Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Leadership Moral Qualities of President Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump

Holders of political positions of high office, such as presidents or prime ministers, always attract controversies due to the content of rivaling political aims, agendas and visions. But one thing you would expect of any holder of such a position is that this person possess the ability to lead. For this is what such offices are ultimately about. The new US president, Donald Trump, has now been in office for some – very brief – time. Mostly these beginning days of a new US presidency – or a new cabinet in a parliamentary democracy – are ones of relative calm and ease; of settling in and attending to the formalities necessary to, thereafter, be able to rule for real and do one's best to realise whatever political program one has been elected on. Not so this time. Donald Trump has in a very short time managed to (I'm not giving any specific links here – all you need to do is to do a bit of Googling):

a) ... issue an unlawful (according to some court decisions even unconstitutional) executive order on one of his central deliveries to those who elected him: the so-called travel ban, aka Muslim ban, in spite of the fact that his closest legal adviser, the acting attorney general, had advised him against the design of the order;

b) ... fire said acting Attorney General for having done her job and extended said advise, before being forced by the legal system to back down;

c) ... attacking the federal courts that decided said order is unlawful for doing their constitutional job and applying and interpreting the law – openly mocking them as "so-called" judiciary, earning himself the epiteth of the "so-called POTUS" – rather than realising that said order needs to be redesigned to achieve legal compliance;

d) ... appointing a personal security adviser, Michael Flynn, who already from the start was heavily in question from a national security standpoint due to dodgy Russian contacts, and who then lied about that to his own administration, making himself into an even worse threat to national security, before being exposed as a liar and finally fired just a few days after his appointment, but apparently as long as two weeks after the President had been briefed about the question marks hanging over him;

e) ... apparently openly lying about this documented foreknowledge when asked by a reporter;

f) ... fire the acting Attorney General (same as b above), who – again! – had done her job, and advised the President about the national security threat posed by Flynn;

g) ... trying to surpress the unsurpressable and increasingly credible information about his campaign staff having had potentially illegal contacts with Russian intelligence agents and officer prior to his inauguration;

h) ... failing to have one of his central ministerial appointments confirmed by Congress, in spite of having a secure GOP majority in both houses;

i) ... making a number of apparently unplanned and ill thought-through international political attempts (Mexico, Russia, China, Europe, Israel, Nato, Yemen ...), which so far have only weakened the international standing of the USA due to their apparent lack of systematic strategy, and their confusing lack of grounding in the US diplomatic and international affairs ministry;

j) ... appoint a press secretary, Sean Spicer, of such questionable competence and skill that he has already managed to antagonise more or less the entire news media corps and made himself the laughing stock of the world;

k) ... apparently for this reason elevated his former campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, to some form of unspecified advisory capacity, whose role now seems to be to second guess Spicer when he seems to be botching up 8which happens frequently), but who has already herself been caught with open lying and fabrication of facts, all of which just serves to deepen the confusion and lack of credibility of the new administration; 

l) ... himself, personally!, as well antagonising and attacking the same media for criticising his actions, via Twitter or actual press conference, rather than learn from his obvious mistakes and take action to bring them onto his side. His first solo press conference is, in this respect, a stuff of legends in its exhibit of confusion, lies and complete lack of judgement – even the formerly good media dog of the GOP and alt-right, Fox News is decrying the spectacle, and counting the lies;

m) ... apparently also antagonising, rather than allying, large parts of the very federal administration that is meant to help him execute his policies, e.g., by derailing or ignoring its expert opinion and intelligence, among other things regarding all of the items above;

n) ... continued to openly and blatantly lie, and antagonise all that point this out for doing so.

Ok, so all of this in just a few weeks, and long before any real policy making has begun. Everybody know that several of Trump's central promises that got him elected will run into severe trouble in the process of making actual law, confirm the federal budget, et cetera. For a large portion of his GOP majority of course sees that several of his ideas will not be of benefit to either the American people or the Republican party – such as starting trade wars, or radically increase the federal financial deficit and lending to be able to realise the combination of the promised infrastructure and industry projects, the increased military spending in combination with decreased federal taxes. One would have supposed that the Trump inner circle knew about this, and therefore would take some care to prepare to ground well for the very real political battles that lie ahead, especially as this would mean using a period of relative calm, when new administrations are usually left comparably alone in terms of critical scrutiny. If they don't €#%+ up, that is. Which is what Donald Trump has apparently been doing from day one. But this is already clearly set out in any number of reports and commentaries available all over, and not any kind of original point of mine.

