[Warning: Long post. You may want to print. – TL]
Review of George Cotkin, Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4227-0. 262 pages.
Review by Tim Lacy
History as “Productive Confusion”: Studies of America’s Moral Fiber, 1940-Present
The human soul possesses some kind of an essential imperative to remember moral axioms and lessons from the past. Institutionally, the clearest proof of this is in religion. Revered works in both the Eastern and Western traditions are commonly recited for their proverbs, tales of good and evil, and moral laws. Among individuals, the wise (as well as the pretentious) quote pithy laws and maxims from memory—the simpler, the better. Today’s Evangelical Christians and faithful Muslims quote passages from their respective sacred texts, and intellectuals borrow quotes from literature or perhaps even a philosopher. There is a reason why John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations was filled with lines from the Bible and Shakespeare when first published in 1855.
Related to the simple urge to have prescriptions on hand, there exists another, more complex means of thinking through morality and virtue in the Western tradition. Aristotle helped articulate this other approach. The key to this line of thinking is circumstance, no matter where on the timeline the action under consideration occurred. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that “every state of soul has a nature relative to and concerned with the kinds of things by which it tends to be made worse or better.” Continuing and rephrasing another aspect of Aristotle’s passage centuries later, Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, wrote: “A virtuous man acts as he should, and when he should, and so on in respect of other circumstances.” And Aquinas continued in two other passages:
“Human actions are good or evil according to circumstances. …The fullness of [an action’s] goodness does not consist wholly in its species, but also in certain additions which accrue to it by reason of certain accidents. And its due circumstances are of this character.”
“The vicious man…acts when he should not, or where he should not, and so on with the other circumstances. 
If Aquinas and Aristotle are correct, and morality is always and everywhere linked to circumstance, and the study of history, furthermore is the study of circumstance (or context) par excellance, then it is clear that the study of history is absolutely crucial to understanding morality. Indeed, one might argue that by studying history, one is always engaged, at a minimum, in an indirect moral endeavor.
Of course some works of history are more and less specific about their moral goals. The moral message of a historical work depends on the historian’s willingness to engage moral questions and problems. And if historians are cautious in the moral arena, their reluctance derives from mistakes of older works where moral judgments were not hard earned. While caution perhaps makes historians seem timid or amoral, it also serves as armor against foolishness and the hazards of subjectivity. One person’s evil is often, with good reason, another’s grey area.
My first direct interaction with George Cotkin came via e-mail about three years ago. In an unsolicited note, he wrote simply to praise the U.S. Intellectual History weblog as a “wonderful idea.” He promised to “spread the news” to his students and colleagues. I relay this because, though I generally refuse my first impressions on principle, the charitable kindness of that missive accurately conveyed something about Cotkin’s character. My next noteworthy interaction was indirect. On a prompt from Wilfred McClay, I read Cotkin’s April 2008 article, “History’s Moral Turn,” in the Journal of the History of Ideas (Vol. 69, no. 2). The essay led a symposium, with responses from Neil Jumonville, Michael O’Brien, James Livingston, and Lewis Perry. Cotkin’s final reply to his respondents came in the July 2008 issue of the journal. Off and on for the rest of the year I contemplated how to continue that conversation at the weblog. In the end I did nothing, and regretted it.
My regret was rooted in the fact that I was impressed with Cotkin’s call for historians to explicitly take up moral analysis. In the article he cited abundant evidence of a “moral turn” evident in American life—explicit at the time in America’s public sphere, particularly in the actions and words of President George Bush (pp. 293-94). His piece resonated deeply with a sense, buttressed perhaps by my Catholicism and reading in theology and philosophy, that historical analysis must necessarily involve trafficking in morality, sometimes deeply. Admittedly, the historian’s moral sensibility is often tempered, and sometimes disguised (intentionally and unintentionally). The discredited legacy of providential history, tempered and corrected by the analytical turn of the late nineteenth century, explains historians’ general reluctance to take up explicit moral analysis.
But Cotkin asserted that historians need to participate, and that they “can play an important role in deepening and directing” the moral conversation. He argued that historians have a positive role to play in moving the public “away from simplicity to complexity, from rhetorical heat to cool compassion.” Indeed, other academic intellectuals, particularly moral philosophers, use history to discuss morals in their work. Cotkin chided them, however, for “conceptualizations that are deep, but…historical excavations [that] are commonly shallow.” He then made the case for historians to pick up the baton:
Historians can, and are at present, beginning to benefit from acquaintance with how philosophers employ and problematize various concepts—intentionality, virtue, character, moral luck, action, and Just War. …The moral turn is less about imposing our moral and political judgments on historical events and figures. It looks at historical agents and events to warn us that human motivation is complex and confusing, open and constrained. Morality becomes a process of thinking rather than a predigested set of answers. …History’s moral turn may help create productive confusion, a willingness to recognize that behind all of our moral choices…lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony (p. 294).
