Monday, July 8, 2019

On the distinction between one’s personal interests and one’s duties to the organization [Media Notes 5]

Corruption is a conspicuous feature of the Trump presidency, starting with Trump himself. Whether or not Trump is the most corrupt man ever to occupy that office I cannot say. Nor, for that matter, is all that corruption rare in politics. On the contrary, it is common.

By corruption I mean a failure to maintain the distinction between one’s personal interests and the rights, duties, and interests that attach to the office. The corrupt politician or official uses the power of his or her office to advance his or her personal interests.

How does one learn to make, respect, and maintain the distinction between one’s private interests and one’s rights and duties in office?

In recent years evolutionary psychology has made strong claims about the biological roots of morality. And surely morality must have biological roots, doesn’t everything? That in itself is not terribly interesting. What I’m looking for is how one gets from human biology to the recognition of this particular distinction.

It certainly isn’t given in biology. It has no existence in animal life nor, for that matter, does it have any existence in the world of hunter-gatherers, which is one of face-to-face interaction and lacks the kinds of corporate bodies which convey rights and duties upon occupants of positions in the body. How do we build this distinction out of the materials the biology gives us? Note that to build the distinction we must first build corporate bodies. Then, only when we have managed those, does it make sense to honor this distinction.

I am not prepared with a detailed account of this matter. But surely part of the answer is to be found in the stories we tell. A year and a half ago I published an article in which I showed how this particular distinction was underlined in NCIS, a popular crime/adventure show, on network TV and in The Crown, a drama that aired on Netflix [1]. In a post here at New Savanna [2] I indicated that we can find that distinction prominently in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Part II, where the newly crowned king rejects his old drinking buddy, Falstaff. That connection is a personal one, between private individuals. Now that Hal has become king it would be unseemly, corrupt, for him to confer favors on Falstaff on that account.

One finds this distinction in a particularly poignant form in Plato’s Crito, an important document in the history of civil disobedience. Socrates has been sentenced to death. Crito comes to him in prison and offers to smuggle him out. Socrates refuses the offer arguing that, yes, while he opposed the state on important matters, in the end it was the state that gave him civic life. To evade its pronouncement on him would be to undercut the foundation of his civic life.

Where else can we find this distinction? It is at the center of The Sopranos, for example, in Tony Soprano’s tricky relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. She knows that he’s a criminal and that, as such, he is responsible, directly or indirectly, for people’s deaths. But he is also her patient and so she must treat him. What about the relationship between the FBI agents and the criminals?

And then we have Deadwood, set in the Dakota Territory before it became a state. One the one hand we have George Hearst, who shows up in the second season. He is a rapacious miner and businessman who recognizes no boundaries – he even breaks down an outer wall in the hotel he buys. He wants it all, it’s all his. Seth Bullock, businessman and sheriff, on the other hand, he recognizes our distinction, as do others. But the character who is the most interesting is saloon-keeper Al Swearengen. He’s willing, not only to have people killed, but to kill them himself, and is ruthless in pursuit of his interests. Yet, as the show moves he becomes oddly civic minded. On the one hand he is certainly protecting his own interests as the territory moves toward statehood, but he also displays something like disinterested concern for the town’s welfare, or so I’d be interested in arguing, but not here.

Where else do we find the distinction? I’ve seen it in other cop shows, Bosch (ex-military become LA detective), and Longmire (Wyoming sheriff who must interact with tribal police), The Wire, and in political dramas, such as The West Wing and Madame Secretary. Cop shows and political shows are natural sites for the distinction as policemen and politicians are unusually exposed to opportunities for illicit self-dealing. The distinction shows up elsewhere, too, for example in Friday Night Lights, about high school football in small town Texas.

There’s interesting work to be done here.


[1] Donald Trump is No Leroy Jethro Gibbs, 3 Quarks Daily, September 18, 2017,

[2] Trump, Gibbs & NCIS, and the Queen @3QD, New Savanna, September 18, 2017,

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