John Le Carré is known for spy novels in which there are no heroes, and what is good or bad is uncertain. Many feature spy master George Smiley, whose devious mind is adept at probing dark corners of human souls. Among his early works are stories of Smiley solving more ordinary mysteries in his unusual way. One of them, A Murder of Quality, has Smiley confronting the murderer with a withering assault on what an amoral person is. Written so many years ago, it is, perhaps, the best description I’ve read of some of the political leaders of our own day. Here it is.
“There are people like that…do you know their secret? They can’t feel anything inside them, no pleasure or pain, no love or hate, they’re ashamed and frightened that they can’t feel. And their shame, this shame…drives them to extravagance and colour; they must make themselves feel that cold water, and without that they’re nothing. The world sees them as showmen, fantasists, liars, as sensualists perhaps, not for what they are: the living dead.”
The drive to feel what they cannot feel is part of what inspires them to accumulate power, fortune, fame, and public adulation. Their amorality deprives them of understanding or caring about what the consequences might be for others. The idea of an amoral leader is not the same as alleging they are immoral. Philosophers can happily obfuscate the difference for years on end, but I’m content to say that the amoral leader is one who is utterly indifferent about most issues of morality. It’s not that he or she can’t express a moral viewpoint when it’s in their interest to do so, but they really don’t care. For them, that indifference extends to questions about their personal accountability for actions taken, or obligations to others that the rest of us take for granted. They feel no guilt for wrongdoing, nor the remorse that causes others to amend their lives. As the center of their own universe, the rest of creation consists of objects that are useful, or not, depending on circumstances.
Are there persons who are utterly, one-hundred percent amoral? Probably not. But there are certainly those whose observable behavior displays an abundance of amoral characteristics, which, again, is, not the same thing as immorality. For something to be immoral, it must be recognized as bad, evil, wrong, against some defensible standard of good, holy, and right. The immoral person knows that it is wrong, and can talk about why it is wrong. The immoral person is the sinner who sins, knows that it is a sin, and knows that he or she is a sinner. Are there any utterly, one-hundred percent immoral persons? I have a hard time thinking it could be so, but Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, claims there are those few who have, for whatever reason, become evil, the very incarnation of what we often imagine the devil to be.
Do ordinary good, decent people exhibit amoral behavior? Yes, until we are called on it, and the immorality of it is brought to our attention. For something to be morally recognized, it has to touch us, touch our souls, at least a little. Our amorality sometimes goes under the name of ignorance and apathy. We don’t know what’s going on, and don’t care. Even when we do know, horrible events causing much suffering in far off places are so distant and unrelated to our daily lives that we are indifferent to the harm they have done, and feel no responsibility to do anything about it. It doesn’t even have to be that far away. “Yeah I heard about that shooting in the slum neighborhood out by the prison. Let them kill each other. No concern of mine.” I’ll bet you have heard something like that in your town. Our town is having a vigorous public debate about the homeless. More than a few have written letters to the editor saying something like: “They’re homeless, and it’s their own fault. We have no obligation to help, and what happens to them is not our concern.” While others may find that an immoral thing to say, the persons saying it have no idea what that means, and don’t care. So, yes, we can all exhibit amoral characteristics.
But it is a concern when national leaders exhibit their amorality as a primary characteristic of their personalities. When the plight of the nation and its people is of personal interest only to the extent that it feeds the leaders’ personal needs for power, fortune, fame, and public adulation, the nation and its people are in trouble. The rest of us may be busy hammering away at each other about the virtues and vices of socialism, capitalism, individual freedoms, community obligations, and the like, because we think they are important. Amoral national leaders are disinterested, except as political circumstances can be manipulated to increase their power, fortune, and fame.
Do we have amoral national leaders? I think we do. One in particular.