What I would like to comment on is what moral qualities of President Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump are revealed by how he has chosen to handle these early challenges, troubles and setbacks. For such qualities are, of course, central to any leader's prospect of success, both regarding central projects one is set to realise (whatever these are), and regarding one's ability of holding together whatever organisation one is set to lead in order to effect that realisation. I am thus not reviewing the moral quality of his political aims, vision or agenda, but rather how well is is equipped to lead an attempt to realise those aims, that vision and agenda.

1. Carefulness
This quality is about a leader's ability of preparing actions well – its antonym is carelessness. As related above Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump scores very low in this dimension of leadership. many of the chaotic blunders during these first few weeks could have been easily avoided by better preparation. The ability of exhibiting carefulness depends on several of the qualities listed below.

2. Wisdom
This quality is about several things, bounded together by the importance for a leader to be able to learn from mistakes, revise opinion in view of misjudgement, and design his or her administrative support to secure this ability. Well-known obstacles to the achievement of wise leadership is for a leader to surround him-/herself with advisers that are "yesmen" and/or loyal rather than competent, to be prone to assume people who object to one's propsals are conspiring, rather than carefully considering the content of criticism. So far, Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump has demonstrated very little on this front. Possibly the only sign so far is the final, at great pains, forcing out of Flynn, and the final, again at great pains, grumbling contention that, possibly, the travelban order will have to be entirely redrafted and rule of law respected after all. A wise leader would, of course, never have hired Flynn in the first place, or acted immediately on the incriminating information, and would immediately have accepted the court decision regarding the travelban, and gone back to work to do better, rather than firing the foremost adviser who had told him how the land lay and mock the same constitution that gives him the power he is so amateurishly attempting to execute.

3. Responsibility
This is about two things. First, to accept the link between power and accountability for the consequences of its wielding. Second to communicate this sense of responsibility to the surrounding world. This means not, e.g., blaming underlings for one's own mistakes (e.g., of appointing them) or ignoring their advise, or others for their predictable reactions to what one does. Again, Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump has a long way to go to even approach the minimal standard of a half-decent leader.

4. Perspective
This is the ability to assume and see the reason of the points of views of others, as well as be able to think strategically and long-term, acknowledging the complexities of an heterogeneous world. This could, for instance, imply accepting some adaption to opponents' and critics' points of view in order to realise larger objectives further on, or to think once or twice about how other around you might respond when you threaten them. As a case in point on both fronts, while Trump may very well chose to tax Mexican imports to pay for the so-called border wall that Trump has promised to build (as he has hinted that he plans), this will, of course, have an effect on the consumption of said goods, undermining the revenue in question, while at the same time it is predictable that Mexico can easily offset the damage by taxing US imports to a similar degree to offset the damage. As there's a more or less 50/50 import/export trade relationship between the two countries, the netto effect would mainly be a shrunken economy on both sides, and it would seem that the Trump threat has pretty much nothing going for it, unless one fails to think two or three steps ahead. Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump once again fails to exhibit such qualities,

5. Restraint
This is basically about keeping one's cool in the face of opposition and complications. To keep a clear mind in order to be able to realise one's plans, to forestall opposition to read one's hand, to avoid unnecessarily antagonising those with which one may in the future be forced to attempt negotiation and compromise, and to secure a basic understanding and respect also of those who have a critical stance to one's attempts (such as the press). Above,  I didn't even mentioned specifically the Twitter activity that Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump, I may add that now, to underscore how magnificently he is failing also on this point.

6. Effectiveness
Now, a leader who is lacking in any of the qualities 1-5, may be excused if he/she, as the saying goes, gets the job done. The problem is that Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump is not, and to a great extent due to his very lack of the moral qualities needed for great leadership. As mentioned, so far, all of the circus created has been far from any real policy making challenge – it's been about the elementary preparations for those. And Donald "So-called POTUS" Trump isn't even able to pull that off. Partly because of this failure, partly because of the lack of qualities 1-5 so far demonstrated, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to realise any of his rather ambitious campaign promises, although there will, of course, be an expected policy swing to the right – with known negative consequences for the core supporter groups of Trump. Where that will leave US politics four years from now is not an entirely comfortable thought.


Thursday, 5 January 2017

Attend our summer school on the Ethics of Family in Health- and Social Care!

One of my commitments is as active member and member of the steering group of an international network on family ethics research, headed by Marian Verkerk, Professor Ethics of Care of the University Medical Centre Groningen. The network has a forthcoming volume (to which I contribute two sections), edited by Marian, Hilde Lindemann and Janice McLaughlin, on Oxford University Press, with the preliminary title Where Families and Health Care Meet.

