om…e by no means prevalent among just them. They are, however, viewpoints that I find to be dangerous. I do not believe for one second that it is wise, worthwhile, or a good idea to jettison the extremely narrow legal definition of treason in favor of an equally legal, broad, and vague definition of treason for the sole protection of one’s subjective moral compass. Justice dies at the hands of ambiguity.
James L. T.
Thank you for reading my article. I appreciate the fact that you took the time to prepare such an extensive response to it as well as the to others expressing views on the subject of treason within the current political context. I think you’ve provided a thorough historical analysis and effectively reinforced many of the legal points made in Abby Norman’s article.
Unfortunately, my article was neither a legal nor a historical argument. It was primarily a philosophical one. I took no position on whether President Trump is guilty of the crime of treason. Admittedly, treason is a word most commonly used in a legal context, but it is not exclusively used in this context. You correctly quoted from the opening paragraph of my article which, I had hoped, would make explicit the point that what followed was a moral case for the application of the word treason to the president’s behavior, not a legal one. The quote is worth repeating here:
“…the legal context is not the only one in which the word treason applies to a person’s actions. As I argued in a recent article, “excessive legalism can get in the way of describing certain actions accurately. Synonyms [for treason] include betrayal and faithlessness, both of which can easily apply whether or not a prosecutor feels confident of being able to clear the high bar we rightly set to convict people of such serious crimes within a court of law.”
In addition, my argument only briefly touched upon the president’s attitudes/actions vis-a-vis Russia. Even then, as I recall, only in the closing paragraph as an aside. Therefore, while I am perhaps not as sanguine regarding the question of whether or not the president’s relationship with Russia — either during the campaign or presently — can or does meet the legal definition of treason, that point is totally irrelevant, at least so far as the use of the word treason in my own article is concerned.
Since I explicitly stated I was not referring to treason in the legal sense, while also making clear that the bar to convict someone of the crime of treason was “rightly” set quite high, I find the charge of ambiguity a bit puzzling. My own dictionary includes as a possible definition of treason “a betrayal of trust.” If we Google the word we find “the action of betraying something or someone” and the example provided being “doubt is the ultimate treason against faith.” Clearly treason is a word that applies quite easily in contexts that extend beyond the mere legal or even purely political realm. So does the related word traitor.
In my article, I never made the argument that our current legal definition of the crime of treason or the methods articulated within the US Constitution to deal with it is antiquated. I did state that given the complete lack of respect for the duties of his office, various democratic institutions and the truth generally, President Trump was betraying his country whether or not a reasonable argument could be made that the nature of this betrayal constituted a good legal case for treason. Since I had opened by explaining which of the potential definitions of the word treason I was applying, I had hoped it was clear all along that the character of the betrayal being discussed was of a serious moral nature that transcended any purely legal argument.
That said, you appear to dismiss the possibility of any definition of treason beyond the legal one when you state, “If all that’s required to accuse someone of treason, or of being treasonous, is a lack in trust, then we’ve well degraded to 13th century English common law — or worse.” In this view, the word treason cannot be accurately used to describe a serious betrayal unless it meets some legal definition or another.
This brings us to my claim that what’s called for here are words that describe the level of willful negligence and betrayal with moral clarity. A mere “lack of trust” is not what we’re talking about in Trump’s case. Rather it is a complete disregard for the truth, open hostility for a free and independent press, and a total lack of interest in gathering or reviewing information necessary to adequately perform the duties of president. The argument I presented within my article is that a betrayal this broad and comprehensive morally justifies the use of the word treason even if the law defines the separate punishable crime of treason more narrowly. I’m afraid it is the nature and role of moral clarity that is a source of some disagreement between us. Also, I think perhaps some confusion on your part. You state:
What I find most problematic of Axford’s axioms is his assertion that “moral clarity is more important than legal clarity.” I imagine outright anarchy, or monarchy in hearing this. The idea is dangerous. More frustrating to me is that it’s also populist. The survival of the republic, and the retention of our democratic values hinges on legal clarity over moral clarity. This must be the case. All manner of ill will, violence, betrayal, fraud, abuse, and genocide have been committed under the auspices of exercising “moral clarity” over “legal clarity.” To argue that moral principles should outweigh legal principles is to say nothing short of “my moral views should circumvent due process.”
Not everything that is immoral is illegal. Nor should it be. But this fact does not render moral clarity less valuable/important than legal clarity. For legal clarity to trump moral clarity, we must invert the relationship between morality and law and reach the conclusion that not being illegal = not being immoral. A person with a strong moral compass will neither willfully lie to you or break the law — except perhaps in cases of civil disobedience. However, a person with a strong legal compass alone will only concern himself with what the law lets him get away with. The Nuremberg laws provided the legal clarity for what was subsequently done to the Jews and other ethnic minorities in the 1930s and 40s, but they were utterly lacking in moral clarity. That the law did not classify the Holocaust as genocide does not mean that the word does not apply.
So, to draw this response to a close, I think the problem here is you reject anything other than a legal definition of treason, while I hold the word to apply in certain cases that do not necessarily require a violation of the law to have occurred or be provable in a court of law. Fortunately, in so far as your legal and historical analysis has nothing to do with my use of the word treason I’m free to accept it and I happily do so. To the extent you venture into moral philosophy, particularly as it relates to the law, we must part company.