It’s funny how current events can sometimes produce flashbacks to memories decades old. I recently recalled my first day of ethics class at Fordham University as my professor valiantly searched our minds to find a starting point on which to base an ethical theory. What he suggested was that a standard way of testing ethical theories was to check them against your moral intuitions. As we explored this idea, the class found, as common ground, a moral abhorrence against hurting innocent children. We had found our starting point.
It’s not hard to understand why we all have a soft spot in our hearts for children. Our natural inclination is to protect and nurture not only our own offspring, but all children. Do you recall when, on Oct. 14, 1987, an 18-month-old toddler, Jessica, fell down a well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas? CNN covered the 58-hour-long rescue effort as the country held its collective breath. President Reagan correctly commented at the time, “Everyone in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.”
Our heartfelt desire to shield children from harm makes the recent developments along our southern border so upsetting. Millions of us prayed and rooted for Jessica 31 years ago. Now we are witness to thousands of children unnecessarily being pried away from their families and housed in cages. The recently released audiotape was pure horror. A 6-year-old Salvadoran girl is heard begging someone, anyone, to call her aunt and ask her to come rescue her. But rescue her from whom? The answer to that question should make all of us sick to our stomachs. She needs to be rescued from the inhumane and cruel policy of Donald J. Trump and his underlings: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, presidential adviser Steve Miller, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly. Perhaps by the time this column is published the draconian policy of separating parents from their children will have been abandoned, but the fact remains that it was gleefully instituted by individuals who just weren’t concerned about its ramifications.
Don’t believe for a moment that the damage done to thousands of children in the name of Trump’s immigration policy is minor. The American Psychological Association put it this way: “The administration’s policy of separating children from their families as they attempt to cross into the United States without documentation is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregiver. Psychological research shows that immigrants experience unique stressors related to the condition that led them to flee their home countries in the first place. The longer that children and parents are separated, the greater reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children. Negative outcomes for children include psychological distress, academic difficulties and disruptions in their development.”
It’s time for all of us to make our voices heard and reject cruelty to children no matter how it is “dressed.” The White House, after first denying the policy, now blames everyone else for it. The White House has also made it clear that it hopes to use the suffering of these defenseless children as a “bargaining chip” to force Congress to pass immigration legislation. Congressional Republicans have submitted two new proposals, both draconian and inhumane. The “moderate” one would allow the children to join their parents in prison as they await their fate. One can only imagine the provisions of the harsher one.
How on earth did we get to this point? Columnist Paul Krugman recently observed that this is the end result of a much larger problem: “The U.S. government is, as a matter of policy, ripping children from the arms of their parents and putting them in fenced enclosures. The U.S. president is demanding that law enforcement stop investigating his associates and go after his political enemies instead. He has been insulting Democratic allies while praising murderous dictators. And a global trade war seems increasingly likely.” So, what’s going on here? Again, Mr. Krugman: “What we’re witnessing is a systematic rejection of longstanding American values—the values that made America great.”
When I was growing up, I always firmly believed that if there were an injustice in the world, the United States of America would stand against it. Our history wasn’t always immaculate, we had our missteps for sure, but by and large, our country stood for a set of treasured values. Unlike many of the despots we opposed, America became synonymous with freedom, human rights and the rule of law. We were part of the solution, not the problem. Now that seems like ancient history.
The warm sun of American exceptionalism has now been eclipsed by the commission of unthinkable atrocities against children at our borders, attacks on the rule of law, the levying of insults on our allies, the praising of thugs and the breaking up of trade agreements. No matter what your party affiliation, we are all witness to the abandonment of the ideals that made us a truly great nation. We are no longer the moral leader of the free world. How ironic that the main architects of this trashing of our values ran on the slogan, Make America Great Again.
How would my Fordham philosophy class have ethically judged all these developments? After considering a number of ethical systems (Divine Command Theory, Hedonism, Utilitarianism, Kantian morality), we ended up embracing Virtue Ethics. Its premise, simply put, is that the goal of ethics should be to figure out how to have a good life, which can only be achieved if you have become a good person. A good person is one who engages in virtuous actions that ultimately are a result of your virtuous character. A good person would never have referred to the presence of immigrants as an “infestation,” nor have separated children from their parents. I have no doubt that my class would have viewed the current actions of Mr. Trump and his cohorts as lacking in virtue, unethical and inhumane.
We cheered as one nation when baby Jessica was saved, we will cheer again when our country is restored to a position of moral leadership in the world. I just hope it happens in my lifetime.