Tuesday, January 20, 2009

C.A.J. Coady's "Messy Morality"

With an international reputation for his research in both epistemology and political and applied philosophy, C. A. J. (Tony) Coady is one of Australia's best-known philosophers. His recent publications include Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge, 2007).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his book Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics, and reported the following:
Page 99 introduces an objection to my line of argument concerning corruption that I then proceed to analyse and reject. I hope it is sufficiently intriguing to satisfy Ford Madox Ford’s requirements.

The book aims to chart a viable course between several attractive but dangerous philosophical reefs besetting the good ships morality and politics. The first two chapters propose and develop an unusual interpretation of the outlook of “political realism”. This doctrine is commonly read as advocating a form of amoralism regarding politics and international relations. As such, it is easily refuted, but I suggest that we can learn from realism by viewing it as warning against certain distortions of morality, distortions that I call moralism. The realists own best insights are obscured by outright rejection of a role for morality and devotion to a murky concept of national interest in its place. I explore what moralism means in the context of politics and show why it endangers a feasible commitment to a moral engagement with politics.

Chapter 3 discusses the concept of ideals, the analysis of which is much neglected and the positive value of which for politics is often rejected. I explore the nature of ideals and defend their importance for politics against arguments purporting to show that they are useless or positively dangerous. In chapter 4, I seek to unravel the fashionable thesis that it is necessary to have “dirty hands” in politics. This claims that, although morality certainly applies to politics, politicians should occasionally violate the deepest moral prohibitions. The thesis may not make sense (how can it be right to do wrong?) but if it does make sense there remain formidable obstacles to its being true. In the final chapter, I discuss the nature and moral significance of lying and other forms of deceit and relate this to the challenges of political life.

Page 99 starts a section dealing with an objection to the concept of corrupt character, a concept I employ in connection with dirty hands. The objection holds that there is no such thing as character. So, Gilbert Harman has argued that psychological research has refuted the idea of character, showing that belief in it is a product of the “fundamental attribution error”. I argue against this that Harman’s resort to the attribution error and his use of counter-examples in connection with the supposed error is fatally flawed.
Read more about Messy Morality at the Oxford University Press website.

Learn more about Tony Coady at his webpage at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

--Marshal Zeringue