The moral blindness of Virginia's Democratic leaders

The past week has been a whirling display of moral blindness in the Commonwealth of Virginia and among national Democratic leaders. 

Beginning Feb. 1, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was revealed to have a medical school yearbook page with a photo of a fully-robed Ku Klux Klan member along with a person in blackface. While he did not indicate which of the individuals he was, he apologized for being in the picture. 

The following day, he recanted his admission but told reporters he wore blackface at another event after graduating from medical school

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Commonwealth and national Democratic leaders immediately called for his resignation, which, thus far, he has resisted.

Should he resign, Democratic rising star Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, would take over as Virginia's governor. 

But there was a problem. Within 48 hours of revelations of Northam's alleged offense, an allegation was made against Fairfax by a university professor, who alleged that she was sexually assaulted at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Fairfax denied this allegation. 

It triggered immediate media comparisons to this past summer’s confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was also accused by a university professor of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied. 

Despite these comparisons, many Democratic leaders did not call for Fairfax’s immediate resignation. Fairfax, in turn, allegedly disparaged the accuser in private, using extremely vulgar language. Fairfax also denied this report.

While this angered some Democratic leaders, none of them spoke out publicly at the time. Then the other shoe dropped: A second allegation was made that Justin Fairfax raped a woman while he was a student at Duke University. Fairfax denied this allegation as well.

Should Fairfax step down, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring would become governor. In the immediate aftermath of the Northam controversy, Herring called for the governor's resignation: “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our commonwealth, and it is time for him to step down.” 

Incredibly, despite calling for Northam’s resignation, Herring revealed he had worn blackface in his past, and he failed to disclose this, either at the time of calling for Northam to resign or when he was running for office.

We now get to the ethical heart of the matter. The leaders of the Democratic Party have engaged in moral blindness. Moral blindness has been defined generally as blindness of ignorance or blindness of weakness. Each of the examples here are that of blindness of weakness. 

More specifically, blindness of weakness can be broken into four types at issue in Virginia. As described by British philosopher Gerald Jones, these are:

Moral cognitive dissonance. We can see a contradiction or conflict in our values and actions but have developed strategies to block this knowledge from our decision-making.

Moral blind-eye-turning. We can see that we’re applying our moral principles inconsistently, but we turn away from this as if it isn’t happening.

Moral weakness. We can see what might be wrong, but we do nothing about it through weakness of the will.

Moral muteness. We can see what might be wrong, but we don’t talk about it (perhaps through fear, oppression, convention or taboo) and so nothing changes.

Each of these listed blind spots happened in Virginia: seeing something as wrong but being unwilling to change it.

I will leave to others to argue that by having dressed in blackface or KKK hoods as younger men, Herring and Northam did not know what they were doing (Northam was about to become or was already a physician and army officer; he was not a child, nor was Herring). 

Plainly, if Fairfax did the things he is accused of doing, he would've known his actions were wrong. But why did each of these leaders then believe they could run for office and that their acts would not be revealed? 

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If the facts of these stories are true, each of these men would have engaged in moral cognitive dissonance. Another word for this is hubris. Two of them apologized. The question is whether they are sorry for being caught or sorry for what they actually did.   

Worse, how could Herring have called for Northam’s resignation, knowing that he had done the same thing? This was moral blind-eye-turning. He applied his moral principles correctly with regard to Northam but was not willing to address his own history, which was then quickly revealed.    

Ultimately, moral muteness and moral weakness has deep implications for contemporary business ethics and for all leaders. Lax ethical standards were at the heart of the Volkswagen scandal and many of the accounts revealed in the Paradise Papers

History repeats itself, and it will strike again. Only by teaching leadership and ethics can we break this chain of moral blindness, particularly in government and business. It is Virginia’s turn to face the calamities brought upon it by the repeated moral blindness of its political leaders.   

David P. Weber is an attorney and certified fraud examiner. He is a professor at the University of Maryland, where he teaches business ethics and ethical leadership in the Robert H. Smith School’s MBA and undergraduate programs. He is the former assistant inspector general for investigations at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC’s Chief Investigator. You can follow him on twitter @umd_dpweber