In the face of an uncertain and dangerous world, Americans yearn for a firm moral compass, a clear set of ethical guidelines. But as history shows, by reducing complex situations to simple cases of right or wrong we often go astray.
In Morality's Muddy Waters, historian George Cotkin offers a clarion call on behalf of moral complexity. Revisiting several defining moments in the twentieth century—the American bombing of civilians during World War II, the My Lai massacre, racism in the South, capital punishment, the invasion of Iraq—Cotkin chronicles how historical figures have grappled with the problem of evil and moral responsibility—sometimes successfully, oftentimes not. In the process, he offers a wide-ranging tour of modern American history.
Taken together, Cotkin maintains, these episodes reveal that the central concepts of morality—evil, empathy, and virtue—are both necessary and troubling. Without empathy, for example, we fail to inhabit the world of others; with it, we sometimes elevate individual suffering over political complexities. For Cotkin, close historical analysis may help reenergize these concepts for ethical thinking and acting. Morality's Muddy Waters argues for a moral turn in the way we study and think about history, maintaining that even when answers to ethical dilemmas prove elusive, the act of grappling with them is invaluable.
1 The Problems of Evil 7
Part I. IN TIMES OF WAR
2 A Sky That Never Cared Less
3 The Moral Mystery of My Lai
Part II. IN TIMES OF PEACE
4 The Hate Stare: Empathy and Moral Luck
5 Just Rewards? Capital Punishment
Part III. PRESENT PROBLEMS
6 Muddiness and Moral Clarity: The Iraqi Situation
Conclusion: Torture and the Tortured
"In Morality's Muddy Waters, George Cotkin thinks in new ways about the moral and political presuppositions of contemporary American culture and its recent past. You will not always agree with his answers, but the questions he poses about our civic life are arresting and perceptive."—Bruce Kuklick, author of Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger
"Morality's Muddy Waters tackles big, first order questions and ranges over a half century. Cotkin . . . demonstrates the power of historical investigation and reflection to illuminate ethical problems. He prefers fact-based particularity to abstract universalizing and offers us compelling evidence of the former's strengths. He works hard to visit all sides of the ethical questions he covers. His approach is judicious, and his prose, despite the well described muddiness of his subject, is lucid."—The Common Review
"Cotkin is a clear-headed thinker and writer at home in both philosophy and recent US history."—Choice
"George Cotkin is one of our premier cultural historians. This book once again confirms his profound probings of the rich nuances and crevices of the American past and present."—Cornel West, Princeton University
"Morality's Muddy Waters is a pathbreaking book that makes some of the most troubling episodes in modern U.S. history available to readers struggling with contemporary moral dilemmas of the greatest urgency. Cotkin writes with intelligence, nuance, and a deep humanity."—Casey Nelson Blake, Columbia University