How Obama Got All Tied Up in Moral Knots

"I've got two daughters. Nine-years-old and six-years-old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby. I don't want them punished with an STD at the age of sixteen" — Barack Obama, comments at a Pennsylvania town hall meeting on March 29th.

What grabbed a lot of attention about this comment was Obama's reference to a potential baby, his own grandbaby, as a "punishment". This, it was pointed out, was especially offensive to "single moms," and issued, as one commenter put it, "a slap in the face to every child born to a young mother." Perhaps so, but I thought this comment was profoundly tangled and interesting for a number of reasons.

The Gun and Male Vote

For most normal men the question of their teenage daughter getting pregnant focuses like a laser on "some boy" — probably a boy very similar to their own teenage selves — as in: "If I catch some boy sneaking around with my daughter, I'll shoot him, because I was a teenage boy once and I know just what they are up to." Since Obama is after the White House, he could have turned it humorous by saying he would give orders to the Secret Service to shoot "any teenage boy with dishonorable intentions who comes sneaking around my daughters." Obama could have sewn up the gun vote and the male vote with that comment.

bellyHe could have even said that he knows his daughters are gorgeous and that someday they are going to be knockouts like their mom and the main reason he wants to be president is so he can use the Secret Service to protect them from any teenage boys who are up to no good. And he probably would have upped his electability among women, too.

But he didn't, because Obama is not a normal man. He is a post-Alan Alda Man. This variety doesn't shoot; they don't even threaten to shoot. They emote.

While one cannot exactly sympathize, one can at least appreciate what a difficult balancing act the post-Alan Alda Man running for president must engage in when dealing with questions of right or wrong regarding behavior. I mean behavior other than littering, polluting, or offending the sexually aberrant.

Values vs. Morals

The post-Alan Alda Man suffers from the disorder that Alasdair MacIntyre so trenchantly diagnosed in After Virtue a quarter century ago: he is unable to coherently articulate moral statements because for him the language of morality no longer holds any real moral content. The language of morality is only of use, in fact, as an expression of sentiment. This is demonstrated by what Obama said: "I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals." Maybe somewhere in the back of his mind he knows there is a word that goes with morals and starts with a "v." And there is. It is etymologically related to "virile" from vir (man), but, lacking the testicular fortitude to bring forth a manly, demanding word like "virtue", "values" lisps out of his mouth.

"Values" are those assorted bits of personal preference that take the place of moral judgments when moral language loses its moral content. While morality is grounded on what things really are in truth, "values" denies the existence of truth. Determining for oneself one's values is quite the opposite of subjecting oneself to moral training in the virtues. So when Obama says he intends to teach his daughters "about values and morals," what he really means is that he is not going to teach morals at all. This is why he does not say, "But if they commit a sin…" or "But if they are led astray from the right path…" or "But if they are disobedient to what I teach them…" and instead says, "But if they make a mistake…." (Like what? "Oops, Daddy, I just fell into bed and I didn't even know that boy was there.") There is, you see, no moral culpability in making "a mistake."

Punished for What?

Or is there? Because the next thing he says is "I don't want them punished with a baby." The baby has been a subject of much concern; but for the moment, I would like to concentrate on the idea of punishment, because by bringing up the idea of punishment, Obama has flipped back into moral language. For what would punishment be even a possibility? Not for a mistake, but for the breaking of some moral prohibition. He's vague; he's pusillanimous about it; but he has just done something very extraordinary in the public arena. He has indicated, however tangentially, that an unmarried 16-year-old having sexual relations might just be a punishable offense in some way. It might just have something to do with right and wrong — morality — as opposed to mere "values."

Anxious to smooth over the baby-as-punishment faux pas, Bill Burton, Obama's national campaign spokesman, issued the following statement:

What Senator Obama said and what he believes is clear — children are "miracles," but we have a problem when so many children are having children. As Senator Obama said on Saturday — and on many other occasions — parents have a responsibility to teach their children about values and morals to help make sure they are not treating sex casually.

This just gets more and more interesting. One is prompted to inquire: Why shouldn't teenagers treat sex casually? Is it okay for adults to treat sex casually? And what about all those people of whatever age according to whose "values" casual sex is perfectly fine? If his 16-year-old daughter was serious about sex, as opposed to casual, then would it be okay? What makes sex such a serious subject anyway? Do we have a problem when so many children are having sex, or is it only a problem when they have children?

It may have been merely a gesture in the direction of morality. For that matter it may have been a mere political gesture. But keep gesturing in this direction and sooner or later you are bound to bump into something real.

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