“Et tu, Brute”: JC Murray vs. Niebuhr
A little postscript to Jackson Lears’ nuanced critical article on Reinhold Niebuhr in the latest issue of Commonweal. John Courtney Murray was, I’d say, the only Catholic public intellectual in the post-war years. Among the essays collected to form the volume We Hold These Truths was the one (available here) in which Murray criticized what he called “the new morality” that had undone “the old morality” whose biblical fundamentalism was paired with an individualism that led its adherents to believe that “a direct transference of personal values into social life” was possible: “in principle it would tolerate nothing less than Christian perfection as a social standard.” The new morality was to be praised for having gone beyond that view, but Murray had his reservations about the alternative it represented:
The avowed purpose of the newer American morality is to reckon with the full complexity of man’s nature and of human affairs. Hence against the absolutism of the old morality, in which the contingent facts got lost under insistence on the absolute precept, the new morality moves towards a situationalism, in which the absoluteness of principle tends to get lost amid the contingencies of fact. Against the abstract fundamentalist literalism of the old morality the new system is consciously pragmatist; not the wording of the precept but a calculus of the consequences of the act is the decisive moral norm. Whereas the old morality saw things as so simple that moral judgment was always easy, the new morality sees things as so complicated that moral judgment becomes practically impossible. The final category of moral judgment is not “right” or “wrong” but “ambiguous.”
Murray called the holders of this position “ambiguists,” and about them he had this to say:
Their flashes of insight are frequent enough; but in the end the fog closes down. They are great ones for the facts, against the fundamentalists, and great ones for “conscience,” against the cynics. They insist on the values of pragmatism against the absolutists; but they resent the suggestion that they push pragmatism to the point of a relativism of moral values. My main difficulty, however, is that I never know what, in their argument, is fact and what is moral category (surely there is a difference), or where the process of history ends and the moral order begins (surely there must be such a point).
When they undertake to describe the historical-political situation for which policy is to be framed, one has the same feeling that comes on seeing a play by Sartre. No human characters are on the stage, only Sartre’s philosophical categories. So, in the ambiguist descriptions, the factual situation always appears as a “predicament,” full of “ironies,” sown with “dilemmas,” to be stated only in “paradox,” and to be dealt with only at one’s “hazard,” because in the situation “creative and destructive possibilities” are inextricably mixed, and therefore policy and action of whatever kind can only be “morally ambiguous.”
But this is to filter the facts through categories. So far as one can see by an independent look “out there,” the dilemmas and ironies and paradoxes are, like the beauty of the beloved, in the eye of the ambiguist beholder. They represent a doctrinaire construction of the facts in terms of an antecedent moral theory. And every set of facts is constructed in such a way as to make the moral verdict “ambiguous” a foregone conclusion.
The ambiguist rightly puts emphasis on the complexity of the situations with which foreign policy has to deal; no one could exaggerate the complexity hidden under the phrase, “the cold war.” But does the fact of complexity justify the vocabulary of description or the monotonous moral verdict? It is as if a surgeon in the midst of a gastroenterostomy were to say that the highly complex situation in front of him is so full of paradox (“The patient is at once receiving blood and losing it”), and irony (“Half a stomach will be better than a whole one”) and dilemmas (“Not too much, nor too little, anesthesia”) that all surgical solutions are necessarily ambiguous. Complicated situations, surgical or moral, are merely complicated. It is for the statesman, as for the surgeon, to master the complications and minister as best he can to the health of the body, politic or physical. The work may be done deftly or clumsily, intelligently or stupidly, with variant degrees of success or failure; but why call it in either case “ambiguous”? The philosophers of moral ambiguity will, of course, say that the ambiguity, properly speaking, is not in the political situation but in political man, who carries into politics the paradox, irony, and ambiguous amalgam of virtue and corruption that reside in his own nature (or in the human “self,” as the ambiguists prefer to say, since they have a peculiar meaning all their own for the word “nature”). There you have it.
Murray’s final critique is that the ambiguist contradicts himself:
To this concept of man’s nature the critical argument comes back. The ambiguist indicts the fundamentalist and the secular liberal for their one-dimensional views of man. But he does not recognize that the same indictment recoils on his own head. He easily disposes of all the utopianisms, both “hard” and “soft,” that result from the one-dimensional fundamentalist and secular liberal views. He then spins an enormously complex analysis of the “real” nature of man in personal and political life. And at the end of it (this is the real paradox) he has again compressed the moral life of man into one dimension. Inescapably, beyond all help of divine grace—and even further beyond all help from human reason and freedom—the life of man, personally and politically, is lived in the single moral dimension of ambiguity. He who relishes irony should relish this—that the whole complicated argument against simplistic theories should result in the creation of a theory that is itself simplistic; that the smashing attack on the bright and brittle illusion of utopianism should win its victory under the banner of an opposite illusion that is marshy and murky but no less an illusion.
Any doubt that Murray included Niebuhr among the “ambiguists” was removed when he wrote:
The Protestant moralist is disturbed by the gulf between the morality of individual and collective man. He is forever trying somehow to close the gap. Forever he fails, not only in doing this but even in seeing how it could possibly be done. Thus he is driven back upon the simplist category of “ambiguity.” Or he sadly admits an unresolvable dichotomy between moral man and immoral society.
In 1960, Philip Scharper, the editor at Sheed and Ward responsible for seeing Murray’s book into print, wrote and asked Murray if he should ask Reinhold Niebuhr for a blurb for We Hold These Truths. Murray replied that it was inadvisable to do so: “Reason: I have found out that he was a bit miffed by my articles on ‘moral ambiguism.’ He thinks there was an attack on him; and his reaction was, ‘Et tu, Brute’ (since he is, in fact, my friend).”