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The Political Use of Moral Language

Amitai Etzioni, a prominent social scientist and leader of a communitarian movement, published an article in Dissent in February arguing that it would be “immoral” to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits unless we first eliminate a range of pathologies in our health care system. “If we must make cuts,” he wrote, “we ought first to cut those budget items that in effect pay for harmful activities and then those without discernible social benefits.” He had in mind such long-time villains as excessive administrative overhead, waste and fraud, direct-to-consumer advertising, unnecessary treatments, and medical error.

He was right to identify those failings, all of which reflect a bad health care system. And as a fellow communitarian, I welcome his support for a solid and equitable social safety net. But are those on the other side of the aisle “immoral”? At what point does a political issue or position pass from simply being unfair, wrong-headed, or dangerous in some way or other, to being immoral?

A dictionary definition of immoral is “not following accepted standards of morality” (Oxford) or “not conforming to a high moral standard” (Merriam-Webster). The obvious problem in this case is that those most prone to slice away at the social safety net are in a party whose views on what we owe our neighbor represent an enduring part of American history and culture, going back to Thomas Jefferson and noted later by de Tocqueville, that of extreme individualism, market freedom, and hostility to government. I would estimate that at least 50 percent of Americans are in that camp. In the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, one memorable quote by a constituent of a Republican congressman, was, “I don’t know why I should be expected to pay for someone else’s sickness.” I don’t know whether Jefferson would have gone as far as that, but I do know that man reflected a deep strain in American life. We would do well to recall that the passage of the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security bills were accomplished in the face of the hostility of those in the Jeffersonian tradition, just as the ACA is being challenged by their latter-day loyalists.

We do not have “accepted standards of morality” on social safety nets, though even the most conservative Republicans, even if begrudgingly, will accept some – and most are wise enough, save for Paul Ryan, to stay away from schemes that would privatize those programs.

The trouble with the word immoral is that its connotation is not just that a moral rule has been broken but that it reflects the ideas or actions of a corrupt person, someone of bad character. I thus put the word “immoral” in the same category as the term “un-American,” a Tea Party favorite, suggesting a violation of American values and, even worse, someone who does not love our country. And as we well know, Friedrich von Hayek tutored many in their hostility to government to believe that “socialist” government programs take us straight down the road to serfdom.

Ad hominem arguments combined with slippery slope predictions have become the accepted rhetorical style of conservative opponents of communitarian, social justice convictions. Nothing is added, and much that is harmful, is introduced into the public debate by the word immoral. My own observation is that neither liberals (aka progressives) nor conservatives have a monopoly on morality. That our communitarian crowd favors a strong social safety net is a tribute to our wise (even if politically controversial) judgment about the common good, not a sign of superior morality.

Daniel Callahan is cofounder and president emeritus of The Hastings Center.

Published on: July 6, 2011
Published in: Health Care Reform & Policy

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