If you see nothing wrong with using an 11-year-old boy who has lost his mother as a PR prop, go to the back of the ethics class. Sure, Marcelas probably enjoyed the trip to Washington and all the attention. Those microcephalics (pin-heads, in carny-speak) who used to be exhibited in circus freak shows enjoyed the attention too. But an 11-year-old cannot give consent to being used as a cynical political “freak” to tug at the heart strings and convince easily swayed people with an intellectually dishonest inference.
Among Emmanuel Kant’s most enduring contributions to ethics was one of his “categorical imperatives,” “Act to treat humanity, whether yourself or another, as an end-in-itself and never as a means.” That means, among other things, that you don’t stick a young boy in front of cameras because people like kids and will get all warm and fuzzy about whatever you are doing because he’s there.
The idea programmed by the soulless White House spin-masters, the story that Marcelas’s presence was supposed to tell, is that because of this bill, people like Marcelas’s mother, who died after she lost her job and could no longer afford treatment for her medical condition, won’t be dying any more. Thus the bill is “for” Marcelas, and for his mom’s memory. But of course, it is not. Had there been no Marcelas, there would be another prop child in the picture. And the bill is not “for” any one situation or personal crisis. It would be insane to pass a trillion dollar set of laws to address one person’s problem, or even a hundred. Do you think Marcelas understands that the story of his dead mother was just a convenient tear-jerker used to skirt real issues of cost control, effectiveness, transparency, process and budget impact?
If “Joe the Plumber” is willing to be used as a prop, fine: he’s an adult, and had a chance to say no. No grandmother was telling him that he had do do what the President wanted him to. If soldiers who have lost arms and legs choose to be used as props in war protests, that’s fine too. But putting a sign around your wheelchair-bound daughter or your Down Syndrome son that says, “Don’t let the bank take away my home!” is a violation of their dignity and autonomy, as well as dishonest, and borrowing someone else’s disabled child to make the point more powerfully is worse still. How are these uses of children as props any different from what the President and Vice-President did yesterday?
Not at all. If you don’t see that, and are tempted to say 1) “It’s done all the time,” 2)”it’s for a good cause,” 3) “don’t sweat the small stuff,” or all three, then you need a refresher course in the ways rationalizations allow us to justify unethical conduct when it’s more convenient than holding someone we may like or admire accountable.
It is fascinating what bias can do to reason and integrity. Many of the same individuals who justly criticized the TLC cable reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8” for exploiting small children and making them involuntary celebrities are willing to forgive the same behavior when it is done for votes rather than ratings. The children on the reality show may even be treated more fairly, supposedly making money in the deal; Marcelas got an airplane trip and some photo ops with the President. Year from now, will he think that was sufficient compensation for losing his privacy, when some website or E! show includes him in a “Where Are They Now?” feature? “Marcelas Owens, the Health Care Kid, was all smiles when he shared the stage with President Barack Obama in 2010 at the signing of the historic health care reform bill. But those smiles turned to frowns in five years later, when…” Did Marcelas ask to become a trivia question? Did he understand what fifteen minutes of fame can do to a life?
Did President Obama or Vice-President Biden care whether he did or not? Of course they didn’t, because to them, Marcelas Owen was just a prop, and a useful one.
Did you pass the test? Because they certainly did not.