In class we discussed the chapter on ethics and public speaking. The textbook defines ethics as, “The branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong in human affairs.” Considering former FBI Director James Comey’s most recent ethical failure, the timing could not have been more apropos.
As usual, we considered the question, “Is there good, bad, right, wrong, or evil in the world?” Every semester college students surprise me with their answers. In both classes, the students immediately and nearly unanimously responded, “No!” So, I asked the question differently: “Is there good in the world? Is there bad? Is there right? Is there wrong? Is there evil?” Of course, this time students acknowledged all are in the world today.
I took this opportunity to teach them that they had not listened critically to the first question, but had jumped ahead to a different question they presumed I was asking. The second question was, “Can we agree what is good, bad, right, wrong or evil?” The answer, of course, was no. The third question was, “Why not?” And, the fourth question was, “Who determines what is good, bad, right, wrong or evil?”
These questions are essential to understanding ethics. Moreover, discussing answers to the questions encourages students to consider not only why they themselves hold certain ethical beliefs, but also why others may hold different beliefs.
We also discussed the old Machiavellian question: Do the ends justify the means? Surprisingly, a significant number of students believes the ends justify the means not only in terms of ethics, but also in terms of morals and law. The session was stimulating and thought-provoking for everyone, especially the teacher.
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One might consider whether Washington politics and media were the ultimate laboratory for observing the dynamics at the intersection of ethics and public speaking. Take the revelation by Inspector General Horowitz that former FBI Director James Comey was guilty of essentially justifying the means he used to achieve his personal ends, i.e. subverting the presidency of Donald Trump.
The IG’s investigation focused on seven memos Comey in his role as director of the FBI wrote about his conversations with President-elect and President Trump. According to the report, “Comey told the OIG that he considered Memos 2 through 7 to be his personal documents, rather than official FBI records. He said he viewed these Memos as ‘a personal aide-mémoire,’ ‘like [his] diary’ or ‘like [his] notes,’ which contained his ‘recollection[s]’ of his conversations with President Trump.”
Comey’s self-righteousness notwithstanding, the IG’s report very pointedly concluded, “Comey's actions with respect to the Memos violated Department and FBI policies concerning the retention, handling, and dissemination of FBI records and information, and violated the requirements of Comey’s FBI Employment Agreement.”
The investigation into Comey’s mishandling and leaking sensitive documents is mere prelude to other investigations into corruption at the highest levels of law enforcement and intelligence agencies under the Obama administration. How high will the trail of corruption lead?
Will Attorney General Bill Barr and the DOJ prosecute anyone who held a high position if investigators discover criminal corruption? Or is the upper echelon of federal bureaucrats and office holders above the law?
AG Barr’s willingness to demonstrate that no one is above the law may restore Americans’ belief in truth, justice and the American way.