Cotkin spoke generally to historians in his article, but it was clear to me that intellectual historians were specifically implicated. Few other subfields engage philosophy, but that was precisely the discipline he underscored.
I could quote endlessly from the Cotkin essay because it lays out the historiography of moral considerations in the history profession: opposition to, proponents of, always been there, impossible to escape, decayed sense of, secularity and morals, and books that specifically addressed moral inquiry and moral problems. I can stop here, however, because the rest of the article was a precis for another larger work due to appear in a few years.
That work, titled Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America and published by Penn Press, made it to my desk last October. The book both exemplifies Cotkin’s call to action and exhibits the assertion that history, written and analyzed by historians, is a superb vehicle for the study of morality. As a matter of classification, the book is what some could call a “study in U.S. intellectual history.” In other words, it is not a straightforward narrative of intellectual-ethical-moral matters with seamless transitions between chapters and a recurring community of discourse. Cotkin proposes topics, presented chronologically, that underscore moral complexity, competing ethical imperatives, circumstances, the nature and effects of evil, empathy, responsibility, moral clarity, strictures, contingency, contradictions, and character. I was most fascinated by the emotional complexity of morality, both as cause and effect, of the events presented.
As is the case with any accessible history, Cotkin’s overall argument appears in various forms throughout the text. One version arises, naturally, on the first page: MMW “rejects…easy certitude and argues that we need instead…a healthy dose of befuddlement, and even when we are assured that our ends are correct and moral…the means to achieve them may be deeply problematic” (p. 1-2). The problem at hand is moral absolutism, and the solution is complexity. Indeed, by way of conclusion, Cotkin presents a most intriguing paradox with his thesis: namely, that less moral certainty leads to more morality. Stated another way, “the best moral decision-making occurs only after internal struggle and the recognition of bewilderment concerning means and ends” (p. 5). But how does he arrive at this end? What evidence is presented?
The specific thesis of MMW, in relation to its historical material, is this: by “allowing moral moments to emerge in their full confusion” we “learn from historical situations…that we…wander through a fog-enshrouded landscape of perplexing issues” (p. 4). Cotkin adds that “the point of history is to muddy the waters of easy moral clarity rather than to confirm our own sense of moral righteousness or political persuasion” (p. 4). In other words, we do not see enough the moral confusion in history, and a “moral turn” in works like MMW will enrich the present by showing us that moral clarity is not a given. It is hard earned, and sometimes real understanding cannot happen until after the fact.
To enact his thesis in a way that is different from other historians who have fruitfully engaged morality (e.g. David Brion Davis, William Cronon, Harry Stout, Drew Gilpin Faust), Cotkin follows through on his exhortation from “The Moral Turn” by incorporating the work of moral philosophers, ethicists, and psychological theorists. This begins in chapter one with a long, fascinating look at Hannah Arendt and her critics. It continues in the next chapter on World War II bombing by exploring combatant/combatant line in theories of total war (e.g. Giulio Douhet) and just war (e.g. A.C. Grayling, Robert Nozick, and Michael Walzer, Avishai Margalit). Having paused on many occasions in the classroom to pose moral questions in relation to the use of atomic weapons, I appreciated Cotkin’s interjection of philosophy in a section titled “Can Bombing of Civilians Be Justified?” (pp. 51-54). That section could be lifted, as is, and incorporated as either an in-class reading or an out-of-class reflection.
In successive chapters, Cotkin continues this invaluable task. In tackling My Lai he weaves in the work of psychologists Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, and Robert Jay Lifton, as well as the reflections of Reinhold Niebuhr and the work of Aristotle on the cultivation of character. John Howard Griffin and his famous work, Black Like Me, are examined in relation to the writings of Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, and a host of philosophers who have written on empathy. A key issue for Griffin was whether moral luck can be transformed, via empathy, into some kind of “universalist vision” (p. 120). When Cotkin moves to capital punishment in chapter five, the pro-death penalty thinking of Ernest van den Haag, Isaac Ehrlich, Hans Zeisel, and the Straussian Walter Berns makes an appearance. In opposition, Cotkin refers to the thinking of Karl Menninger, Hugo Adam Bedau, Philip Hallie, and the famous Sister Helen Prejean.
