Proper Response To An Amoral President

If Americans want their president to act civilized -- for example, by halting his racist and sexist remarks -- they should not imagine he will eventually realize this is the "right" thing to do. Amoral people never internalize norms.
01/20/2017 12:27 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2018

Many Democrats are boycotting Donald Trump's inauguration today. Republicans have responded by criticizing the boycotters simply as sore losers.

Ordinarily, I would oppose such boycott as a threat to our democratic institutions -- which are fragile, under foreign attack, and in need of reinforcement. But this time is different, and here's why:

Donald Trump is amoral.

Not immoral. His beliefs are not inherently racist or sexist. Nor is he driven by compulsion to do evil such as murder.

Rather he is amoral. That means he violates norms of civilized behavior whenever he thinks it benefits him. From his worldview, anyone who voluntarily complies with such norms is a sucker.

Let me explain. Scholars have figured out that people comply with norms for one of two reasons. First, they may "internalize" a norm, meaning they sincerely believe it is the "right" thing to do, to such an extent that violating the norm causes psychic pain. Alternatively, they may not internalize the norm but fear societal punishment for violating it, so they comply anyway.

Imagine you find a wallet in the snow. If you've internalized the norm against theft, you try to return the wallet to its owner. By contrast, if you have not internalized the norm, you pocket the cash. But you still may not become a pick-pocket, because you fear being caught and punished.

Donald Trump's amorality means that he has failed to internalize any societal norms. He literally would do anything -- even kill, if he could escape punishment -- to advance his self-interest. And he admires only people who think likewise. That is why he repeatedly praises colleagues as "killers."

Carl Icahn, his new adviser on government deregulation? A "Great guy, killer!" raved Trump during the campaign. The woman who ran Trump's construction projects? "He told me I was a killer," she revealed to the Daily Beast. "That's important to him. Apparently, he thought that was a compliment."

Such amorality explains many of Trump's outrageous comments. Does he really believe Mexicans are rapists? Surely not, and indeed that would be immoral. But amorality drove him to call them rapists, even though he didn't believe it, because he thought it would bolster his campaign. Sadly, he was right. Pangs of guilt? Nope, that's for suckers, not killers.

Does this mean Trump feels free to violate all of the rules that make us a civilized and united nation?

Not necessarily. Because Trump is still susceptible to the second incentive to comply with norms: fear of societal punishment.

So, if Americans want their president to act civilized -- for example, by halting his racist and sexist remarks -- they should not imagine he will eventually realize this is the "right" thing to do. Amoral people never internalize norms.

No, the only way to compel Donald Trump to act civilized is to punish his bad behavior. How? By shunning him. Today's inaugural boycott is a good start.

The good news is that if society punishes his outrages, Donald Trump will shape up. Because he's not immoral, he's amoral. That means he'll do anything to win, even if it requires acting civilized.

Sorry, Republicans, the boycotters are not pinheads. They're patriots.