How To Be “Morally Serious”

One thing’s for sure about the man President Bush selected to run his new council on bioethics: He is one morally serious cowpoke. An op-ed by Bret Stephens in the Aug. 14 Wall Street Journal pronounced, “Leon Kass brings moral seriousness to his task.” Kass’ seminars at the University of Chicago, Stephens elaborated, are “deeply serious.” They taught Stephens, a former Kass student, that “one could not be intellectually respectable without being morally so.” On NPR’s All Things Considered, Kass told Linda Wertheimer on Aug. 10 that Bush’s stem-cell speech was “a model of moral seriousness.” The following day, the New York Times quoted Kass praising Bush for “the moral seriousness and principled character of his decision” to limit federal funding for stem-cell research. (Kass was too morally serious to say whether he himself had influenced Bush’s decision.) Searching the Nexis database for the previous 60 days, Chatterbox found that the phrase “Leon Kass” appeared in a news story that also included the words “moral” and “serious” 47 times. “I think that that’s a serious question,” Kass said Aug. 12 on Face the Nation, when asked if there would be enough existing stem-cell lines to allow meaningful medical research. “What’s most conspicuous about Leon Kass is the philosophical manner in which he approaches serious issues having to deal with ethics and morality in public life,” his friend Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University, was quoted telling the Baltimore Sun on Aug. 11. “Anyone who takes Plato and Aristotle seriously is going to have their thinking affected.” In a widely read May 17 New Republic essay, Kass pronounced cloning to be “a serious evil” (as opposed to all those unserious evils you’re always hearing about). (To read a brief essay about Kass by Slate’s “Earthling” columnist, Robert Wright–one that doesn’t once use the phrase “morally serious”–click here.)

It would be fun to tear down Kass’ reputation for moral seriousness by publishing photographs of a bare-chested Kass hoovering nose candy, circa 1976, at Studio 54. Alas, none exist. Kass, it appears, really is as morally serious as everybody says he is. But what exactly does it mean to be “morally serious”? Chatterbox submits that the phrase has become a mere synonym for “neoconservative.”

Returning to the Nexis database, Chatterbox entered the terms “morally serious” and “moral seriousness” and got 13 distinct hits from U.S. news reports of the previous 60 days. Here are the results (in all instances, italicization of the phrase “morally serious” or “moral seriousness” is Chatterbox’s own):