The last, and necessarily most tentative, full chapter focuses on terrorism and the Iraq War, post September 11. Philosophy makes its appearance in the form of a long discussion about “humanitarian intervention” (meaning, of course, the military variety). The theorists and philosophers of interest include Natan Sharansky, a Soviet refugee and neoconservative Zionist, and Ron Dermer. They co-authored a work The Case for Democracy (2004), the book Bush cited as inspirational for his international moral vision (i.e. democratic freedom must be spread at any price). Other intellectuals cited by Cotkin in this chapter, covering various degrees of interventionism versus outright opposition, include Kanan Makiya, Michael Ignatieff, Samantha Power, David Rieff, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Beinart, and Paul Berman—the last receiving extended treatment. Even though this topic still retains some heat, and it is clear that Cotkin did not support the war, his fairness in relaying the thought processes of the “war hawks” enables a civil tone to pervade the chapter. He only reproves in his final analysis of the characters.
Again, in relation to the aforementioned topics, Cotkin does not merely incorporate the insights of the abovementioned philosophers, ethicists, and psychologists. If he only did that, he would be reproducing the same works as other thinkers who utilize historical examples. Cotkin sets himself apart by following through on his promise to create “productive confusion” by adding more of the context, usually in terms of discussing decision-making and motivations of historical actors, but also by way of regret. He embraces “a tragic and ironic moral stance,” and also avoids being judgmental (though the judgments, and regrets, of historical actors are given full play).
This work engages that still-evolving subfield called the history of emotions—both in its historiography (i.e. approach) and topically in the narrative. Indeed, by invoking the messiness of war, murder, racism, hate, and capital punishment, one can hardly avoid terms like suffering, regret, revenge, morale, repulsion, honor, joy, shock, elation, unsavory, etc. One term, however, that both captured the emotional responses of several of Cotkin’s historical eras and evoked an intellectual-religious-emotional response in this reader was “demonic.” The word necessarily has fuzzy referential content, but nevertheless draws on our fears and repulsiveness. ‘Demonic’ captures something of the unreasonableness of radical evil, helping Cotkin articulate what I think is universal revulsion at mid-century’s Holocaust and mass murders. It is not surprising, then, that ‘demonic’ arises primarily in chapter one on “The Problems of Evil,” which focuses on Hannah Arendt. This, indeed, is the chapter that opens up the language, terms, and problems that haunt the rest of the book.
Cotkin’s goal is to parse the depths of evil. To his credit, he does not pretend to have an answer, or answers, about why evil exists—the metaphysics of evil. Rather, through Arendt as a kind of avatar for his own views, Cotkin gets at the depths of evil achieved both within and outside of social and political structures. The primary structure of concern at mid-century is totalitarianism. Arendt starts with Kant’s idea of “radical evil” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (pp. 17-19), intensifies it, and then clarifies further in Eichmann in Jerusalem by adding “the banality of evil” (pp. 23-24). To help Arendt and himself in grappling with people Hitler, Stalin, and Gary Gilmore later, as well as events like My Lai, Cotkin interjects the mysterious element of the ‘demonic’ into his studies (pp. 16, 79, 136). Here is a crucial passage (bolds mine):
Arendt…painted herself into a narrow corner. If the crimes of totalitarianism were as original and immense as she averred, then could they be anything other than demonic? She never hesitated to describe them throughout Origins…as “monstrous.” But to use the term demonic would be to situate evil as mysterious, perhaps outside the realm of rational explanation and the march of worldly events. The demonic resisted laws of nature and the wills of men. Even strong structures of representative democracy and public debate, it seemed, were futile against a demonic entity. …Arendt was onto something when she remarked on the mysterious nature of evil as something not “humanly understandable.” ….Radical evil, despite her best attempts, seemed to slip through her interpretive structure. Arendt’s frustrations grew just after publication of the book, when she admitted , “What radical evil is I don’t know” (p. 22).
In other words, because totalitarianism demolished the principles of “freedom, contingency, and choice”—principles on which Kant’s and Arendt’s views of radical evil rested—other concepts had to be introduced in a world where “evil had assumed a new face.” But Arendt left her version “grounded…in the institutions and ideology of totalitarianism” (p. 19). Her only revision was to introduce “banality” as an explanatory trope for Eichmann’s “less than demonic” position as a “dedicated bureaucrat” lacking “independence of mind” (p. 24).
But the idea of the ‘demonic’ raises a host of other issues. From where does the idea arise? Is it a universal concept? How can one discuss the topic without an in-depth study of Western theology or metaphysics? Mortimer J. Adler once asserted that a philosopher could posit the existence of angels, meaning the possibility of spiritual intelligences, or “bodies without minds,” without buying into Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Adler argued that it was of a piece with general popular fascination about the idea of “superhuman intelligence,” and suggested that fascination could be called “theology-fiction” or “philosophy-fiction” (instead of the old term, “angelology”). Adler buttressed his assertion by noting that many philosophers in Western history have speculated the possible role of angels in the universe, including Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Descartes, and others. Studying angels was about studying intelligences that were less than Divine (even if that divinity constituted only the necessary God of the philosophers) but greater than human. As for Satan and demons, however, Adler asserts that they are products of Western religious dogma, and shared by Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (though Christianity has special assertions about Satan in relation to Jesus Christ).
I relay this apparent digression because Cotkin does discuss religion, particularly Christianity, in Morality’s Muddy Waters. Topics that arise on the latter include born agains, Catholicism, Dorothy Day, fundamentalism, Søren Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Denis de Rougemont. For the most part, Cotkin limits his discussion of these figures and topics to the historical actors at hand: Arendt’s views of Rougemont, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Christianity is broached, Dorothy Day’s influence on John Howard Griffin, fundamentalists’ views on capital punishment and retributive justice, and the religious backgrounds of My Lai soldiers. With the exception of Arendt’s reaction to Rougement’s 1944 book, The Devil’s Snare, Cotkin does not spend much time delving into theology (p. 15-16).
This is either the great strength or great weakness in Cotkin’s analysis. As a weakness, unlike his insertions from philosophers and psychologists throughout the book, the relative absence of theology diminishes the real contributions of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thinkers. If religion has something substantial to say to us about the human condition, as a great majority of the world believes it does, then it would behoove the intellectual historian dealing in morality to read some of that speculation into the text. In the case of MMW, where most of Cotkin’s decision-makers are operating in something of a Judeo-Christian context, whether by violation of or perceived adherence to their faith, that means doing more with Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant theology. Perhaps theological speculation about demonic evil, given dispassionately, would at least help us understand something about the contexts in which these evil characters saw themselves? Would this also help us understand how the masses processed and received news of these atrocities of hatred, murder, mass murder, and international humanitarianism?
I fully recognize the dangers of a professional historian engaging in this kind of speculation. How would colleagues perceive the work? Would an academic press accept the book? What is the line between moral speculation and moralizing? How does one discuss the meaning of ‘demonic’ without getting past knee-jerk reactions? Cotkin’s work is about “productive confusion.” Does theological speculation move us into contentious, unproductive territory? And then, in relation to America’s Judeo-Christian culture, how does one properly navigate the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish lines of division? Then again, if competing ethical imperatives are an important topic, what raises the bar on moral competition more than religious divisions?
It is not hard to see how avoiding in-depth theological speculation also strengthens the book. For one, it keeps Christianity from dominating MMW, making Cotkin’s moral analysis accessible to a wider audience. His more secular study of the idea of evil in recent history results in an unpretentious exploration of the confusion of the moments at hand. By avoiding easy answers, especially those amenable to particular religious dogma, Cotkin maintains the humility, or “moral modesty,” he sought to model in the book (p. 205). Indeed, early in the text he wrote:
Some readers may chafe at talk of evil as too tinged with religious overtones or weighted by heavy metaphysical baggage. It resists explanation and therefore obfuscates reality or explains away horror—all dangers, to be sure. (p. 7).
Cotkin listened to this inner warning, and stuck with philosophical and psychological contributions to understanding the events and topics he chose. Based on the fairness of the rest of the text, I believe Cotkin could have successfully navigated a few pages of theology in each chapter. Those few pages, however, would have constituted a tremendous amount of work, especially when exploring work outside one’s faith tradition. Even so, in MMW as it is, there is nothing wrong with leading us to the brink. Perhaps by being led to the edge, the reader may be inspired to think through his or her own knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about radical evil in the world.
When “The Moral Turn” appeared in 2008, I mentioned that it led a symposium with four interlocutors. It is worth revisiting some of the points made there now that Cotkin has provided a book-length example of his call. None of the respondents, of course, had access to Morality’s Muddy Waters. Even so, all four respondents made solid points about the study of morality in history and asked poignant questions.
Neil Jumonville rightly reminded readers that many mid-century intellectual historians—Richard Hofstadter, David Potter, and Louis Hartz—were excellent models of “complexity, nuance, and contingency” on moral matters. Michael O’Brien asserted that “engagement with morality has been fairly constant in historical scholarship since almost any period one might care to name.” He doubted “that the dialogue Cotkin wishes to encourage between historians and moral philosophers is capable of being sustained.” O’Brien also warns against prescription and moralizing. In my view, Cotkin avoids those pitfalls. He also proves in the pages of MMW that an in-text dialogue between historians and moral philosophers can be sustained. Lewis Perry reminded Cotkin that yet another intellectual historian, John Higham, had also encouraged historians, in a 1962 essay, to develop a moral voice obtained from historical study. Titled “Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic,” Perry cited the Higham essay as taking a stand against false detachment and objectivity. The present sometimes demands historical moral reflection. I have not read the Higham essay, but it seems, to some extent, to have prefigured Cotkin’s call.
As I have discovered is often the case, James Livingston’s response proved most provocative. He flat out denied that a “moral turn” in history was necessary because “the grammar of American history has always been determined by moral problems.” Livingston went on to assert, thinking he had put Cotkin in some kind of a headlock, that the early modern, or Enlightenment, project of narrative construction necessarily consisted of agents, historians and otherwise, articulating their moral points. Livingston tightens his hold by pointing out the cultural pervasiveness, in history and the general public today, of moral considerations. I think this misses Cotkin’s point. He did not dispute that moral considerations, simple and otherwise, abound. Rather, Cotkin called for an explicit, conscious engagement with moral complexity, or productive confusion, and moral philosophy in the text. In other words, if historians have been and always will be moral agents, they have not always engaged the subject with the complexity, fairness, depth, and explicit sense of purpose exhibited in MMW.  I think Livingston, in the end, would be happier with the product of Cotkin’s book than he was with Cotkin’s proposal in the Journal of the History of Ideas. Then again, he might not.
Though the presidential administration that haunts the end of Morality’s Muddy Waters is gone, questions remain about the motivations, ideological and otherwise, for going to war in Iraq. Just this week an exclusive Guardian story revealed that a key source from Germany, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi and code-named “Curveball,” lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to boost his personal prospects of success in civilian life. It was al-Janabi’s testimony that floated to the top of America’s intelligence system, to the point that it anchored Colin Powell’s infamous U.N. testimony before the war’s start. Here is a CNN story that elaborates:
Even with this revelation, what is interesting to me is that Cotkin’s analysis of the Iraqi War stands. Why? Because Cotkin aimed at the moral roots and simplistic black-and-white thinking, or good-versus-evil drama, that drove President Bush. The fact that the intelligence was fuzzy only proves that ideology drove the war. Furthermore, its same kind of thinking that inspires the Tea Party and other politically powerful conservatives.
Of course that wing of the political spectrum is not unopposed. President Barack Obama exhibits an understanding of moral complexity, and his name arises in a few spots in the text. Cotkin is heartened by President Obama’s admiration of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, particularly in relation to the latter’s imperative that sin, pain, evil, unexpected consequences, and humility are necessary topics in relation to foreign and domestic policy (p. 201).
Even so, we cannot be reminded enough—whether by friends, relatives, ministers, teachers, colleagues, or otherwise—that moral progress will not be achieved without embracing complexity. Cotkin is not naive to the fact that we must eventually act, but he implores us to abhor anti-intellectualism and embrace circumspection. We must aspire to a full understanding of moral complications, potential and real. With that, Morality’s Muddy Waters stands tall as a model of timely, professional engagement on a topic that concerns a wide variety of the populace. We need more historical works that convey the “productive confusion” Cotkin provides.
*A special thanks to Paul Murphy and David Veenstra for their comments on this review.
 Justin Kaplan, ed. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little Brown, 2002).
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by W.D. Ross, in Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer J. Adler, ed., Vol. 8, Aristotle: II (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1990), 350 (II-3); Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. by Father Laurence Shapcote, in Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer J. Adler, ed., Vol. 17, Aquinas: I (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1990), 695-96 (II-I.18.3).
 The JHI symposium is located on pages 293-337. The full citation for Cotkin’s reply is as follows: “A Conversation About Morals and History,” JHI 69 (June 2008): 493-97.
 From Cotkin’s reply to the Symposium, 496-97.
 Mortimer J. Adler, The Angels and Us (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1982), x, 3-4.
 Ibid., 83-85.
 Symposium, 320, 324-25, 334-35; Cotkin, “Conversation,” 493-97.
 Symposium, Livingston, “The Return of the Self-Made Man: A Response to Cotkin,” 327-31.
 Martin Chulov and Helen Pidd, “Defector admits to WMD lies that triggered Iraq war,” Guardian, February 15, 2011. URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/15/defector-admits-wmd-lies-iraq-war. Accessed on February 21, 2011.