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John Florez: Are we losing our moral sense?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Some Utah legislators with their attitude toward those in need, such as welfare mothers and veterans, make one wonder if, as a community, we are not losing our moral sense.

The late John Q. Wilson, a political scientist, defined moral sense as "an intuitive, or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily. … By ought I mean an obligation binding on all people similarly situated."

I grew up sitting in Salt Lake City's church pews — Catholic and LDS — learning we were all children of God, all equal and that we ought to respect, look after each other and take care of those in need. And it worked. It's what helped make our valley blossom like a rose and, in hard times, to feed, house and clothe those in need. When our nation was attacked, we went to war; men lined up to serve in the armed services, women worked in defense factories. We all were willing to sacrifice and look after each other — it was the moral sense.

We all experienced the same crises — the Depression, wars, hunger, joblessness, homelessness — and some whose loved ones gave their lives. It was those aspects of our culture's morals, sympathy and working together that helped us persevere and build the strongest nation in the world. And we had leaders who acted boldly and consistent with our moral sense.

Lincoln helped move the nation into the industrial era with the Homestead Act of 1862, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 helped open up the West, and he created our land grant colleges. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal created our dams, airports, power stations, reservoirs, schools, libraries and Social Security System that boosted our economy and saved our families. And President Eisenhower created our national highway system.

Now, we have leaders who seem to have lost the moral sense we learned and still teach in our homes, churches and schools. However, it becomes meaningless as revealed by their attitudes and actions. They are quick to make moral judgments about mothers with children needing help, without knowing what they live with — domestic abuse, violence for the sake of their children, hunger, ill health and homelessness.

Wilson was one of the scholars who created the "broken window theory," that theorized if you let things deteriorate, they soon become the norm. Unfortunately, we now have leaders that have abandoned our culture's moral sense for their selfish interest of being re-elected. They exploit the plight of the most vulnerable among us in order to do so. Now, it's the welfare mothers they say are poor because of the bad choices they made. The leaders then influence those who have no experience about the problems the poor endure. For them, it's hypothetical, and they are ready to buy easy answers politicians use to raise the anxiety we have about an uncertain future.

Once elected officials show the lack of sympathy and respect for the needy, they create the norm for people to follow. What we need are leaders who live the moral sense we all learned of sympathy and caring for each other, rather than demonizing and passing judgment on the weakest among us. That's the moral sense we once lived that we now are losing.

It's up to each of us to make sure that does not happen.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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