  1. “Americans are as morally serious as ever, [sociologist Alan] Wolfe says,” writes U.S. News columnist John Leo. Wolfe is no neocon, but Leo (whose Aug. 13 column is a polite denunciation of Wolfe’s moral relativism) is.
  2. Bush’s stem-cell compromise was “aimed to be at once morally serious, politically viable and practically sustainable,” writes Eric Cohen, former managing editor of [neocon] Public Interest, in the Aug. 12 Los Angeles Times.
  3. “What does it say about us as a people if we are willing to procure stem cells by destroying embryos when we have not pursued as vigorously as possible other morally acceptable sources for these cells? It says, I fear, that we are not morally serious,” writes Dr. Gilbert Meilaender, a professor of Christian ethics at Valparaiso University, in the July 22 Indianapolis Star. Meilaender is a board member of First Things, a journal on religion edited by the neocon Richard John Neuhaus.
  4. The heroines of Heidi, the Little House on the Prairie books, Emily of New Moon and Caddie Woodlawn and Anne of Avonlea are all “spirited, morally serious pre-feminist heroines,” Gina Dalfonzo writes June 25 in the neocon Weekly Standard.
  5. “In a world riven by hate, greed, and envy, everyone loves tomatoes … Real (as I will call vine-ripened, soft-walled, acid-flavored, summer-grown) tomatoes are an article of faith, a rallying point for the morally serious, a grail.” This is Raymond Sokolov, quoted in the June 20 RichmondTimes-Dispatch. Sokolov, a neocon with a rare whimsical bent, edits the Wall Street Journal’s arts page.
  6. “There are many types of anguished moderates. There are morally serious pro-choicers, like Representative David Wu of Oregon, who defend abortion but take concerns about the use of embryos seriously, and who realize that even the benefits of research do not justify risking a leap into a Brave New World of human cloning.” Eric Cohen again, this time with William Kristol, in the Aug. 13 Weekly Standard. Wu appears to be the only morally serious liberal in America. But note that what makes him morally serious is his willingness to fret over the issue of when life begins, a neocon favorite.
  7. Kristol again, in an Aug. 20 Weekly Standard editorial praising Bush’s speech for being “both morally and intellectually serious. … Slippery slope arguments are generally a substitute for serious thought. But in this case, the slope really is extraordinarily slippery, and the moral seriousness requires taking that slipperiness into consideration.”
  8. “By recognizing the moral concerns of those who support embryonic stem-cell research, he implicitly validated as well the moral seriousness of many people who support abortion rights.” Elizabeth Auster’s Aug. 12 column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. An exception to our rule! Auster is not, as far as Chatterbox knows, a neoconservative, and in this instance she’s using “moral seriousness” to describe beliefs that neocons generally abhor. There may, however, be some deliberate neocon-tweaking irony behind Auster’s use of the term.
  9. “[Deborah] Kerr’s moral seriousness casts a pall, and [Jean] Seberg plots to get rid of her. This devastating masterpiece is at once the ne plus ultra of, and a severe riposte to, movies about hedonistic fun in the sun.” Chris Fujiwara in the Aug. 5 Boston Globe, summarizing the plot of the 1958 movie Bonjour Tristesse. Because the subject is foreign (Bonjour Tristesse was based on a French novel by Francoise Sagan), Chatterbox rules this usage nonapplicable to our discussion.
  10. “Once again I had that same feeling I had had for her ever since we first met, which was not at all like the feeling I have had for anyone else before or since, not desire exactly, though not unmixed with desire, but a sense that she was at the centre of life, or what life ought to be, not because she was a moral example (I could think of several cases where I couldn’t say she had done the right thing) but because she had a moral seriousness attached to her in some way, not as a weight or burden, more like a fragrance.” A quotation from the English novelist Ferdinand Mount’s Fairness, from a review by Michael Dirda in the July 29 Washington Post. A foreign source, hence inapplicable. (Incidentally, Chatterbox feels fairly certain that Mount’s uncle, the great British novelist Anthony Powell, never used the phrase “moral seriousness” in his writing, even though he was a devoted Tory.)
  11. “When affirmative action was about justice, it at least had moral force. Opponents could argue about the social costs (unfairness, racial resentment, patronization of minority achievement) but they had to acknowledge the contrary claims of racial redress. You might disagree that racial preferences were the best solution, but you had to respect the moral seriousness of the idea.” Charles Krauthammer in his July 13 Washington Post column. Krauthammer is a neocon. Although he appears to be using the phrase to praise the un-neocon cause of racial preferences, on close inspection he is merely deploying the familiar neocon rhetorical tactic of praising liberalism retrospectively as a way to denounce more persuasively what liberalism has become.
  12. “It follows that citizens should not in conscience volunteer for military service unless they believe in the general moral seriousness and competence of the command authority that will be in control of them. It is not necessary to believe that leaders are omniscient or infallible or even morally pure.” Martin L. Cook, professor of ethics at the Army War College, in the July 4 Christian Century. Chatterbox doesn’t know what Cook’s politics are, but the need to reconcile Judeo-Christian ethics with the imperatives of military service is one most neocons would endorse.
  13. “[President Bush] will have to help educate the American public about cloning and work to move the ban through the House and Senate. … The president will be aided in his task by the extraordinary testimony of many distinguished witnesses at last week’s hearings. They ranged across the political spectrum, and the moral seriousness and eloquence they brought to the halls of Congress was striking.” J. Bottum and William Kristol in the July 2-9 Weekly Standard.

From this sample, it would appear that neocons have cornered the market if not on moral seriousness itself, then certainly on use of the term “moral seriousness.” Hence, it is morally serious to want the state to dictate when life begins, but morally frivolous to want the state to refrain from deciding when a criminal’s life should end. To contemplate the evils of communism is morally serious. To contemplate the shortcomings of capitalism is morally frivolous. To abhor anti-religious prejudice is morally serious. To abhor racial prejudice is morally frivolous (though it used to be morally serious back in Martin Luther King’s day). To worry about the effects of excessive taxation is morally serious. To worry about the effects of excessive pollution is morally frivolous. And so on.

Chatterbox doesn’t seek to encourage further use of a phrase as pompous as “morally serious” by demanding that it be applied more often to liberal concerns. Still, he thinks it worth pointing out that one may acknowledge the seriousness of somebody’s belief system without necessarily endorsing it. One might even deplore it! Pol Pot’s moral convictions were deeply felt, but that doesn’t make them any less reprehensible. If debate about morality aspires to be serious, it needs to substitute reasoned argument for the lazy condescension implicit in declaring who’s “morally serious” and who’s not.