Conflicts of Interest, Ethics, and Donald J. Trump

The U.S Office of Government Ethics was established in 1978 through the Ethics in Government Act. It “provides overall leadership and oversight of the executive branch ethics program designed to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest.” Apparently the Trump White House has not welcomed such oversight. Consequently, the office’s director, Walter M. Schaub, Jr., announced he would resign on July 19, stating, “In working with the current administration, it has become clear that we need to strengthen the ethics program.”

Even prior to Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, the OGE anticipated his potential conflicts of interest, encouraging the President-Elect to divest himself of his businesses. That did not happen. Other ethics issues arose, but Trump has been recalcitrant about addressing them. These issues highlight a distinction between what the law and ethics separately require.[1] Think about it this way: what’s legal is not always ethical. For example, there is no law requiring U.S. presidential candidates or sitting presidents to disclose their tax returns. It is, however, not the norm, and for good reason.

The Ethical Foundation of Conflicts of Interest

The type of conflict of interest that concerns us here arises when one has the opportunity for personal gain through one’s official capacity. That’s because there are typically formal or informal restrictions on how one should use one’s official capacity. One’s duties as a public servant are derived from the ethical principle that the public good ought to be prioritized over one’s personal interest. By at least one definition, duty demands such priority. This is what situates a conflict of interest squarely in the domain of ethical concerns.

Donald Trump owns four percent of the largest federally subsidized housing complex, Starrett City/Spring Street Towers, in Brooklyn. Like any investor, he has an interest in making money from his ownership stake. At the same time, lawmakers point out in a letter to Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Ben Carson, that Trump “oversees the government entity providing taxpayer funds and he pockets some of that money himself.” Accordingly, Trump has an interest in ensuring that HUD negotiates the best deal possible. These interests, however, are incompatible; he cannot serve both. One must prevail.

Most professional ethics codes require individuals to avoid, disclose, or eliminate conflicts of interest. A judge must disclose a financial relationship with one of the parties in a case before her, and then recuse herself. (Justice, after all, is said to be blind.) Attorneys may not represent both parties in a case, since they have competing interests. A scientist researching smoking-related diseases has to grapple with at least the appearance of a conflict of interest if a tobacco company funds her study.[2]

Suppose a doctor has a financial incentive to prescribe a particular heart medication — maybe she has invested in the company. For the most part, this medication works exceptionally well for her patients. Indeed, it works better than all the other options. But then she finds a patient who does not do well. The doctor has an obligation to serve her patient’s health interests. She must now choose between her interest in financial gain and her interest in her patient’s health.

Having an interest means you are concerned with, or pay attention to, the object of that interest. “That doesn’t interest me,” you might say in response to a proposal to see the latest action movie. “Oh! That’s interesting!” you might exclaim with surprise and dismay upon hearing that U.S. women were not able to apply for credit cards until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.

Having an interest in something is also associated, in some cases, with motivation. Things that interest you often motivate you to pursue them. Let’s suppose you’re walking down a city street and see something shiny on the sidewalk. The glint catches your eye, so you look at the object and not, say, the burger wrapper lying next to it. This external stimulus might produce enough interest to make you stop for a closer look. It would seem that the motivation to act requires interest, and motivation is intimately connected to our ethical decision-making and action. As that code that guides our deliberations and actions, ethics is both deeply personal and social.

Suppose you own a very promising technology company. Naturally, you are interested in seeing the company succeed; you want to make a profit from your investment. Now add to the scenario this feature: You have just found out that the essential piece of equipment in the company’s latest device can’t be manufactured without poison leeching into the local water supply, which happens to be the one you, your family, and your community use for drinking and gardening. You can keep this knowledge secret — no one else knows. What do you do? You have competing interests: profit and safety. The more pressing question implied, but not stated, is this: What is the right thing to do? Hence, conflicts of interest are to be thought about within the framework of ethical theories. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Which one, after all, is correct? Is there a correct ethical theory?

Indeed ethics, which is the branch of philosophy that systematically studies right and wrong, is replete with competing answers to questions such as, ‘What is the good life?’ ‘What is happiness?’ ‘What is morally right?’ and ‘Is morality what God commands?’

People often disagree over right and wrong. Some Trump supporters, for example, (and even some who are not fans) argue that Trump’s conflicts of interest aren’t important enough to warrant any sort of action to remove him from office. As long as what he does benefits them, there’s no reason he can’t have a piece of the action, too. Others find Trump and his family’s conduct morally repugnant, while some think Trump’s actions violate the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause.[3] Such disagreements are not of the same magnitude, and perhaps not of the same category, as those that occur in a discrepancy over, say, simple arithmetic. A student who claims an exam score is incorrect need only check the calculation of individual points. When it comes to conflicts of interest, however, we don’t seem to have recourse to an indisputable rule — or even if we do, we don’t always agree on how to apply it. In other words, our disagreements over conduct are tied to our beliefs about the right way to live, whereas beliefs about counting are not.

Plato and Aristotle on Virtue

In one of his dialogues, Plato has Socrates hone in on the fact that, unlike in at least one other area of our lives, we get pretty bent out of shape over ethical issues:

[W]hat sort of difference creates enmity and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my good friend, differ about a number; do differences of this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and put an end to them by a sum?… But what differences are there which cannot be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another?…these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honourable and dishonourable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

Plato thinks there is a way out of this disagreement, and, ultimately, it’s no different from the way that we work toward, and achieve, a mathematical truth. Consequently, if we can wrap our heads around ethical disagreements, we can find our way to the right answer.

For Plato, ethical and mathematical truths share a common source: Reality. In Plato’s view, there is no ‘true for you’ and ‘true for me,’ where your truth and my truth are inconsistent. That can’t be the case any more than ‘2 + 2 = 4’ and ‘2 + 2 = 12’ are equally correct. Mathematical and moral truths share the same nature: they are fundamentally rational. So, for Plato, resolution of ethical disagreement is a matter of using our reason correctly. Rationality is of paramount importance to Plato’s system of reality, knowledge, ethics, politics, education, and art. So important is it that, according to Plato, it should direct our lives, and is our only vehicle to grasp reality.

Plato does not deny that we are embodied creatures. We have sensations and feelings. We become hungry or tired; we feel loyalty and anger. These are examples of our parts. (Plato thinks of them as parts of the soul.) We are, he thinks, composed of rational, emotional, and appetitive elements. When the parts work in harmony together, with reason in control,[4] we are well adjusted and happy.

Plato’s view is an example of virtue ethics. Broadly speaking, a virtue ethic holds that what’s morally important is a person’s character. Character is developed over time through practice, so that one becomes habituated into certain behaviors. We become the sort of person who does or doesn’t do certain things. A virtuous person is honest, prudent, and so forth. Plato’s student, Aristotle, developed a virtue ethics so robust that it continues to demand our attention.

Like most ancient Greek thinkers, Aristotle holds that all things have a purpose, a what-it-is-to-be that thing. This purpose is the good of that thing. Consider purpose in terms of function: a knife’s function is to cut.[5] An excellent knife is one that cuts well — it’s not dull. The function of an eye is to see. An excellent eye has 20/20 vision. For Aristotle, humans’ purpose is eudaimonia, happiness or flourishing. This good is the goal toward which all our actions — our life — ought to aim. It is ‘the rational activity of the soul, performed well, in accordance with virtue.’ Virtue, in turn, is a sort of excellence, or fulfillment of purpose. It hits the mark — the virtuous person does the right thing at the right time to the right person in the right way. It is a mean between extremes — between the vices of excess and deficit. So, the virtue of courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice. On both views, actions flow from character.

Donald Trump does not seem to satisfy either Plato or Aristotle’s conditions for a virtuous person. Recall that, for Plato, our non-rational elements — emotions and base urges — should always be kept in line by reason. For Aristotle, a virtuous state is reflected in the appropriate way we approach and respond to the world.

