S., Firenze, P., Green, J., Grinberg, M., Korijin, J., Levoy, E., Naik, A., Ucik, L., & Weisberg, L. (2013, May). A framework for making ethical decisions. Retrieved from http://www.brown.edu/academics/science-and-technology-studies/framework-making-ethical-decisions

    Corley, C. (Feb 2, 2017). Trump supporters cheer quick starts on campaign promises in his first weeks [radio broadcast]. NPR’s All Things Considered. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2017/02/01/512906698/trump-supporters-cheer-quick-starts-on-campaign-promises-in-his-first-weeks

    Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States (Jan 27, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states

    Park, H. & Buchanan, L. (Jan 29, 2017). Refugees Entering the U.S. Already Face a Rigorous Vetting Process. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/29/us/refugee-vetting-process.html?_r=0

    Penn State University PSY 533 (2017). L03: Ethical Theories. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1834796/pages/l03-introduction?module_item_id=21902141

    Strauss, N. (Oct 6, 2016). Why we’re living in the age of fear. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/why-were-living-in-the-age-of-fear-w443554

    Washington vs. Trump et al., 9th Cir. Ct of Appeals (Order dated Feb 9, 2017). Retrieved from http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2017/02/09/17-35105.pdf

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