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Four More Years . . .

Today we learnt that Barack Obama will be the President of the USA for another term. Much of the debate preceding Obama’s election victory focused on how each presidential candidate  planned to resuscitate the American economy. Time will tell whether Obama will succeed in this area, and we will be able to debate the merits of his economic strategy in comparison to Romney’s alternative vision over the next four years.

The state of the American economy is, of course, of paramount importance. However, the salience of economic issues in this presidential race should not blind us to the importance of Obama’s re-election (or rather Romney’s non-election) to several other weighty issues in practical ethics. In the light of Obama’s victory and the aforementioned focus on the economy in this election race, it is prudent to remind ourselves of three moral consequences of the election result.



A brief glance at Mitt Romney’s official website tells us that, had Romney won the keys to the White House, the landmark Roe vs Wade decision by the Supreme Court concerning the legality of abortion (which dates back almost 30 years) would surely have been under threat. Although the president does not have the direct power to overturn a Supreme Court decision, he/she does have the power to nominate new justices to the Supreme Court. In view of the fact that four of the sitting justices are likely to retire in the near future (since four of them are over 70 years old) there is a reasonable chance that the current president will have to nominate a new justice in the coming term. As such, had Romney been elected, he may have had the indirect power to make good on his promise to overturn Roe vs Wade. In addition to this, he also planned to ban the use of federal funds for abortion. Accordingly, with Romney as president, the freedom of American women to have an abortion would have been severely limited.


Human Embryo Stem Cell (hESC) Research

In 2009, Barack Obama overturned the Bush administration’s 2001 order that banned the use of federal funds for hESC research on new cell lines. Since Obama’s 2009 executive order there have been a number of advances in hESC research, many of which have been the result of research carried out in the USA which would have been banned under prior to the 2009 executive order.

Given Romney’s belief that life begins at conception, it seems likely that Obama’s 2009 executive order would have been overturned under Romney’s presidency, especially in view of the fact that he would have had the power to unilaterally revoke this executive order without recourse to the Supreme Court. Such a decision would have been particularly damaging to hESC research at a global level, in view of the EU’s decision to ban hESC patents in Europe in October of last year.


LGBT Rights

   Romney has been quite open in his opposition to equal marriage rights for homosexuals; in 2011, he signed a pledge explicitly opposing same sex marriage which included proposals to appoint Supreme Court justices who would also oppose marriage equality, and to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would block the federal government from ever recognizing homosexual marriages.

However, the question of marriage equality for homosexuals is perhaps something of a subsidiary issue in comparison to the question of hospital visitation rights. In 2010 Obama signed an executive order which mandated that federally funded hospitals have to legally recognise homosexual relationships. This order thus ensures that the homosexual partner of a patient has visitation rights, and the ability to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated. Once again, this is something that Romney would have had the power to unilaterally revoke if elected; indeed certain of his pre-election comments suggest that he would have done this, meaning that individual states would have been able to make their own decision with regards to this issue.


I have not provided any substantive arguments against Romney’s position on these issues. Rather, I highlight the above issues in this post to emphasize the importance of the presidential election result on these indubitably important moral issues. Given the extreme differences between Obama and Romney on each of the above issues, it seems plausible to claim that the result of this presidential election is perhaps the most ethically significant one in living memory.

The above reflections perhaps also point to a broader issue. In a future election, it may be the case that voters feel  compelled to vote for a presidential candidate because of the clear superiority of that candidate’s economic policies over their opponent’s . The worrying thing in such a case is that voters may feel compelled to vote for such a candidate even if they completely disagree with that candidate’s stance on moral issues such as those listed above. This poses the following question: is it right that voters in such a situation are being asked to choose between voting in a manner which they believe is economically responsible and voting in a  manner which they believe is morally responsible?


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3 Comment on this post

  1. Just a brief note: the first link to Romney’s website has an additional “).” in it, which then yields the usual 404 error. Nothing serious.

    Anyway, thank you for the article! I am not well versed in American politics, but I think there are two further points in Obama’s administration that also raise moral issues. One is his positive approach to certain immigration laws, and the other is his use of drones in actual wars (which raises a lot of questions about moral agency).

  2. Policy always raises ethical issues, even if they’re just familiar distributional ones. If I was an American I’d be quite big on leaving stuff to states, since this seems to me a nice feature of federalism. I don’t see why the federal state should need to pronounce on some of these issues, since it’s pretty clear that policy could usefully reflect different preferences and world-views at finer scales. I don’t see why one size on some of these issues should fit all 50 states. [Same with big ticket fiscal items like education, welfare and health.] Let a thousand policy flowers bloom.

    On your question of compromise – sure. That’s the price we pay with such a blunt instrument as a vote. I’ve always found myself being attracted and repelled by different parts of politcial parties manifestos, and have often had anxieties about how to vote. But that’s just a part of our political judgement. [I used to think a finer-grained democratic voice would be a good thing, but it’s hard to envisage something like multiple votes delivering a coherent mandate, or what the status of votes on specific policy issues should have. Personally I’ve become a sceptic about most people’s policy capabilities (esp noisier lay people such as academics and students). I think it’s far better that they get a coarse vote for a bunch of people, as opposed to a direct say in policy questions.]

  3. Hi Jonny –

    A very nice list of the practical ethics implications of Obama’s victory. I would just add a few others:

    – Healthcare. Romney and a Republican congress would almost certainly have repealed parts or the entirety of Obamacare, which promises to greatly expand Americans’ access to healthcare but via a method (mandatory purchase of insurance) that many object to.

    – War. While Obama has been enthusiastic in the use of drones and hit squads, he’s been much less inclined to support full-fledged invasions than his predecessor. While Romney on the campaign trail was similarly reluctant (both oppose direct military intervention in Syria, for instance), I believe Romney would be much more likely to use such large-scale force, especially in Iran.

    – Regulation. Romney had proposed to roll back a wide array of financial, consumer and environmental regulations, which some argue would leave the country and its people vulnerable but others think are overly burdensome and inefficient.

    – Immigration. This is not often discussed in practical ethics circles, but I think it’s really a big moral issue. Obama will probably pursue a relatively liberal immigration reform in his second term that attempts to integrate many illegal immigrants, while Romney’s stance has been more hard-line, focusing on legal enforcement and ‘self-deportation’.

    I’ve almost certainly left some other important ethical issues off the list, but there’s just a few more to mull over. It will be interesting to see how each plays out in the coming years.

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