The Moral Test of Government

[T]he moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life—the children; the twilight of life—the elderly; and the shadows of life—the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.

Hubert H. Humphrey, at the 1977 dedication of the Health and Human Services Building*

This is not a universal truth. It is not what everyone thinks government should do. But it is what I think government should do.

Similarly, there a many reasons why one could think this way, including personal revelation. But, the reason I think this should be the role of government is that I am a Christian.

* I hate to quote people without authority. I couldn’t find a speech transcript from 1977, but if Donna Shalala says he said it, that is good enough for me.

10 thoughts on “The Moral Test of Government”

  1. “This is not a universal truth. It is not what everyone thinks government should do. But it is what I think government should do.”

    I believe it’s a pretty good description of a “moral test of government” too but it’s interesting how this demonstrates that the truth is in the details when it comes to moral decision-making. Just take, for example, what is meant by “the dawn of life.” Does this occur at the moment of conception, at the moment of birth, or somewhere in between? Depending upon how you answer that question you might draw very, very different conclusions about government and the proposals of those who seek to lead the government.

  2. David, this is the very point I make to the pro-choice people I talk to when they are so angry with the pro-life groups. I am pro-choice, but I recognize the pro-life movement’s basic tenant — that life begins at conception.

    If you want to change the minds of the pro-life crowd, you *must* appeal to when life begins, you can’t appeal to how radical their protests are. If you believe life begins at conception, then a 1st-trimester abortion is the same as killing a 3 year-old. If this society allowed the killing of 3 year-olds, I would hope I would be as angry as the pro-life crowd is. But you couldn’t argue me down from violent protests if the government was funding infanticide clinics. You’d have to convince me that 3 year-olds were not the same as 5 year-olds.

  3. David, first I want to point out that it is entirely natural to think about abortion when presented with the phrase “dawn of life.” I think it is tragic that the discussion is not focused on provding prenatal vitamins to low income families, new mother support groups, education on breast feeding, encouraging employers to deploy flexible work schedules, providing contraception, etc. As they say, sad but true.

  4. Matt, I agree. As I’ve expressed before, I would add that it is nonsense to say life begins at a point. Life begins over the course of a pregnancy. This belief has been reinforced over the last seven days. In that time, I have rejoiced with someone close to me over seeing her baby in an ultrasound; I have grieved with someone close to me over losing her 10-week-old baby. This joy and suffering springs from a life forming within them. I cannot see it any other way.

    That said, the loss of a 10-week-old is not the loss of a child. It is real grief. It is awful and tremendously sad. But I’ve seen someone lose a child, and this aint it.

    I find these experiences about a million times more convincing than arguments about the brain development or stimulus response of a fetus. Maybe that is a flaw on my part.

  5. Matt,

    “If you want to change the minds of the pro-life crowd, you *must* appeal to when life begins. . . . If this society allowed the killing of 3 year-olds, I would hope I would be as angry as the pro-life crowd is.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. Sadly, too much of the pro-choice crowd is content to demonize their opponents as unreasonable. They do this, of course, because even to admit the possibility that an about-to-be-aborted fetus might be a being worthy of moral standing entirely undercuts their position.

  6. Jimii,

    “I think it is tragic that the discussion is not focused on provding prenatal vitamins to low income families, new mother support groups, education on breast feeding, encouraging employers to deploy flexible work schedules, providing contraception, etc. “

    I agree, but how can this discussion happen when the pro-choice crowd is unable to admit the fetus might be a being worthy of any moral standing? Nobody is interested in special pre-operative care for one’s appendix, are they?

    I believe if we could admit that the point at which “life begins,” the point at which a fetus should be afforded moral standing is uncertain or even just ambiguous then we might have a discussion about the sort of things you’ve mentioned. But then we might also have to be willing to have a discussion about issues like a pregnant sixteen-year-old having to talk with her parents before getting an abortion or what say the male who participated in the creation of an unwanted fetus might have in determining its fate. . . .

  7. Jimii,

    “I find these experiences about a million times more convincing than arguments about the brain development or stimulus response of a fetus.”

    I agree, but then not everyone is distraught over the death of an infant . . . nor tragically even of the suffering of their older children. I agree these non-rational elements of experience are important and should be considered in policy-making but in my mind they highlight the uncertainty or ambiguity in determining when the “dawn of life” occurs. I’m afraid that uncertainty has moral implications which are going to make both pro-life and pro-choice advocates uncomfortable.

  8. I’m afraid that uncertainty has moral implications which are going to make both pro-life and pro-choice advocates uncomfortable.

    I was glad to see that you recognized that this is a problem for both sides. I know many more strong pro-choice peole, at least well enough to talk about the need to understand the other side’s position, but hopefully there are folks who deal more with ardent pro-life folks that take a similar position in support of open-mindedness.

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