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HISTORY AND MORAL INQUIRY

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2012

ROBERT B. WESTBROOK*
Affiliation:
Department of History, University of Rochester E-mail: robert.westbrook@rochester.edu

Abstract

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Type
Essay
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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References

1 John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934), in idem, Later Works, vol. 10 (Carbondale, 1989), 350; Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989), xviCrossRefGoogle Scholar. 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)Google Scholar; and Nussbaum, Martha, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York, 1990)Google Scholar. 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), 186Google Scholar. 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), 129–30Google Scholar; 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)Google Scholar. 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), 301CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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)Google Scholar.

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), 154–5Google Scholar.

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)Google Scholar. 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), 8398CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

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)Google Scholar.

19 See Gordon, Joy, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Cambridge, MA, 2010)Google Scholar. 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)Google Scholar.

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), 14Google Scholar.

23 Blum, John Morton, ed., The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace (Boston, 1973), 474Google Scholar. 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)Google Scholar. Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA, 2010)Google Scholar, 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), 104–17Google Scholar.

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), 13991423CrossRefGoogle Scholar. 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), 317–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

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), 478Google Scholar. 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. 34Google Scholar.

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)Google Scholar. 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)Google Scholar.

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

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