Trump adviser profoundly lacks moral virtues
Media reports are making it clear that President Donald Trump’s “senior” adviser, Stephen Miller, is playing a key — albeit shrouded — role in Trump’s war on immigrants. As children are caged, families destroyed, and due process thrown to the wind, Miller is to blame. In order to grasp the risk this unapologetic bigot poses, the American people need to first understand how intellectually stunted and ethically depraved Miller truly is.
Recall almost a year ago — a lifetime in Trump years — when Miller trotted out the standard canard pushed by neo-nazis that the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus” — inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty — was simply an afterthought. He insisted that the original intent of Lady Liberty was not to be a beacon of hope for immigrants, but rather to project America’s power across the world.
Plenty of scholarship on this matter exposes his twisting of history. And no matter how often he repeats his whole cloth nonsense, facts remain facts. But that episode of intellectual fraud was nothing new for Miller.
Since his days as an undergraduate at Duke University — 10 years ago — Miller’s grandiose sense of his own intellectual heft has convinced him — and the president apparently — that he is wise beyond his years. Commitment to an oddly simplistic philosophy is the root of his hubris. But from where did he get his bizarre views and pathological arrogance?
A lot of people — usually young men — go through what we’ll call the “Nietzsche Phase” between the ages of 17 and 22. It is characterized by an obsession with and a superficial understanding of the writings of the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. You remember him; he’s the guy who said, “God is dead.”
But he also wrote profoundly influential tracts on ethics and politics, locating the source of morality in brute power. Ayn Rand picked up crudely on many of these themes in her writing, which inf luenced a whole generation of wannabe pseudophilosopher trolls like Miller and Steve Bannon, along with scores of other (usually brash men) who ply their Randianism on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
We don’t know Miller personally. But we’ve seen many young men over our combined 65 years of college teaching exhibit the symptoms of an arrested
Arthur Caplan, is head of the
Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Dominic Sisti, directs the Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care and is assistant professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
intellectual development in the Nietzsche phase. These are the students who mansplain to the entire class why there are no universal moral values and any attempt to develop cogent ethical arguments is doomed to fail. Egoism, they gurgle, is the only reliable guide to life. It is a sad combination of naive relativism and nihilism delivered with heavy doses of selfishness and arrogant smugness. Miller fits the mold. Fortunately for most of these young men, they learn and grow. They realize their thinking was deeply flawed. They advance to realize many of their arguments were based on fallacious reasoning, appeals to authority, ad hominem attacks, or false dichotomies. Some even express embarrassment later in life about their narrow-minded adherence to self-interest as the only moral value.
It is frightening to see a high level White House official still trapped in his own Nietzsche phase. As he advises the president, Miller’s inability to reflect humbly about his intellectual commitments wreaks profoundly negative consequences for the nation.
Public policy ought not be based on a foundation of pseudointellectualism and sophomoric philosophy. It requires honest and deep thinking, critical analysis, and a commitment to empirical evidence. More fundamentally, Miller’s important role requires moral and intellectual virtues to navigate complex policy matters. He lacks them.
It is unsurprising, however, that an administration that prides itself on pushing “alternative facts” would rely on a guy like Miller to advance its moral agenda. His views fit the childish mindset that “might makes right” — a perspective that ought to be confined to late night debates in freshman dorms and not inside the White House.
Delusional arrogance, contemptuousness, and juvenile pomposity are a toxic stew to feed to a nation that was once considered a moral beacon to the world. No longer.