Union of Concerned Scientists

The Health Care Vote and the Ethic of Responsibility

Maybe, just maybe, this act of conscience will set a powerful example that moves both sides away from bitter and polarizing gamesmanship.

“It is immensely moving when a mature person- no matter whether old or young in years–is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He/she then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere reaches the point where he/she says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding themselves at some time in that position.”

I read this passage by the famous sociologist when I was a student of government some thirty-five years ago at Wesleyan University, and I felt it captured the best of public service. But I hadn’t thought about it much until late last night, when Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain faced intense pressure to cast votes that would fulfill a longstanding Republican campaign promise, but likely deprive millions of health care.

They found themselves in the very position Weber wrote about in this passage. They rose to the occasion, and they said clearly with their votes, “here I stand, I can do no other.”

I am moved by this demonstration of the ethic of responsibility by these three senators. We all should be. With their votes, these senators drew us back from the edge of a precipice, and said “no” to a process that had sidelined medical and health experts from participating in this momentous decision, perhaps because they had lined up with near unanimity on one side of the issue.

Senator McCain’s rousing floor speech earlier this week, and Minority Leader Schumer’s gracious remarks after the vote, also point to a path forward for fixing our broken politics. It is not a new path; in fact, it is one we followed for many years, and it brought us lasting achievements like the civil rights laws of the 1960’s and the environmental protection laws of the 1970’s.

It is the path that solve problems using a rational, orderly, bi-partisan process, based on facts, science, the competition of the best ideas, and compromise. It is a long and slow path, ill-suited to the intemperate and partisan cravings of the loudmouths that dominate our political debate. But with rare exceptions, it is the only way our democracy works.

It is far too early to know whether this failed Obamacare repeal effort will return us to this better path, and there are many reasons to be skeptical about that. But maybe, just maybe, this act of conscience will set a powerful example that moves both sides away from bitter and polarizing gamesmanship. I hope so, and we at the Union of Concerned Scientists are determined to do what we can do to foster bi-partisan progress on other difficult problems, such as climate change, reforming our food system, and reducing the risks of nuclear weapons.

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