If nothing else, Trump’s Twitter feed should convince anyone he tends toward one or the other spectrum of Aristotelian vice. He is often self-indulgent, boorish, petty, spiteful, boastful, and vain. Rarely is he guided by reason, as Plato would expect. Consider, for example, his response to an interview question about sacrifice. Trump’s response to criticism from Gold Star father, Khzir Khan, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, was to make insinuations about Mrs. Khan. She had joined her husband on stage, but did not speak. Trump claimed she wasn’t allowed to do so, the insinuation being that she was oppressed by Islam’s standards. Worse yet, in response to Mr. Khan’s claim that Trump hadn’t sacrificed anything — certainly not the sacrifice of a child to country — he responded, “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I’ve worked very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs.” Even the most self-confident among us should at least think twice before making such an assertion.

Equally troubling is the worry that Trump might not have the virtues required to avoid a conflict of interest. Given the variety of things he’s said and done, ‘trust me, I’ve turned my businesses over to my children’ isn’t heartening. There isn’t a lot of trust in elected officials as it is — Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra was wildly popular, which suggests a lack of confidence in leadership at the federal leve. Sure, Trump isn’t a politician, so he hasn’t had the opportunity, as have other elected officials, to test the good will of the electorate. He has lived, however, decades in public eye. These decades have, arguably, not been spent developing the sort of character we should trust not to take advantage of his political position in order to enrich himself.

Not surprisingly, both Plato and Aristotle link their ethics to politics.[6] In his Republic, Plato tells us that the ruling class consists of philosophers. It is their devotion to knowledge, and their cultivation of their rationality, after all, which puts them in the best position to know how to lead. Moreover, they are not motivated by a desire for power, wealth, or social status — quite the contrary. Consequently, they don’t view political life favorably. Without a personal interest in leading, and because they are committed to Truth, they will, according to Plato, always seek the good of the whole. Clearly, they will not experience any conflict of interest, because such conflicts don’t occur for them.

For Aristotle, ethics is essential for political life. Indeed, politics is concerned with virtue on a larger scale: “even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.” The connection between ethics in the individual and community is commonsensical. After all, individuals constitute societies, even if we think of a society in singular terms. Moreover, as social animals, individuals influence each other on both small and large scales (e.g., the family, neighbors, and the immediate community).

Kant and Duty

In the pantheon of ethical theories, there are plenty whose primary focus of moral evaluation is not character, but action. In other words, praise and blame is reserved for an action, not the character of the person who committed it. With this emphasis, we can claim, for example, that the action of saving a drowning child was moral, even if the person who did it is a murderer.

18th century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant, holds that an action is moral when it is motivated by respect for duty. To act morally is to act from what Kant calls a “good will,” so that the moral requirement in a specific situation is thereby satisfied. The consequences of the action are morally irrelevant; the results of our action are outside the domain of moral evaluation. Acting, or attempting to act, from a respect for duty is all that is required to satisfy reason’s moral demand.[7] Emergency response personnel, nurses and physicians, and members of the military serve as solid examples of those who are committed to doing their duty, particularly when it involves great personal risk.

According to Kant, acting from a respect for duty ultimately means we act from respect for ourselves as rational beings. That’s because morality originates in reason.[8] We recognize morality in particular duties, which have the binding force of law. Analysis of the concept of duty yields a significant feature: morality is imperative and categorical — it is what all rational agents ought always to do, or refrain from doing. Thus a categorical imperative holds an action to be “objectively necessary without regard to any other end.” The one who jumps into the pond to save the drowning child does because it is what she ought to do, without concern for the consequences.

Kant articulates several formulations of the categorical imperative, from which our moral duties are derived. Of these, two best help us understand Kant’s theory as it applies to the ethical issue of conflicts of interest. The first asserts that whatever personal rule I have must be universalizable, both in terms of conceivability and willing. In other words, if my rule is properly moral, if it can correctly demand my respect and motivate me to act accordingly, then it must be applicable to everyone. After all, remember, for Kant, morality is rational, and reason is the same for all rational beings.

