George Cotkin


On his book Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America

Cover Interview of May 02, 2010

In a nutshell

Morality’s Muddy Waters, as the subtitle suggests, worries about ethical quandaries in recent American history.  I like my history and morality muddy, so to speak.  Rather than a dry philosophical approach, the book looks at morality in action.

This project began five years ago on a gentle evening after viewing Hotel Rwanda, the film documenting genocide.  I decided immediately to cease working on a book about American cultural criticism.  I was shaken to the core of my being, and I had to do something that would address inhumanity, in its varied forms.  I think that Morality’s Muddy Waters achieves this end, although without moral hectoring or absolutes.

I am an historian with a philosophical bent.  My book is narrative in nature with a desire to draw from historical research insight into what we are to do at present when faced with perplexing moral challenges.

Too often, we shy away from the concept of evil.  But evil demands a voice as a descriptive and analytical term.  So that is where I begin.  Next, issues as varied as the bombing of civilian areas in the Second World War, the My Lai massacre, and the death penalty are examined for their moral cloudiness.

Some presume that the best way of overcoming moral passivity and evil may be through empathy.  As I show in one chapter, empathy can be invaluable, the necessary first step towards moral comprehension and action.  Alas, empathy can also lead us astray, as in our decision to invade Iraq.

I hope that after following my narratives of trial and tribulation in matters of morality you come away with more questions than answers.  That, it seems to me, constitutes the essence of good history, and the start of better moral thinking.