Former Senator Rick Santorum stated in an interview with Greta Van Susteren that the health care issue is in fact a “moral obligation” but he also stressed that the provision of healthcare to the uninsured should not be undertaken by the government. Conservative political pundit Larry Elder also acknowledged that health care was a “moral imperative” but “not a constitutional right”. These statements which were both aired on Fox News were in response to President Obama’s recently convened conference call, on which he spoke to thousands of faith leaders about health care as a moral and ethical issue.
So it seems that there may be a vestige of common ground between what can be best described as combatants in this impassioned and vitally important American debate.
But the question remains as to how this moral obligation to provide health care to the uninsured members of the community—to be your brother’s keeper--should be best delivered.
The conservative camp contends that this ‘obligation’ is best accomplished by means of the free market economic system that is currently in place. The Obama bloc suggests that it is the responsibility of the government to make healthcare available to those who are not currently able to access affordable healthcare.
If the concept of a moral imperative is taken to mean a duty or responsibility, moreover, a social responsibility, then the arena of the private sector may be the wrong place in which to expect a solution to providing healthcare to those who cannot afford it. The champion of neoliberal economics Milton Friedman states that the doctrine of social responsibility is a "fundamentally subversive doctrine in a free society, and … that in such a society, there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud." It is difficult to reconcile how the current for profit health care paradigm, operated by corporations, would be able to justify providing healthcare to citizens who cannot afford health insurance or are disqualified from acquiring insurance. It seems perplexing and paradoxical that the Christian right, who by definition embrace the concept of benevolence, condone the status quo.
Moral imperatives are often difficult to resolve in the culture of egoistic individualism that is the fundamental nature of America’s perception of liberty. Citizens are identified as autonomous, self-interested—their motivation derived from concern for their own welfare and that of their immediate family. In this view, it is extremely difficult to justify the government imposing itself, via a government operated healthcare plan, on its citizens, who value their liberty and independence with such verve. Increased taxation accompanied with the economic inefficiencies inherent in demonstrably inept government bureaucracies will not be tolerated by the public unless they are willing to abandon the liberal individualism that places such important value of the pursuit of private interest and autonomy. Unless there has been a paradigm shift in the political ideology of the American electorate, the ‘public option’ seems to be unpalatable. The incongruity here is that Obama received 52.9% of the popular vote. Was the electorate misled by Obama’s campaign rhetoric or is the population prepared to accept a move to the political centre?
Where does this leave the debate? It seems clear that the current corporate based economic paradigm is ideologically incapable of providing for those in need of healthcare since any form of benevolence is deemed to be a form of intrusive tax, ergo, an uninvited diminution of shareholders return on investment. The role of the government to supply healthcare to those in need seems to be antithetical to the American ethos—whose constituents value the notion of individual autonomy and the unfettered pursuit of self interest. If the current economic institution of corporate based capitalism and the political institution that adheres to the political philosophy of liberal individualism are incapable of providing for the downtrodden and marginalized members of society, is there another social institution that can make healthcare available to this segment of society.
David Hume stated that “no qualities are more entitled to the general good-will and approbation of mankind than benevolence and humanity, friendship and gratitude, natural affection and public spirit, or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others, and a generous concern for our kind and species.” His close friend and iconic proponent of free market economics Adam Smith generally agrees:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
Clearly it can be argued that even the most hardened individual can have empathy for his fellow man. The often cited Kaiser ABC poll on healthcare suggests that Americans are willing to help their fellow countrymen but when asked if they would you be willing to pay more—either in higher health insurance premiums or higher taxes—in order to increase the number of Americans who have health insurance, 54% to 41% were opposed. So as it stands, Americans do exhibit compassion to those in need but are not willing to part with their income or assets to accomplish this benevolent gesture. Is there another social institution that can fill this gaping requirement?
Perhaps the answer lies in non-profit organizations such as the various religious institutions and charitable foundations that have demonstrated a proclivity to offer healthcare to those in need. Unlike investor-owned organizations, which are economically driven, nonprofit health care organizations are obligated to meet society’s needs for medical education and research and to advocate for and meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of their communities. Health care, like education, is a "public good" or "social service", essential to human dignity and the pursuit of happiness. The Alliance for Advancing Non-profit Health Care cites three important aspects of healthcare:
• A healthy society rests on the health of its citizens.• Health care needs differ locally and are best prioritized and addressedwithin the political, social and economic fabric of each community.• Government cannot and should not try to meet all of society’s needs,and "running things" is generally best left to the private sector.
Perhaps it is time that the economic and political institutions of American relinquish their grip on healthcare and allow regional non-profit organizations—funded through the compassion of America’s affluent citizens and institutions— to be given the opportunity to provide a service that preserves human dignity and advances the well-being of the nation. This would entail insurance companies to surrender at least part of their franchise on a very profitable aspect of their business model. Corporate healthcare PACS would not likely allow this to be undertaken without hostile resistance. Government mandarins, intent on adding to their legislative power and influence would similarly vehemently oppose relinquishing their grasp on power. America’s healthcare system is headed towards a catastrophe: if something inventive and revolutionary is not undertaken soon, the nation will find itself in a crisis that will test the resolve of every one of its citizens and institutions. Perhaps the time has come for the American people to consider Aristotle's notion of the Golden Mean and strike a balance between the pursuit of self interest, which is protected by the Constitution, and, the virtue of benevolence which is an integral attribute of an individual's conscience. This balance may, in the long term, ensure the sustainability of the community that facilitates the liberty and pursuit of happiness that is so heartily treasured. Fulfilling one's moral imperative may be requisite in guaranteeing the liberty accorded to them in their constitution.