There is a tendency among individuals and organizations to call for more ethical actions by the U.S. government. For example, in January 2021, the Cato Institute published an article by Doug Bandow that called for President Biden to end the close ties between the White House and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bandow called the bin Salman regime “murderous” and said the former administration’s friendliness was “indefensible.” In his eyes, the Saudi regime acted unethically, and for the U.S. to be closely allied with them was in itself unethical. When he said that if Biden ended American support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, “today would not be soon enough,” he was making an ethical call for action by the Biden administration. President Biden did condemn Saudi actions only a few days after the Bandow article was published, but did not end the friendship between the two nations because he hoped OPEC+ would increase oil production, thereby lowering gas prices in America. Bandow’s optimism was misplaced due to a common misunderstanding: the U.S. government, like all governments, is incapable of acting ethically, and can only operate under a narrow moral framework.
Morals and ethics are often conflated, and even ethicists use the term interchangeably. However, not all see them as equal or the same. In exploring the evolution of morality, the late psychologist Kenneth Keniston offered in 1965 this distinction between morality and ethics: the former is “specific and situation” while the latter is “general and universal.” He further described morality as being learned socially and ethics as thought-out decisions based on what we “aspire to.” Philosopher R. S. Downie noted in 1980 that in “popular speech,” morals refer to “sexual behavior” whereas “ethics” are assigned to all other behaviors.
Of the above definitions, Keniston’s is the most accurate to both philosophical and common usage, with one caveat. While he sees morality as based on right actions and ethics as focused on good versus evil, I would flip the two: morals are about good and bad, ethics are about right and wrong. This is a distinction that the philosopher Harold N. Lee agreed with in his 1928 definition of the terms, although we diverge in what that means. I make this differentiation because morality is associated with the outcome of an action, whereas ethics are concerned with the action itself.
As for the other part of Keniston’s definition, morals are situational, as he said, and specific to the individual. This is a concept called “moral relativism,” the idea that morality changes from individual to individual or culture to culture. For one person, morality is based on social values. For another, “good” is what benefits them and “bad” is everything else. A third might subscribe to the idea of Utilitarianism, which fixates on the most amount of good one can get from an action; it is often referred to as an ethical philosophy, but because it is outcome-oriented, I classify it as a moral philosophy.
This is because the morality of an action is based on whether or not it results in good, but an ethical decision is based on what the action says about the actor, not based on the outcome. To put it another way, moral decisions are made by asking, What good will come of this action?, while ethical decisions are made by asking, Am I willing to be the kind of person who does this?
Ethics in Government
Governments are first and foremost self-perpetuating, and therefore take the actions that are best for their government first, and, depending on the type of government, the actions that are best for their society second. An authoritarian regime murdering dissenters and a democratic government expanding the right to vote are both taking moral actions because they both see morality as the action that is “good” for them. (This is essentially Adam Smith’s theory of economic self-interest.) Therefore, the U.S. government, like any government, is not just concerned with morality over ethics, but with a narrow moral framework that many of its citizens do not share.
Doug Bandow called for President Biden to cut the ties that President Trump had so faithfully cultivated with Saudi Arabia because it was “despicable.” He wanted Biden to hold the Saudis accountable, and a few days later, Biden said of Saudi offenses in Yemen that “this war has to end.” The relationship between the two countries, however, did not end due to the relative “good” that the U.S. could reap by remaining friends with the OPEC+ member. Over a year and a half later, OPEC+ announced that it would be cutting oil production, prompting new calls for the White House to cut ties with bin Salman. Those calls might be met this time: Biden announced that his administration would “take action” against Saudi Arabia.
The change in tune from the White House is a result of a change in outcome from the proposed action. Because the supposed “good” of low gas prices has been removed, the U.S. is now comfortable taking action. The State Department states outright that Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and strategic geopolitical position influence the U.S.-Saudi friendship. It should be stressed that the U.S. government is not refusing to act ethically because it does not want to, but because it is unable to. Americans are particularly sensitive to gas prices, and high gas prices open up incumbent political candidates to attacks from rivals. The government protects gas prices because doing so is good for the government, and possibly because low gas prices are good for the people. This is a result of the narrow moral framework that all governments are trapped in.
Bandow was making an ethical argument in his article: Murder is wrong, protecting murderers is wrong and the U.S. government should do the right thing and stop protecting murderers (bin Salman). There is nothing wrong with that argument, but an ethical plea to the U.S. government will not work unless the government can gain something from obeying (the government sees a moral reason). It feels uncomfortable and even wrong to set aside the ethical argument (do not protect murderers because that is wrong) in favor of a moral argument (there is more to be gained from not protecting murderers than from protecting them), but the government can only be swayed by the latter due to the very nature of government. The question arises: Are you willing to be the kind of person who does that?
Madeleine Roth is a senior at American University in Washington, D.C. She is working towards a bachelor's degree in International Studies with a focus on foreign policy and national security.
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