Director Peter Loge's End of Spring Semester Note

May 16, 2024

Peter Loge

Stand fast on your ethical foundation.

This political season is going to get increasingly stressful and unhinged as spring turns to summer, and summer to fall. Conflict entrepreneurs and outrage hucksters will be out in full force. It will be tempting to do whatever it takes (whatever that means) to secure victory  (whatever that looks like). If we’re not careful the next six months will be one long rush of blood to the head. If ever there was a time to be sure of your ethical footing, this is it.

If you’re reading this as a student in the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, I know you’re a good person who wants to do good in the world for good reasons. If you’re not an SMPA student, I will give you the benefit of the doubt. Odds are that you do what you mostly think is right most of the time. 

I’m going to ask you to reflect on what that means for a bit.

Since you’re good people who do good things for good reasons, I assume you know not to take the bag of cash or hide a body in the trunk of your car. Those are bad things, don’t do them. The big things aren’t the challenge. It’s the small decisions that can get you in trouble. It’s the “just this one time” and “we’ll fix it on the back end” decisions. The “but we have to win” and “I’ll do it differently next time, but this time I have to” arguments you make to yourself. Sometimes those things may feel, or even be, true. The challenge is telling the difference between necessity and justification, especially in the heat of the moment. It is easy to drown by degrees.

SMPA alumnus Tim Miller is an embodiment of this cautionary tale. In Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell, Miller talks frankly about how easy it is to get caught up in the excitement of politics. It can be cool to be around power and money, to feel as if you’re in the game. The risk is that you end up mistaking what’s exciting and lucrative for why you got into politics to begin with. In the middle of a campaign it can be easy to explain away almost anything for the sake of the cause. You tell yourself you have to do what you have to do to win because you have to win. Then you have to win the next election which means doing whatever it is you have to do. Elections become both premise and conclusion, means and end. For Miller, an openly gay (and now happily married father) Republican operative, that meant promoting candidates who opposed marriage equality. Miller is a good, smart guy who walked the halls of SMPA. He was you. Like you, he was (and is) smart and ambitious. He got great opportunities and seized them. He SMPA’d it. And by his telling, helped create a politics that he could no longer support.

Some of you have taken my class on Political Communication Ethics, others of you might take it before you graduate. The semester is a rattling roller coaster of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, consequentialism, Machiavelli, Orwell, The Good Place, ethics applied to advocacy and candidate campaigns, current events, obscure pop culture references, and guest speakers from every corner of media and politics. (a couple of old syllabi are here).

After fourteen weeks, six essays and lots of conversations that make everyone’s hair hurt (if we’re doing it right), students have to write a final paper explaining their ethical foundation. When all the reading, talking, and arguing is done, where do they plant their ethical feet?

For some students the answer is a variation on consequentialism, or “...whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). For others, Aristotle’s virtue ethics is a better fit. Many start the semester as fans of Kant but have a hard time making deontology work in politics. Some draw on their faith to find their footing.

Often the answers come from unexpected places. Imagined conversations with relatives who have passed away (“What would my abuelo say?”). Books from childhood like Horton Hears a Who or bedtime stories. Lessons learned on a neighborhood playground. Politics, like campsites, should be left better than when you found them. Through all of these essays and conversations, I’ve learned that for all my ranting about Aristotle, Richard Rorty and civil religion, my feet are firmly planted in what I learned at St. Thomas’s Day School in New Haven, Connecticut in the mid-1970s.

As I head into 2024 teaching, talking heading (“talking heading” should be a DC verb) and political advising I will try to remember what I learned at St. Thomas’s, channeled through the importance of telling aspirational stories about achieving democratic ideals. I will try not to mistake a moment for a lifetime, and will try to remember to breathe and reflect before speaking and acting. I will try to remain humble and curious. I will get it wrong sometimes, but will hopefully have the wisdom to recognize when I do, and to learn from my mistakes.

On Saturday morning the graduating seniors in the School of Media and Public Affairs will gather in Jack Morton Auditorium one last time as undergraduates. Then it is onto the Smith Center for a handshake with the dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. On Sunday all of GW’s graduating students and their families will gather on the National Mall.

Then it’s Monday and the world picks up where we left off.

If you took the ethics class, find your final essay and keep it handy as you head into whatever comes next (let me know if you can’t find it, I have them all). From time to time revisit your writing. Consider what you’ve learned and would change, and think about what you need to be reminded of. Are you staying true to your word? Is your footing firm?

If you haven’t taken the class, take some time to consider the question. You don’t need to get Kant or Aristotle “right” or worry about the nuances of utilitarianism and consequentialism. What’s important is considering what makes someone a good, ethical or virtuous member of a community. What will and won’t you say or do to achieve your goals? Where are your lines, and why do you draw them there? Find and stand firm on your ethical ground.

Peter Loge
Director, School of Media & Public Affairs