Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics

By Nadeau, Christian | Ethics & International Affairs, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics


Nadeau, Christian, Ethics & International Affairs


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

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. …

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