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The Ethical Dilemma of Presidential Immunity

In our current political landscape, we find ourselves at a crossroads where a former president’s actions are under scrutiny, and now the office has neigh-unchecked power; how the power is used will vary by political party holding the office. Republicans and the Democrats both claim to represent the best interests of the people, however, their actions and intentions paint very different pictures.


Republicans have a track record of dismantling regulations that safeguard public health, targeting vulnerable communities (such as immigrants, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, the unhoused, etc) with detrimental rulings, and favoring corporations and the wealthy. In contrast, Democrats tend to strive to improve community welfare overall and ensure that the affluent and businesses contribute fairly through taxes.


The situation is further complicated by the (now arguably activist) Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority and has been increasingly viewed as advancing political agendas rather than remaining impartial. This perception stems from the fact that three justices were appointed by Trump with the specific intention of furthering conservative objectives. The Court has been reversing decades of established rulings, and most recently, it granted immunity for any ‘official’ acts for those who have held the office of president – a move seen by many as a form of legal fascism. This decision comes after the Supreme Court was asked to deliberate on Trump’s actions on January 6th, 2021.


As you might have gathered, it’s a presidential election year and both Trump and Biden are once again running for president, with this there is a palpable fear that if Trump regains power he will exploit this newfound immunity to install an authoritarian rule. This raises a critical question: Is it ethically justifiable for Biden to test this “immunity” by exercising excessive power to prevent further decline and potential fascism? We will now take a look at three notable philosophers and how their beliefs would interpret this idea.

An image of the U.S. Supreme Court with images of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, all famous philosophers to the left, and President Biden and former President Trump on the right

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: Balancing Courage and Prudence

Aristotle's virtue ethics emphasize the importance of moral character and virtues like courage, justice, and prudence. In this context, Biden may demonstrate courage by taking decisive action to prevent the rise of an authoritarian regime. However, Aristotle also has the concept of the "Golden Mean", or finding the balance between extremes, which suggests that this courage must be tempered with prudence.


Biden, and any presidential successor, must ensure that their actions are just and aimed at the common good. Using these powers should be a last resort, done with careful consideration of the long-term implications for democratic institutions.


Kant’s Deontological Ethics: Duty and Universal Moral Laws

Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics focuses on duty and adherence to moral laws that can be universally applied. According to Kant, Biden has a duty to uphold democratic principles and the rule of law. This duty remains paramount, even in the face of significant threats.


Kant’s categorical imperative, which are commands or moral laws all persons must follow, regardless of their desires or extenuating circumstances, cautions against using this newly declared “immunity” power in ways that could set dangerous precedents. Biden must ensure that his actions do not undermine the very democratic principles he seeks to protect, adhering to the belief that the ends do not justify the means.


Mill’s Utilitarianism: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism evaluates actions based on their outcomes, aiming to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. From this perspective, Biden’s actions should be judged on whether they prevent greater harm and suffering.


If using presidential immunity can avert the rise of an authoritarian regime and protect public welfare, it may be justified within a utilitarian framework. However, Mill’s harm principle emphasizes that any exercise of power should aim to prevent harm to others. Biden, and future presidents must weigh the immediate benefits against potential long-term consequences, ensuring that their actions do not lead to further ethical and democratic erosion.


A Delicate Balance

The ethical justification for Biden to act, relying on presidential immunity, hinges on balancing the prevention of immediate harm with the maintenance of long-term democratic principles.


  • Aristotle says Biden must balance courage and prudence, ensuring actions are just and aimed at the common good,

  • Kant says Biden has a duty to act according to universal moral laws, ensuring that the means used are ethically justifiable, and

  • Mill says Biden should aim to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, carefully considering both immediate and long-term consequences.


In conclusion, while we may want Biden to go into “Dark Brandon” mode and test out this new power as a quick solution to prevent the rise of an authoritarian regime, it poses significant ethical risks. Upholding democratic integrity, transparency, and accountability is crucial, even in the face of pressing threats. By adhering to these (and other) ethical frameworks, Biden can navigate this complex dilemma, striving to protect democracy while maintaining the trust and legitimacy essential for long-term governance.

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