George Cotkin


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

Cover Interview of May 02, 2010


As I reflect back now on the five years that I spent living with Morality’s Muddy Waters and my original intention of responding to the issues raised by the film Hotel Rwanda, I hold to a belief that I have progressed, albeit in hesitant, baby steps, towards a moral position that has value.

Perhaps at the root of moral evil is the problem of certitude, our willingness to cling tightly to strictures of right and wrong or to embrace our gut feelings.  Moral clarity, as philosopher Susan Neiman brilliantly argues, is a wonderful thing but it is also a chimera when it simplifies complexity.  We need to accept that doubt and anxiety, muddiness, about our moral posture and actions are positive things.

Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr celebrated this notion of moral modesty in contrast to moral hubris.  Read what President Barack Obama, in a blurb on the back-cover of a reissue of Reinhold Neibuhr’s classic The Irony of American History (originally published in 1952), has to say: “I take away [from Niebuhr’s works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

This is, I now believe, a reasonable way of thinking about and responding to the horrors that darkened the Rwandan landscape.  Not a morality that unfurls all-too-predictable banners of certitude and passion.  Rather a morality that might help us put on boots of moral depth to wade into the moral muddiness that confronts us daily.

© 2010 George Cotkin