Kant distinguishes the categorical imperative from hypothetical imperatives, which tell us what is good for some purpose or other: If you want to avoid fatigue, for example, you should sleep at least eight hours a night. Notice that this hypothetical imperative involves prudential reasoning.

To reason prudentially is to consider the future in such a way that you either attempt to control an outcome by your action, or you adjust your action to comport with it. Suppose you want a promotion. Your employer has listed the criteria for it. Accordingly, you act in ways that satisfy those criteria. Your actions can, therefore, be called prudent.

Suppose I think it’s prudent to lie when doing so gets me what I want. For this rule to pass moral muster, I must be able to suppose that everyone does this, too. Okay, so I conceive of a world in which it is standard practice that lying occurs, which presumably includes the consequence that, knowing this, people don’t take each other at their word. So now we run into a problem. In order for my lie to be successful, someone has to take me at my word. Presumably, however, the person to whom I lie for my own advantage knows not to take me at my word. So, if my rule is to be universalized, I must simultaneously be committed to a world in which people don’t take each other at their word, and one in which someone takes me at my word. In fact, however, I cannot have it both ways.

The other formulation of the categorical imperative asserts that we should never treat humanity — ourselves or others — as a mere means but also always an end in itself. We are enjoined by this imperative never to use people for our own purposes; their value is not simply instrumental. Moreover, treating persons as means interferes with their ability to direct their own acts. Consider lying once again. When we lie, we aim to manipulate another person in some way. In so doing, we attempt to prevent them from pursuing ends chosen for themselves.

Kant provides us with an excellent opportunity to think about the problem of conflicts of interest. He recognizes that we have a variety of interests and motivations. Consider the following example, which is adapted from Kant: A donut shop owner gives his customers the correct change; he does not cheat them, even when they are not in a position to know otherwise, as in the case of a small child who comes in to purchase her favorite donut. We can further suppose several motivating explanations for the donut man’s actions: 1) He doesn’t want to lose business, and so profits, by earning a reputation as a cheat; 2) He really cares about his customers and would feel terribly if he cheated them; and 3) He believes it is his duty not to cheat his customers, even though he really wants to. (He’s just not a nice guy.)

According to Kant, motivations 1 and 2 don’t pass moral muster. The donut shop owner’s action accords with, or conforms to duty, but is not done from duty — duty is not his motivation. It is the third motivation that highlights moral worth. Despite an inclination (or interest, given previous usage) to cheat, the donut man doesn’t. That’s because he believes he ought not to do so.

At this point, a major question leaps out at us: How can we possibly tell what someone’s motivation is? All we see is the act. We don’t know what’s happening in the donut man’s mind. So if we judge his act to be morally good, but his motivation is not moral, then we’ve erred in our praise. For Kant, the moral worth of an action is highlighted by the agent’s inclination to do otherwise than act from a respect for duty. But again, you and I are not privy to the donut man’s machinations. By removing conflicts of interest, we all but eliminate this worry.

We saw earlier that Donald Trump does not satisfy the conditions of virtue for either Plato or Aristotle. His relevant words and deeds also do not align with a Kantian ethic. The oath of office taken to serve as President of the United States is a promise. To make a promise is, potentially, at least, to subjugate your inclinations, your desires, and your feelings to that pledge. In making the sort of promise required by the oath of office, you tacitly agree that you put the country’s interests ahead of your own. Even if these interests align, yours do not take priority. Similarly, Kant’s understanding of morality is that it is a demand upon us — and rationality is the same for all. Insofar as we understand promise keeping to be a specific duty, we don’t get a pass, an exception, a get-out-of-my-promise-free card. If it’s true that Trump’s self-interest is so strong that it takes the advantage every time — as the trump card, his self-interest overrides all other considerations — then he won’t ever subject himself to the demands of moral obligation.

