Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home

HISTORY AND MORAL INQUIRY

  • ROBERT B. WESTBROOK (a1)
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      HISTORY AND MORAL INQUIRY
      Available formats
      ×

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      HISTORY AND MORAL INQUIRY
      Available formats
      ×

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      HISTORY AND MORAL INQUIRY
      Available formats
      ×

Abstract

  • An abstract is not available for this content so a preview has been provided below. To view the full text please use the links above to select your preferred format.

Copyright

References

Hide All

1 John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934), in idem, Later Works, vol. 10 (Carbondale, 1989), 350; Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), xvi. Rorty's case for the novel is impressively made at length in Booth, Wayne C., The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley, 1988); and Nussbaum, Martha, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York, 1990). George Cotkin says (at ix) that the genesis of his book under review here lay with a viewing of the powerful film Hotel Rwanda (2005).

2 Brown, Karen McCarthy, “The Moral Force Field of Haitian Vodou” in Fox, Richard Wightman and Westbrook, Robert B., eds., In Face of the Facts: Moral Inquiry in American Scholarship (Cambridge, 1998), 186. Much of what I say here echoes the introduction to this volume by Richard Fox and myself.

3 George W. Bush, for example, claims while in office to have read fourteen books about Lincoln. Two of the best recent books about Lincoln, both by William Lee Miller, are explicitly cast as moral inquiry: Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, 2002); and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (New York, 2008).

4 Of course, as my use of the term “ethos” suggests, academic professionalism itself incorporates moral commitments, most importantly to the virtues essential to scientific inquiry itself.

5 Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA, 1985), 129–30; Elizabeth Anderson, “Pragmatism, Science, and Moral Inquiry,” in Fox and Westbrook, In Face of the Facts, 18.

6 For an example of Davis's important contributions to moral inquiry see, perhaps especially, Davis, David Brion, Slavery and Human Progress (Oxford, 1984). As Cotkin has observed, the impressive Festschrift for Davis, edited by Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, is tellingly entitled Moral Problems in American Life (Ithaca, 1998), and yet none of its contributors engage in much of a dialogue with contemporary moral philosophy. Cotkin, , “History's Moral Turn,” Journal of the History of Ideas 69 (2008), 301.

7 For Cotkin's generally conciliatory reply to his critics see his “A Conversation about Morals and History,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 69 (2008), 493–8.

8 Cotkin, “History's Moral Turn,” 296.

9 Witness, for example, the controversy and rich debate stirred up by Jonathan Littell's novel, The Kindly Ones, whose protagonist is an SS officer and perpetrator. See especially Ruth Franklin, “Night and Cog,” New Republic, 1 April 2009, 38–43; Daniel Mendelsohn, “Transgression,” New York Review of Books, 26 March 2009, 18–21; and Samuel Moyn, “A Nazi Zelig,” Nation, 23 March 2009, 31–4. Franklin attacks the novel for being “maddeningly incoherent” on the moral questions it raises, though one could argue, as others have, that it captures the “muddiness” and inconclusiveness of moral judgment that Cotkin embraces. As James R. Martin puts it in a fine paper on the book (“Holocaust Historiography and The Kindly Ones,” paper presented at the German Studies Conference, Oakland, 10 Oct. 2010), The Kindly Ones “demands that we reflect upon the limits of inquiry, both scholarly and artistic, into that which continually exceeds explanation.” Littell certainly delivers the complexly evil Eichmann whom Cotkin sketches contra Arendt (23–32). See The Kindly Ones (New York, 2009), 145–8, 555–70, 645, 654–7, 679, 749, 763–9, 774–800, 834.

10 For a remarkable example, see Lear, Jonathan, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA, 2006).

11 Anderson, “Pragmatism, Science, and Moral Inquiry,” 16–17, original emphasis. This essay should be required reading for any historian engaged in moral inquiry. See also idem, “John Stuart Mill and Experiments in Living,” Ethics 102 (1991), 4–26.

12 James, William, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891), in idem, The Will to Believe (Cambridge, MA, 1979), 154–5.

13 In particular, they can begin with one of the most significant books of contemporary moral philosophy, Walzer's, MichaelJust and Unjust Wars (New York, 1977). Walzer's book is subtitled “A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations,” and hence is readymade in both substance and approach for historians eager to reverse the emphasis and provide historical interpretations informed by moral philosophy. The book is now in its fourth edition (2006). On its significance see, for example, the twentieth-anniversary symposium in Ethics and International Affairs (1997), 1–104. This journal, published by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, is indispensable for any historian investigating moral questions involving international politics.

