George Cotkin


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

Cover Interview of May 02, 2010

A close-up

A book reveals itself in its fullness, in its sweat and swagger.  But if you must rivet attention on one thing in this volume then I would hope that it is my overriding sense of struggle.

Struggle with moral issues, I think, is too often absent.  We approach challenges—personal and political—with sharply defined strictures, moral laws, and codes of conduct.  I’ll be the first to admit that without these baselines we would be adrift, lost in a moral wilderness.  But when we face the complexity of events and the muddiness of situations, we have to be more contemplative and self-conscious.

Thinking about things, as Hannah Arendt once remarked, is valuable for stopping action, for holding us back.  Now we cannot nor should we always hold ourselves back—to do so would be to jettison any moral action.  But by thinking more deeply, we might at least act with a better sense of limitations, of the tragic distance often found between ideal and result.  Rather than rushing into a situation, without appreciation for the many shades of morality and irony, we might be more sober and successful when and in how we act.

We can, as was the case with our former president, be blinded by our moral confidence.  After meetings with moral heroes such as Russian dissident Natan Sharansky and the Iraqi Kanan Makiya, George W. Bush believed that Saddam Hussein was evil personified.  He did feel valuable empathy with the plight of the Iraqi people.  Yes, he also had a myopic eye towards his own agendas—finishing off his father’s enemy, establishing greater American hegemony in the region, and erasing the weapons of mass destruction that were presumably in the Iraqi arsenal.  But the empathy he did feel for the Iraqi people was real and valuable.  Alas, it was abstract empathy—weakly related to the circumstances of the moment, the complexities of Iraqi nationalism and politics, and, most definitely, hobbled by an unreflective confidence that the war would be easily won and that Iraqis would flock to our side.

The same danger of moral absolutism and confidence appeared when Bush was the governor of Texas.  He was a firm supporter of the death penalty.  While I disagree with the death penalty, I can understand the moral imperative and justness behind retribution.  But, once again, certitude cannot be allowed to override complexity; ideology should never trump the singularity of each case.  As governor, Bush quickly approved all but one of the death penalty cases brought to him.  This is a gross example of moral resignation to absolutes.

Even a quick browse through the varied narratives in my book should drive home my desire to muddy the waters of various situations.  A little muddiness may go a long way towards allowing complex moral issues to be discussed in a fuller and less rancorous manner.  And it may also force us to reevaluate our presumptions, not to plummet us into moral passivity but to draw us into a range of actions that are colored by a useful sense of hesitancy and sobriety.