Trump as Egoist

The Office of Government Ethics is tasked with “preventing conflicts of interest in the executive branch.” There are various ways in which such conflicts can occur, but the one that most worries the OGE and other parties is between Trump’s motivation to make money, and his sworn duty to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Trump is president and business owner. Will his decisions be motivated by making money for himself, or will they be determined by duty? Take, for example, his financial stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Because he did not divest himself of his businesses, we can’t know for sure that his decision to allow the pipeline to move forward was motivated by personal financial interest or a belief he was doing the right thing for the country.

The evidence for the former is compelling. There is little doubt that Donald Trump has been, and continues to be, a self-serving individual. The evidence for this view is compelling, and only a few reminders are required.

Trump has long maintained the view that business is about “winners” and “losers.” The winners get the money, the losers don’t. The goal is always to win. Most of us have no problem with making money to take care of our families and create a comfortable life. We don’t, however, think it’s acceptable to make money at all costs. We don’t, for example, weasel out of our tax bill. On the other hand, Trump has suggested he is “smart” for not paying taxes — then denied it. Trump does this a lot — says things that serve his purpose at the time, but conflict with other assertions, as was the case in the second presidential debate, when he declared he’d be “proud” to release his “great” tax returns. The reversals and double reversals are so frequent, it’s hard to keep up with them. Nevertheless, he frequently declares we should believe what he says, apparently just because he says it. “Believe me. I’ll win [the Trump university lawsuit].”

As a candidate during the primaries, Trump refused to endorse the eventual Republican candidate and refused to agree not to run as an Independent if he lost the nomination. As the Republican nominee, he refused to agree to accept the 2016 election results. Instead, he claimed he would keep the entire country “in suspense,” as if the entire process was no more substantial than a reality television show. Respect for both the process and his fellow citizens do not seem to factor into his moral worldview.

Most recently, while making a speech in Poland, Trump complained that NBC News, like CNN, “covers me in a very dishonest way.” This is apparently[9] despite the fact that “I made them a fortune with “The Apprentice.”” In other words, Trump expects a sort of quid pro quo, not truth. For Trump, “dishonest” coverage is the same as being treated “unfairly,” which simply means he doesn’t like being criticized. The fact that he makes these claims at inappropriate times, such as the Coast Guard Cadet graduation ceremony, reveals his interest is almost always exclusively with himself. This is not to say that potentially unfair editorializing does not happen, but when we disagree with an account, we usually provide evidence to the contrary, or otherwise show the account is in error. Trump does not offer reasons, only a dizzying array of ad hominem attacks.

These attacks facilitate further understanding of Trump’s version of fairness. The common understanding of fairness is impartiality. A game isn’t fair, for example, when players cheat. An election isn’t fair when votes are suppressed. An employer isn’t fair when it doesn’t treat employees equally (or equitably, depending on which strategy is appropriate). For Trump, however, fairness seems to mean something different. It seems to mean that which serves him. So, one is being fair to Donald Trump when one gives him what he thinks he is due.

In short, Trump’s history is one of looking out for his own interests, even if that means trampling on the interests of others. Consider, for example, his boast about having assaulted women, and mistaking their lack of fight for welcome, or at least consent. There are also the accusations that, in the interest of making money, he cheated others.

The evidence for concluding that Donald Trump is an egoist is pretty overwhelming. How can we talk about this claim within the framework of an ethical theory?

Trump as Ethical Egoist

There are other ethical theories one might use to capture Trump in ethical terms, but the most obvious one is ethical egoism. Ethical egoism asserts that one ought to maximize one’s self-interest. In principle, then, it is opposed to Kantian ethics. On the face of it, ethical egoism is not entirely inconsistent with virtue ethics, depending on how you understand “self-interest.” Both Socrates and Plato think we should be concerned with the condition of our character, since it determines the extent to which we can live a good life. Each of us is self-interested in some way, and this is not necessarily a moral problem. We are, for example, generally interested in preserving our lives and welfare. We may even say, as Kant does, that there is a duty to do so when, for example, we think life isn’t worth living anymore.

The common worry over ethical egoism is that it demands we place ourselves at the center of our moral universe in a way other theories do not. Ethical egoism strikes many no different than a prescription for selfishness, and since most of us do not think we should always be selfish, we reject ethical egoism.

