I highly recommend Tim Lacy’s recent review of George Cotkin’s Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America.
As someone who has been wrestling for some time now with the question of the relationship between moral philosophy and history, I found Lacy’s thorough review to be fascinating. I can’t wait to get a copy of Cotkin’s book, but I think I will begin with Cotkin’s April 2008 Journal of the History of Ideas essay, “The Moral Turn” and the symposium that surrounded it.
In the meantime, here is a taste of Lacy’s review:
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.
And here is another taste:
…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 or perceived adherence to the 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?