"By a moral sense I mean 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 ... We need a code word for virtue or morality. That word is 'values' " (James Q. Wilson, "The Moral Sense").
We like to think we elect our leaders because they will work for the public good consistent with the values of our society; values taught in our homes, churches, schools — empathy, caring for the needy, the dignity of every individual and sense of community. They are the basic values that bind a society together. Without them, societies soon decline.
This last Utah legislative session, legislators did not appear to struggle with their moral sense over health care for the needy or moving the state prison for private development. The moral question: Which proposal promotes the public good in keeping with our values? Is it more important to help provide health care for our needy neighbors, or move a prison for private development? Moral sense does not imply a "right" one member of a society has, rather an obligation of its members to uphold those values binding that society.
There are 131,000 uninsured children and adults in Utah, many suffering physically, mentally, even dying, because they cannot afford health care due to unemployment, homelessness and bankruptcy, among other things. The federal government, under the Affordable Care Act, will pay 100 percent of the health care for the needy for three years, and $9 for each state dollar thereafter. However, Utah lawmakers are reluctant to do so.
On the other hand, we have lawmakers who quickly passed a law to proceed to move the prison for private development without providing the public with an independent study of the benefits and cost for its development. Past studies estimated the cost to be $600 million of taxpayers' money. That law was passed in one session and appeared to lack sufficient data and debate as to how it would promote the public interest.
However, providing access to health care for the needy by the federal government has been aired publicly for over a year, opposed by a majority of legislators, and questioned by the governor because of the cost the state will have to contribute after three years. They complain about federal control, and some have said volunteer charity organizations could take care of the poor. After a last-minute effort to reject federal funds, lawmakers left it to the governor to make the decision to accept or reject the federal money.
The governor, in the meantime, is waiting for a study by the Health Reform Task Force and a Health Care Summit to make his decision that would then need legislative approval. While he quickly approved the relocation of the state prison without an adequate analysis, he has been hesitant to approve or disapprove accepting federal money for the needy. What would be the moral sense?
One would hope that time will allow our elected leaders to reaffirm their constitutional responsibility to "promote the general welfare," and to examine to what extent they have moved beyond special interest politics, flexible principles and returned to the moral sense we all learned by those that taught us how to live in a free society.
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 [email protected]