14 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 151.

15 Ibid., 138–59.

16 See, for example, Boyle, Joseph, “Just and Unjust Wars: Casuistry and the Boundaries of the Moral World,” Ethics and International Affairs 11 (1997), 8398.

17 See especially Ford, John C. SJ, “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” Theological Studies 5 (1944), 261309. McGreevy, John has a fine portrait of Ford in Catholicism and American Freedom (New York, 2003), 216–49.

18 Cotkin cites the report of Human Rights Watch on Saddam Hussein's violations of human rights in the early 1990s, but not the later report by the same organization criticizing those who claimed that Iraq was justly subject to a human rights military intervention in 2003. See Roth, Kenneth, War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention (New York, 2004).

19 See Gordon, Joy, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Cambridge, MA, 2010). Gordon's book is another good example of a philosopher turning to history in the service of moral inquiry.

20 See Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 101–8.

21 Schaffer, Ronald, Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II (New York, 1985).

22 For example, the head of the War Manpower Commission, Paul McNutt, publicly declared his support for “the extermination of the Japanese in toto.” Quoted in Conway-Lanz, Sahr, Collateral Damage: Americans, Noncombatant Immunity, and Atrocity after World War II (New York, 2006), 14.

23 Blum, John Morton, ed., The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace (Boston, 1973), 474. Cotkin overlooks this bit of evidence. The innocence of kids is difficult to refute, even for those such as Nozick who would blur the line between soldiers and civilians. This is probably why the artifact at the center of the controversy in the 1990s over the commemoration of the end of the war at the Smithsonian Institution was the scarred lunchbox of a child.

24 See Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage. As Conway-Lanz demonstrates, this is not to say that renewing a commitment to these constraints has forestalled the massive loss of civilian life to American bombing since World War II—since not only have the constraints often been violated but they have also left plenty of room for claims of unintentional and hence morally justified killing of innocents.

25 For convenient access to the arguments of these liberal hawks see Cushman, Thomas, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (Berkeley, 2005). Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA, 2010), is a provocative study of the challenge begun in the 1970s to state sovereignty by human rights activists and their effort to develop a more expansive charter for intervention. For my own view of the liberal hawks, one decidedly more critical than Cotkin's, see Westbrook, Robert, “Bourne over Baghdad,” Raritan 27 (Summer 2007), 104–17.

26 See, for example, Eltis, David, “Europeans and the Rise and Fall of African Slavery in the Americas: An Interpretation,” American Historical Review 98 (1993), 13991423. The “circle of ‘we’” phrase was given currency in academic discourse by Hollinger, David A., “How Wide the Circle of ‘We’? American Intellectuals and the Problem of Ethos since World War II,” American Historical Review 98 (1993), 317–37.

27 Williams, Bernard, Moral Luck (Cambridge, 1981), 2039; and Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), 2438.

28 Nagel, Mortal Questions, 26.

29 Ibid., 35.

30 Ibid., 37–38.

31 Lanzmann, Claude, “The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann,” American Imago 48 (1991), 478. As this suggests, one thing that stands out about Lanzmann's remarkable Holocaust film Shoah is his determined refusal of historical argument or understanding, of “why” questions and answers of the sort that historians always bring to the table. “Not to understand was my iron law during all the eleven years of the production of Shoah. I had clung to this refusal of understanding as the only possible ethical and at the same time the only possible operative attitude” (478).

32 See Westbrook, Robert B., Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations in World War II (Washington, 2004), esp. 34.

33 Such as Thomas Haskell, who is to my mind the American historian who has yet proved the most adept at self-conscious, interdisciplinary moral inquiry. See Haskell, Thomas, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore, 1998). This volume contains Haskell's contributions to the debate in the mid-1980s over capitalism and the origins of humanitarian reform, antislavery in particular, in which he participated with David Brion Davis and John Ashworth. This debate, one of the high-water marks in American historiography of the last half-century, is arguably still the richest exemplification to which one could point of the practice of self-conscious moral inquiry by historians. For the full debate, see Bender, Thomas, ed., The Anti-slavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (Berkeley, 1992).

34 Judt, Tony, Postwar (New York, 2005), 399.

HISTORY AND MORAL INQUIRY

  • ROBERT B. WESTBROOK (a1)

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed