Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.4 (Winter 2009): Book Reviews: "Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics" by C. A. J. Coady [Full Text]

Dec 15, 2009

Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 160 pp., $30 cloth.

Christian Nadeau (Reviewer)

Messy Morality is, first and foremost, a philosopher's attempt at discussion with the proponents of political realism—the latter being a dominant thesis among specialists in international relations. The simplest and most radical version of political realism consists in denying the pertinence of moral discourse to political action and its analysis. Coady clearly positions himself in opposition to this thesis, even if he does not spend a long time refuting it. What counts for him is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater by dismissing the realist position altogether. If the realists are wrong to think that politics is independent of morality, their critique is nonetheless valid if its goal is to expose the challenges of and caution against the fallouts of applying morality to politics.

According to Coady, realism is often wrongly described as a doctrine directly opposed to any attempt at including morality in political affairs.The message of realism would be much more plausible and interesting were it to limit itself to denouncing only those cases of recourse to morality that are deemed abusive. In other words, one must distinguish morality from moralism.

Coady devotes his first two chapters precisely to the concept of "moralism," which he presents as a vice that deforms an agent's moral judgment of the world, thereby bringing about undesirable effects. Coady enumerates several forms of this vice, including moralism of scope, moralism of unbalanced focus, moralism of imposition or interference, moralism of abstraction, moral absolutism, and moralism of deluded power.

Moralism of scope, or overmoralization, is a particularly pernicious vice, and a legitimate target for realist criticism. It supposes an exaggeration of the moral dimension of one aspect or another of the problem in question, or even the conflation of domains, as when moral opposition to using condoms leads to doubting their effectiveness in the battle against HIV/AIDS. In the domain of international affairs we have been led, on the basis of similar faulty reasoning, to accept the idea that Saddam Hussein was working hand in hand with al-Qaeda.

If realists, in the strict sense, refuse all cooperation between morality and politics, a modified version of their argument may be a better strategy for countering the excesses of moralism, which are particularly evident when it is claimed that certain moral notions supersede others. This is what Coady calls moralism of unbalanced focus, which we sometimes witness in the discourse of certain humanitarians who, motivated by human rights and the promise of democratization, advocate for military intervention even when it is detrimental to the security of the civilian populations.

Moralism of imposition or interference consists in using a moral framework that in and of itself seems plausible and coherent, but applying it to a foreign domain. An example would be when the set of values of a given society, which are themselves coherent and acceptable, are imposed on another society, going against the culture or the hierarchy of values of the latter.

The fourth and fifth types of moralism explored by Coady are abstraction and absolutism in moral judgment. Along with realists, Coady admits that the generalization of moral discourse leads to a simplification of the facts by reducing them to abstract moral questioning, removed from the subtleties inherent in the political world, particularly in international affairs, where complex regional problems are made even more complex by power struggles between states and international organizations. Moralism of abstraction may express itself in differing degrees—from dismissal or total ignorance regarding the facts to their poor evaluation; this realist critique is not limited to academic circles only, but is directed at political actors as well.

Absolutist moralism, like moralism of abstraction, reduces a political phenomenon to its moral dimension. Nevertheless, at issue here is not the generalization per se, but excessive zealousness, enabling the dangerous slippage that occurs, for example, when we go from disapproving of the leaders of a given society to totally rejecting that society, as though the society were completely contaminated by the political decisions of its leaders.

Finally, the sixth type of moralism, that of deluded power, consists in placing too much faith in the ability of moral norms actually to change the order of things. Simply knowing the impact of one's moral norms on one's actions does not necessarily influence one's way of acting.

To appreciate the value of the realist critique of moralism, however, does not entail, nor can it entail, that we should accept the idea of the separation of politics and morality when it comes to public matters or international relations. Instead, morality is put into play in a rational, but above all pragmatic, way. First, it aims to get a clear view of the various difficulties we face; second, it refuses to reduce these difficulties to something like moral atoms or components, which would falsify their analysis or substitute one type of problem for another (for reasons possibly independent of morality itself). Indeed, it is anything but uncommon to hear moralistic discourse from the mouths of political leaders whose intentions are located elsewhere. To be sure, Coady does not limit moralism to the misdirection of moral norms toward political aims. And he does not presume what intentions lie behind moralism. He wants, above all, to circumscribe the problems denounced by realists in order to better understand the value of their broader arguments.

The third chapter concerns the role of ideals in politics. Coady seems here to be departing from his initial subject—that is, the conflicting relations between politics and morality—in order to concentrate on the concept of ideals. However, the unfolding of his logic here brings us back to the central theme of the work: What is a moral ideal? Is it, by definition, unrealizable? If so, then how can it have practical significance? For Coady, our ideals are not conceptually independent from the sphere of the possible. But they tend not to be actualized as such in the real world; they are, rather, goals that we give ourselves, or rules of conduct by which we determine what requires changing. If the ideal of equality—for example, equality between social classes—sometimes seems compromised for a number of reasons, this does not signify that the society has given up on the ideal. Ideals inhere and persist, sometimes semiconsciously, such that they may become dangerous when followed blindly. Be that as it may, Coady argues cogently that no society permanently rids itself of ideals; therefore, the moral realist must confront them—with prudence.

The last two chapters are dedicated to two examples of "messy morality"—dirty hands and lying. The fourth chapter is essentially a critical dialogue with Michael Walzer on supreme emergencies and the inevitability of corruption. As in the first chapters, Coady does not propose a definitive argument regarding these questions. He exhorts us, instead, to employ prudencewhile avoiding the voluntarily nonsystematic approach of someone like Walzer, who believes that it is dangerous to give too much importance to theoretical generalizations.

The work is well organized and argued. Its principal and worthwhile contribution is, in my view, to resituate the debate about moral realism where it belongs, in terms of its pragmatic employment and its ability to accommodate ideals and values.

The reviewer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montreal. He is the author (with Julie Saada) of, Guerre Juste, Guerre Injuste: Histoire, Théories et Critiques (2001).

You may also like

AUG 9, 2023 Podcast

Nuclear Ethics for this Moment

This panel explores ethical questions surrounding nuclear weapons and builds upon a symposium published in the most recent issue of "Ethics & International Affairs."

MAY 10, 2023 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 37.1 (Spring 2023)

The editors of "Ethics & International Affairs" are pleased to present the Spring 2023 issue of the journal! The highlight of this issue is a symposium organized ...

MAY 4, 2023 Article

A New Era for "Ethics & International Affairs"

The editors of Carnegie Council's quarterly journal "Ethics & International Affairs" are proud to announce the beginning of a new era in our publishing history. Starting ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation