In­tel­li­gence and moral­ity don’t al­ways mix

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Ihave met very few par­ents or grand­par­ents who have not char­ac­ter­ized at least one of their off­spring as “ex­tremely bright” or even “bril­liant” — usu­ally beginning at the age of 2. The em­pha­sis on the im­por­tance of the in­tel­lect is greater than ever.

That is why peo­ple were per­suande into hav­ing their ba­bies lis­ten to Mozart af­ter it was re­ported that lis­ten­ing to Mozart — even in utero — would make ba­bies smarter. As an oc­ca­sional or­ches­tra con­duc­tor, I am de­lighted when any­one of any age is ex­posed to clas­si­cal mu­sic. But love of mu­sic was not an is­sue here — the Mozart­for-ba­bies craze was about love of brains, not love of mu­sic. Like­wise, those who can af­ford to do so vie with one an­other to have their chil­dren ad­mit­ted to pres­ti­gious preschools and ele­men­tary schools.

This pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with brains and in­tel­lec­tual at­tain­ment ex­tends into adult­hood. Most Amer­i­cans upon hear­ing that some­one has at­tended Har­vard Uni­ver­sity as­sumes that this per­son is not only smarter than most other peo­ple but is ac­tu­ally a more im­pres­sive per­son. That is why, for ex­am­ple, peo­ple as­sume that a No­bel lau­re­ate in physics has some­thing par­tic­u­larly in­tel­li­gent to say about so­cial pol­icy. In fact, there is no rea­son at all to as­sume that a No­bel physi­cist has more in­sight into health care is­sues or cap­i­tal pu­n­ish­ment than a high school physics teacher, let alone more in­sight than a moral the­olo­gian. But peo­ple, es­pe­cially the highly ed­u­cated, do think so. That’s why one fre­quently sees ads ad­vo­cat­ing some po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion signed by No­bel lau­re­ates.

In­tel­lec­tu­als, e.g., those with grad­u­ate de­grees, have among the worst, if not the worst, records on the great moral is­sues of the past cen­tury. In­tel­lec­tu­als such as the widely adu­lated French in­tel­lec­tual Jean Paul Sartre were far more likely than hard­hats to ad­mire butch­ers of hu­man­ity like Stalin and Mao. But this has had no im­pact on most peo­ple’s adu­la­tion of the in­tel­lect and in­tel­lec­tu­als.

So, too, the cur­rent eco­nomic de­cline was brought about in large mea­sure by peo­ple in the fi­nan­cial sec­tor widely re­garded as “bril­liant.” Of course, it turns out that many of them were ei­ther dum­mies, amoral, in­com­pe­tent, or all three.

The adu­la­tion of the in­tel­lect is one rea­son Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was so re­viled by the in­tel­lec­tual class. He didn’t speak like an in­tel­lec­tual (even though he grad­u­ated from Yale) and for that rea­son was widely dis­missed as a dummy (though he is, in fact, very bright). On the other hand, Barack Obama speaks like the col­lege pro­fes­sor he was and thereby se­duces the adu­la­tors of the in­tel­lect the mo­ment he opens his mouth. Yet, it is he, not Ge­orge W. Bush, who nearly al­ways trav­els with teleprompters to de­liver even the briefest re­marks. And com­pared to Ge­orge W. Bush on many im­por­tant is­sues, his talks are su­per­fi­cial — as read­ing, as op­posed to hear­ing, them eas­ily re­veals.

Take, for ex­am­ple, one of the most com­plex and com­pelling moral is­sues of our time — em­bry­onic stem cell re­search. This is an ex­cel­lent area for com­par­i­son since both pres­i­dents de­liv­ered ma­jor ad­dresses on the ex­act same sub­ject.

Charles Krauthammer of the Wash­ing­ton Post has com­pared the two speeches. He has par­tic­u­lar cred­i­bil­ity on this score be­cause he is a sci­en­tist (he has a med­i­cal de­gree from Har­vard Med­i­cal School), a moral­ist, and has spe­cial in­ter­est in stem cell’s pos­si­bil­i­ties be­cause he is a para­plegic from a div­ing ac­ci­dent. And, as he points out, “I am not re­li­gious. I do not be­lieve that per­son­hood is con­ferred upon con­cep­tion.” Mr. Krauthammer’s ver­dict? “Bush’s na­tion­ally tele­vised stem cell speech was the most morally se­ri­ous ad­dress on med­i­cal ethics ever given by an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. It was so scrupu­lous in pre­sent­ing the best case for both his view and the con­trary view that un­til the last few min­utes, the lis­tener had no idea where Bush would come out.”

“Obama’s ad­dress was morally un­se­ri­ous in the ex­treme. It was pop­u­lated, as his di­dac­tic dis­courses al­ways are, with a for­est of straw men.”

“Un­like Bush, who painstak­ingly ex­plained the bal­ance of eth­i­cal and sci­en­tific goods he was try­ing to achieve, Obama did not even pre­tend to make the case why some prac­tices are morally per­mis­si­ble and oth­ers not.”

In a sim­i­lar man­ner, I de­voted two col­umns to an­a­lyz­ing Barack Obama’s widely hailed speech in Berlin when he was a can­di­date for pres­i­dent. I found it to be both vac­u­ous and, to use Krauthammer’s words, “morally un­se­ri­ous in the ex­treme.”

But Mr. Obama sounds in­tel­li­gent. As in­deed he is.

The rea­son we have too few so­lu­tions to the prob­lems that con­front peo­ple — in their per­sonal lives as well as in the po­lit­i­cal realm — is al­most en­tirely due to a lack of com­mon sense, psy­cho­log­i­cal im­ped­i­ments to clear think­ing, a per­verse value sys­tem, to a lack of self-con­trol, or all four. It is al­most never due to a lack of brain­power. On the con­trary, the smartest and the best ed­u­cated fre­quently make things worse.

Den­nis Prager is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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