Trump ad­viser pro­foundly lacks moral virtues

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - PERSPECTIVE - By Arthur Ca­plan and Do­minic Sisti ▶

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.

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