Another output is a new summer school, organised by the UMCG, on the broad topic of ethical complications and issues in health and social care due to various aspects of family and how patients and clients, as well as professionals, are inescapably embedded in webs of close personal relationships and the fact that society and institutions are all built on assumptions of such webs being in existence. The course is open to masters as well as PhD students and goes under the heading of What About the Family? Besides myself and Marian, the featured speakers/tutors include Ulrik Kihlbom (Uppsala University), Hilde Lindemann, Jamie Nelson (both Michigan State University), Veerle Provoost (University of Ghent), Jackie Leach Scully, Simon Woods (both Newcastle University) and Kristin Zeiler (Linköping University), and others yet to be confirmed members of our network from the universities of Göttingen and Lübeck.

Here is the course webpage. Below is a 2 page flyer that you are more than welcome to share in your networks and with whoever you think maybe interested. Hope to see you in Groningen in August!


Remembering Derek Parfit

Unexpectedly, Derek Parfit died on new year's day 2017, an event sending shock-waves throughout the global philosophy community, as he was no more than 74 years old. For you who don't know who he was, it can be summed up in terms of the most important moral philosopher of the 20th and, so far, the 21th century. With his book Reasons and Persons (Oxford UP, 1984), he single-handedly redrew the intellectual maps of normative ethics, philosophy of action and rationality, value theory and existential philosophy, partly by making intriguing revelations of how they interconnect, and demonstrating puzzles and challenges coming out of that, which a lion's share of the philosophy world is still grappling with in one way or the other. He followed that up with the monumental On What Matters, of which two volumes have been published and a third is rumoured to be on its way later this year. In 2014 Parfit was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy, which I celebrated with this little parody piece of his distinctive writing style.

There's already a fair portion of good in memoriam pieces out there, featuring personal reminiscence, summaries of his life and works, as well as links to videos of his lectures. A nice listing can be found on Harvard University's (one of the top institutions to which Parfit was linked) memorial webpage.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Derek Parfit in person (and many bear witness of that this would indeed have been a pleasure), but his philosophical work has had a large impact on my own philosophical explorations, for what they're worth. When I started to attend the "higher seminar" in practical philosophy at Stockholm University in 1985, Reasons and Persons was on the reading list for a full term, and the seniors took turns introducing the different parts, sucking me and the other "youngsters" into sophisticated philosophical reasoning and argument on a level way above what we had ever experienced before. I choose, as a consequence, to write my B.A. thesis on a few pages of part 2 of the book, where Parfit defends what he calls the "Critical present aim theory" of practical reason or rational action, according to which certain individual desires may be irrational in themselves due to their very content. I was critical of Parfit's way of supporting "CP", as I found it putting the cart before the horse by invoking what to me looked like a fundamental moral conviction (that it's not justified to prefer suffering just because it occurs on certain weekdays) as its basis, which would be problematic in a question begging manner given Parfit's aim of using CP to support the idea of objective moral truths. But this was more importantly a formative experience of how well made philosophy will always be open to questioning if only you work hard enough on understanding its details – gaps for criticism are only absent when the work is marked by obscurity and ambiguity, and therefore you should never fear obvious openings for disagreement in your own work, they are unavoidable. Later, I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the morality of abortion (in Swedish), and there both the discussion of personal identity over time, and (more importantly) the moral importance of future people came to provide very important input. These aspects of his work then continued to have an impact of my later work in bioethics, e.g., on embryo research, reproductive ethics and gene technology. Later, Parfit's musings over problems of collective action, value aggregation and the pragmatics of applying ethical theories in practice (part 1 of Reasons and Persons) added important context and basis for my contributions to public health ethics and the ethics of risk and precaution.

Now, it should be underlined, that Parfit's influence has never been that of a prophet – someone's whose teachings one accepts and then spends one's life as a follower of, working out the details with the assumption that the master's words must never be doubted. Parfit's strength was never the thesis, but the argument and its analysis – often leading to initially apparently clear positions falling apart into zillion variants, each of which in need of their own little set of arguments. When he pursued a substantive thesis, I often disagreed with him, albeit acknowledging much of the analytical landscape created to reach it. Parfit was a philosopher who ingeniously created intellectual context and complication for others to freely move about within. In that way, much of whatever I have ever managed to contribute to my own little corners of the vast world of philosophy wouldn't have been there for the picking, had it not been for the context of problematisation and complexity provided through Parfit's prior achievements. This, I'm convinced, is true of a great many other currently active philosophers as well. And I believe that this will continue to be the case for a fair amount of time ahead.