George Cotkin


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

Cover Interview of May 03, 2010

The wide angle

As an historian, everything I do is anchored in a concern with the past presented in what I hope is a lively narrative.  In walking along that path in this book, I believe that various conceptions are critical both for understanding our past and for straining towards a fuller grasp of our present.  No easy task.

We know, thanks to just war theory, what is right or wrong, at least in principle or in the abstract: civilian areas are not to be targets, except under the most pressing of circumstances and with especial care about minimizing civilian casualties.  But in the face of evolving expectations, conflicting moral ends, and just plain complexity, morals get muddy.

Rather than trying to establish a firm set of moral propositions, my narratives of various events and issues demand that, at the very least, we recognize that moral disputes are often irresolvable, different positions are not only possible but reasonable, and that we need, above all else, to take actions with a willingness to grapple with that moral complexity.  The process towards acting in a moral manner is rutted with pot-holes, but it must be traveled in a manner that includes “mature consideration” of the issues at hand.

Considerations of evil also stalk the pages of my book.  Can’t we use evil as a descriptive and analytical term despite its elusiveness?  How else, for example, can we characterize what happened in the massacre in My Lai?  We can, using Hannah Arendt’s twin conceptions of evil as radical and banal, achieve a more tragic and oddly enlightened view of historical events without surrendering morality and analysis.

Looking at John Howard Griffin’s attempt to pass as an African-American in the Jim Crow South in 1959—as recounted in his famous volume, Black Like Me—I began to see past the obvious problems with his black masquerade and presumed willingness to speak for black people.  I understood him, in effect, to be trying something valuable—akin to the thought experiment that Thomas Nagel imaginatively captured in his essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”  By dying his skin and passing for black, Griffin was attempting to shed his privileged racial position and distance; by act and empathy, he was seeking, within the context of his time and place, to understand a radically different other.  Out of this action, he was able to address brilliantly the problem of moral luck and the contingent nature of racial identity.  After all, he was saying, I am still the same, decent white person I was, but for my blackened skin. Why, then, do you offer me a “hate stare” that denies me my humanity?  In this manner, he managed, as Malcolm X recognized, to stir the moral consciousness of his white readers to concede that racism was wrong.  No small accomplishment within the context of the early 1960s.

We need empathy, that’s for sure.  But even empathy gets its feet stuck in the big muddy.  While many of us now realize that the Iraq invasion was terribly botched, might the moral imperatives sounded by President Bush and such pro-war liberals as Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman have been rooted in a sense of empathy for Iraqi suffering?  What, then, are we to do in the face of evil, such as Saddam Hussein?  Might too much empathy lead to disasters just as too little empathy does?

Does what you have been reading sound vaguely pragmatist and existential?  If so, then you are a most discerning reader. My first book was on the American philosopher William James, the father of pragmatism.  And I embrace his sense of the contingency of existence and the role that ideas must play in leading us forward.  My last book before Morality’s Muddy Waters, Existential America (2003), adopted humanistic existentialism.  I find it the best approach to life, although it does bring us face to face with a “dreadful freedom.”  This is certainly a burden, but one that may hold back the dangerous torrents of moral certitude.