Back before Barack Obama formed one half of a dynamic duo with Bruce Springsteen—before he had even teamed up with Joe Biden, for that matter—he was a presidential candidate. In those ancient days of August, 2008, appearing on an antiquated device called a television, Obama fielded a question from mega-pastor Rick Warren about abortion: “at what point does a baby get human rights?”
“Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective,” replied Obama, “answering that question with specificity ... is above my pay grade.” Now, granted, Obama had not yet ascended to the lofty status of podcast co-host. But he was running for what was then (this was long ago, remember) the most powerful office in the world. How could anything be “above his pay grade?”
Obama meant he would let biologists and priests decide, respectively, when a fetus becomes a human, and how other humans should feel morally about killing that fetus in the womb. I know my own answers to both those questions: a fetus is a human at conception, and killing it is bad. Still, it certainly would have been fair enough for Obama to seek expert counsel on both points. But there was a yes-or-no question on the table: should abortion, under given circumstances, be legal or illegal? Surely if it’s homicide it should be illegal, and surely the legislature, not scientists or priests, should outlaw things.
As a matter of campaign maneuvering, it was a smart move for Obama to punt while he was courting religious votes. But as a matter of policy, his sincerity can be judged by the fact that he had already promised the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2007 that his first act as president would be signing the Freedom of Choice Act—a bill stating “that every woman has the fundamental right to...terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability; or terminate a pregnancy after viability when necessary to protect her life or her health." So since Obama obviously did believe he would have some role in directing abortion law, what kind of “pay grade” did he think the moral question was “above”?
Presumably he was appealing to the American instinct that certain sticky ethical issues are matters of personal choice, not “politics.” This is a sleight-of-hand which works particularly well in the case of abortion, where the question actually pertains not just to the choices of the mother but also to the survival of the baby. The minute your decisions can end the life of another human being, you are very definitively in the realm of politics: the realm of how we may and may not live together.
I have been arguing for several weeks now that the best person to weigh all variables and make the complex moral choices you face every day is you. That is because human life is not actually a mathematical equation but a process of discernment and practical wisdom. And practical wisdom entails not just knowing as much as you can about the situation you’re in, but also acting upon that situation on the basis of moral absolutes.
But you do not make those choices in a vacuum, and your range of freedom is not infinite. The job of an elected legislature is to mediate between your rights and those of others in your political community, and to draw lines that may not be crossed. Those representatives ought, in turn, to be making their decisions in reference to moral absolutes also: in America, we should decide how to govern ourselves from the personal to the national level on the basis of the absolutes articulated in our founding documents.
A critic might justly ask me at this point whether I have not undercut all my previous claims about coronavirus—for example that we have been insulted and infantilized by leaders who consider us incapable of deciding whether and when to mask up. Don’t those decisions, too, have the potential to “end the life of another human being”? Aren’t they in the realm of “how we may and may not live together”?
I concede that under certain rare circumstances, they might be: in a nursing home, for instance, you probably don’t have the right to sit unmasked and uninvited next to grandma. But politics in the sense of “rules for life together” is bigger than just laws, of course. The ideal solution would certainly be for nursing homes themselves, and the communities within which they are situated, to write rules together that balance risk against the human need for connection.
There’s something else, though. Even at the level of law—the level of murder, for example, and abortion—urgent questions of morality cannot simply be farmed out to experts. The whole point of politics is that it’s the same thing, at the national level, as practical wisdom is at the personal level. “Practical wisdom is the same knack as political science,” writes Aristotle. Both are “concerned with action and deliberation: for voting is about what should be done in each case” (Nicomachean Ethics 1141b).
In other words, we use the same faculty from the lowest rung of the political ladder to the highest—from our personal choices, on up to the rules we agree upon in places like nursing homes, all the way up to the laws we elect our representatives to write. It is all practical wisdom: the delicate art of putting principles into practice given the facts on the ground.
It is a progressive fantasy that we can avoid this responsibility by outsourcing it, by marking it “above our pay grades” as Obama did. What that really means is that we will smuggle our moral decision-making into our scientific calculations, and render ourselves as useless as cogs in a machine: science dictates, we (and our politicians) obey. The reason Dr. Fauci has morphed from kindly grandpa to sociopathic monomaniac is precisely because we have turned one kind of expertise—calculating medical risk—into the only and ultimate standard of What Must Be Done.
The outcome of this may be seen in a truly disgraceful video, brought to my attention by Managing Editor Seth Barron. In it, the “Try Guys” (a popular YouTube gang) squeal with girlish delight as Daddy Fauci appears on their screen. To watch it is to be mortified on their behalf: these are grown men happy to depict themselves as children, down to the lollipops they are nursing in the closing graphics. That is the kind of citizen formed by a regime in which practical wisdom bows to scientific calculation.
But as Aristotle notes, boys can do science: only a man can do politics. You have every mental faculty you need in adolescence to make mathematical calculations; to make complex moral decisions requires practical wisdom, which matures over time. The “eye of the soul” needs training and practice, which develops a familiarity with reality “derived from experience. Young men lack this—for it is the fruit of years.”
So there is our choice: moral agency and the hard accountability that comes with it, or spiritual childhood and servile abasement. If we are to reclaim our own regime and learn to govern ourselves again, we must choose whether we wish to be boys or men.