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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Tangled Web

Donald Trump Giving a Speech

Donald Trump Giving a Speech

Lying Erodes Trust

Hana Callaghan

Donald Trump (AP: Mic Smith)

Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The opinions expressed are her own.

Recently it was revealed that President Trump knew about hush money payments made on his behalf by his attorney to porn star Stormy Daniels-- contrary to previous assertions by the White House and by the President himself.  This is not the first time the President has made statements contradicting his own earlier representations. ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Press Secretary Sara Huckabee Sanders, “Can I ask you, when the president so often says things that turn out not to be true, when the president or the White House show what appears to be a blatant disregard of the truth, how are the American people to trust or believe what is said here or what is said by the president?”

Karl has a point.  Truth matters. Cornell Ethics Professor Dana Radcliff has identified why:  “From a moral point of view, what's wrong with deception is that it is a betrayal of trust. You cannot deceive someone unless they trust you, believing that you're being truthful with them. When you succeed in deceiving them, you exploit that trust, using that person for your own ends. In every domain of life, such betrayals weaken or destroy the trust relationships essential to our vital institutions, including (among others) marriage and family, business, education, and representative government.”

In the government context, public officials have a duty to maintain the people’s trust in government.  The public is willing to delegate authority and sacrifice some freedoms in exchange for an orderly and civilized society, but only if it believes that government is acting in the public’s best interest.   When the public’s trust in government erodes, civic engagement declines and compliance with law fails.

Mistrust in government is not a new thing, but statistics for voter turn-out and public trust in government are at historic lows. According to the Bipartisan policy Center, only 57% of eligible voters turned out to vote in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States trails most developed democracies in going to the polls. The US places 28 out of 35 in voter participation among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to a June 2017 Gallop Poll, public trust in Congress stands at a mere 12%.

It is up to our leaders to reverse this trend. Instead of weaving a “tangled web” of deceit, public officials should honor their duties to their constituents and tell the truth. At the very least, as Abraham Lincoln once allegedly said, “Tell the truth and then you won’t have so much to have to remember!”

May 4, 2018

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