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The Problem with Ethics

“The hate and division must stop. And must stop now.”

~President Donald Trump

Is this the best we can hope for from the president who tells it like it is?  Do we need yet another uninspired chapter lamenting the “cycle of violence” added to the tedious narrative of moral equivalence?

After eight years of an administration too feckless to acknowledge radical Islam as the leading force behind global terrorism and so vapid as to dismiss the Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence,” we have a right to expect the new regime to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis for what they are.

To his credit, the president got there… eventually.  But it took him way too long.  If we want to stop these kinds of incidents before they start, we need to confront them with clarity and courage.


The sad reality is that we have to let bigots and racists hold rallies like the one last weekend in Charlottesville.  And the sadder reality is that we have to encourage young idealists like Heather Heyer to put themselves on the line by speaking out against bigotry and racism, even though we know it sometimes ends in tragedy.

But passion has to be tempered with reason. Case in point: the outcry against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not immediately launching a hate-crime investigation is all heart and little head.

The very term “hate-crime” is symptomatic of the ethical confusion of our times.  With left and right more polarized than ever, each side brands the other side as evil and thereby legitimizes its own hateful rhetoric.

The result is that we criminalize the motives of people we don’t like and excuse the actions of people we do.  And that just leads us deeper into the quagmire of moral anarchy.


The day after the Charlottesville attack, a drunken American tourist got it into his head to give the Nazi salute in Dresden, Germany.  A scandalized local physically attacked the man, then fled before police could arrest him for assault.

Are you nodding your head in approval?  That’s only natural.  But ignorance, loutishness, and racism are not illegal, nor should they be.  If we want to live with freedom, we have to tolerate those who wield their freedom irresponsibly, if not criminally.

And when they do cross the line into criminality, we should let the law work the way it was meant to work.  It’s a sure bet that the deranged extremist who rammed his car into the Charlottesville crowd had convinced himself he was acting on the side of the angels.  But he should be prosecuted as a murderer, not as a zealot.


What sparked this ugly episode was the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a southern hero revered in his time for his honor and nobility.  Should we ignore General Lee’s support of slavery because of his other virtues?  Or should we discount his virtues because he fought for slavery?

No and no.  People are complicated, and often contradictory.  That’s why attributing motive is both tricky and risky.

It’s easy for us in our age of equality to condemn man’s oppression of man, as we should.  But it’s also unjust to demand the same level of moral clarity from those who lived in different times with different values.

Indeed, when the values of future generations undergo another sea-change – as they will – who will defend us for our beliefs and actions before the indictment of our grandchildren?


What are ethics but the slippery discipline of gleaning the spirit of the law from within the letter of the law?  Even more slippery is the awareness that the morality of Man is subject to human bias and shifting cultural values.  Sometimes the law is wrong; and sometimes so are we.

We dare not excuse every historical movement merely because it seemed right in its time; but neither should we condemn all those who lacked the moral clarity of our own times.  19th Century slavery and 20th Century Nazism were both evil.  But they are not equivalent.  And 21st Century white supremacism is much closer to the latter than to the former.

So how do we navigate these treacherous moral waters?  We look to our leaders, who have the responsibility to help us set our collective moral compass as much as they have the obligation to steer the ship of state.

King Solomon says, A magic rests on the lips of the king; let his mouth not betray him in judgment.

You’ve got the helm, Mr. Trump.  Be very careful what you do with it.

Published in Jewish World Review

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