Plato provides us with one way to think about critiquing ethical egoism interpreted as a way of endorsing selfishness. In Book II of The Republic, Plato recounts the story of Gyges, a poor shepherd who finds a ring with the power to make its wearer invisible. Gyges wastes no time. With the help of the ring, he seduces the queen, kills the king, and takes power. It may appear that Gyges has got what he wanted — relief from the cold, lonely life of the shepherd, and the attainment of wealth and power — and, because he was invisible at the right times, he did not bear the negative consequences of his actions. What’s not to like? Moreover, if one has power without accountability, anything goes. Plato doesn’t agree. On his account, the just person — the one who exhibits the virtue of justice — wouldn’t be tempted as was Gyges. The just person is, as such, incorruptible. That’s because justice is a virtue reflective of an individual’s permanent condition.

When candidate Donald Trump boasted about ‘grabbing pussy,’ encouraged supporters to “knock the crap out of” potential hecklers, said “we need a little bit more” violence against protestors, and demeaned and dismissed Senator John McCain’s heroism by saying, “I like people who weren’t captured,” he reflected the view that people, are not intrinsically worthy of respect. While problematic in his life as a private citizen, this approach to life starkly conflicts with Mr. Trump’s duties as President of the United States.

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are not simply foundational political documents, they are also expressions of deeply held moral beliefs about who we are, who we should be, and how we should proceed living together in a civil society. It is no small thing, moreover, that the Founding Fathers were well versed in and deeply influenced by the history of philosophy, from at least Plato through Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant.

Donald Trump declared that his use of social media makes him “modern day presidential.” He would do well to focus instead on substance. He could do this, perhaps, by attending to the documents that reveal much about the ethical concepts that underpin, and provide the framework for, the highest office in the land.


[1] For the sake of this argument, I accept the premise that Trump’s actions referenced here do not violate the law.

[2] I make the qualification, “at least the appearance of,” since, at least historically, public trust in scientists enjoy public trust. This idea, and the reasons that explain it, are presented in Prof. Sheldon Krimsky’s paper, “The Ethical and Legal Foundations of Scientific ‘Conflict of Interest’”.

[3] In this essay, I use “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably. There are appropriate times for a distinction between them, but, for our purposes, there is no significant difference.

[4] In his dialogue, Phaedo, Plato offers a lovely image of the parts of the soul as steeds and a charioteer. The steeds — emotion and appetite — run amok without the charioteer to guide them.

[5] See, for example, Physics, Book II, Part 3; and Metaphysics, Book V, Part 2

[6] I have avoided a discussion of justice here, but it is well worth thinking about the connections between ethics, justice, and law.

[7] What distinguishes Kant’s account of a good will from a virtue ethics’ focus on character is, arguably, a matter of degree or one of foundation. In other words, Kant takes duty to be more basic or fundamental than character. A related way to think about this distinction is that, for Plato and Aristotle, our emotional life is integrated into our character, and so our moral lives. For Kant, emotion has no place in a properly moral motivation; actions from rational respect for the moral law alone earn the appellation, “moral.”

[8] The argument whereby Kant concludes that reason is morality’s source is complicated. For our purposes, it should suffice to say that we have at least an inkling of what Kant means when we consider the mental feeling of duty. It is so powerful that no amount of coercion or temptation will sway us away from this internal command. It is not the external pressure of, say, familial, religious, or governmental authority. Nor is it the desire to ‘do good.’

[9] Trump’s utterances are often disconnected, which leaves room to wonder if there is a connection between the two claims. Listening to his tone of voice in the relevant clip of the speech, however, suggests he thinks there is one.

Author: girlzillawrites

I am a philosophy professor and writer with a diverse set of research interests. My favorite courses to conduct are all introductory: critical thinking, symbolic logic, ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and ethics. My philosophical loves are Kant and Kierkegaard, but I happen to be smitten pretty much with whoever I'm reading at the moment.

What do you think?