dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

"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, Id 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 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.
Murrays 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 graceand even further beyond all help from human reason and freedomthe life of man, personally and politically, is lived in the single moral dimension of ambiguity. He who relishes irony should relish thisthat 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 Murrays 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).

A little postscript to Jackson Lears nuanced critical article on Reinhold Niebuhr in the latest issue of Commonweal. John Courtney Murray was, Id 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.

Murrays 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 graceand even further beyond all help from human reason and freedomthe life of man, personally and politically, is lived in the single moral dimension of ambiguity. He who relishes irony should relish thisthat 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 Murrays 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).

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Thanks, Joseph, for recalling Murray's championing of the power of human reason to unravel complex problems as the counterpoint to circular, and at times, discouraging and ambiguous analysis. Murray showed how to do this in many ways, but none so well as his extraordinary theological book, "The Problem of God", published shortly before his untimely death....... Murray's confidence in our reasoning powers, nurtured in his thorough Jesuit intellectual training, sustained him during his unjustified suspension by Ottaviani and gave him the tenacious confidence to press relentlessly, as he did, for Vatican II's stunning position on religious liberty. ........Niebuhr's inevitable "ambiguity" greatly influenced his contemporary, Hans Morgenthau, the father of modern realist international relations theory that still dominates US foreign policy. Ideas certainly have consequences. I studied Niebuhr and Morgenthau's writings closely in 1965 with an Auschwitz survivor who had taught with Morgenthau briefly. I felt overwhelmed, thinking international relations were too complicated for rational analysis and evil too elusive to predict........ By sheer luck, two years later at Harvard Law School, I had a chance one-on-one encounter with Gen. Bobbie Cutler, Eisenhower's WW II aide and the first US National Security Adviser. He was then Chairman of the First Nat'l Bank of Boston. I asked him how was it possible for him to have dealt with so many different and unexpected international problems, especially since he was unfamilar with much of the background of the problems. He calmly and confidentally said the problems were surely complicated, but when looked at calmly and analytically in their component parts, the problems could be comprehended and solutions identified. I have found him to be right mostly in my own experience.......... I believe Cutler was an example of Murray's confidence in human reason. Hopefully, more of our leaders will emulate Murray's confidence in reasoning and courage in action and not despair in the "ambiguity".

Fascinating post, thanks. I am intrigued by this topic as it mirrors much of today's debates and I think a longstanding thread in American culture and thought. I confess to having more sympathy with the "ambiguists" (great moniker) since the fundamentalists (or whatever they should be called) have wrought so much damage in recent years (see: Iraq, e.g.), and the devotion to "principle" seems to thwart so many efforts to ameliorate our various crises, or even to contribute to agreeing on how to find a way forward. A couple questions come to mind:If Murray critiqued the ambiguists and fundamentalists, what did he propose as the alternative? Also, who was Murray referring to on the fundamentalist side? And who would have been considered representatives of the Niebuhrians then -- Ike and the like? The Dulleses? Of course it would be interesting to speculate on how Murray would view today's actors.

CORRECTION: Gen. Cutler spoke to me "confidently", not "confidentially". That should teach me not to blog before I have my first cup of morning coffee!

"John Courtney Murray was, Id say, the only Catholic public intellectual in the post-war years."I'd say that Maritain was also. And he was influential not only in the U. S. and Europe, but influenced the U. N. mightily. Plus Maritain had a lot of influence in the art world, and he was a friend of Paul VI who treasured his opinions generally.

Yes, I'd agree about Maritain, but I was thinking mainly about the US.

Fr. Komonchak: "John Courtney Murray was, I'd say, the only Catholic public intellectual in the post-wars years."Really?But what exactly does a Catholic intellectual have to do in your estimate, Fr. Komonchak, to be termed by you a public intellectual? Or perhaps you meant to say the only Catholic theologian who was a public intellectual in the post-war years.Consider the case of Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003). He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, and his doctoral dissertation was published in 1958 in two volumes by Harvard University Press. So most people would consider Ong to have been a scholar and an intellectual.Over the years, starting in the 1940s, Ong published numerous articles and book reviews in AMERICA, COMMONWEAL, and SATURDAY REVIEW.At different times over the years, starting in the 1940s, different lectures or publications by Ong were reported in TIME and NEWSWEEK and elsewhere.One of Ong's articles in AMERICA was reprinted in at least three different newspapers shortly after it was published in 1958.Over the years 1957 to 1968, Ong published four collections of his own essays and two collections that he edited, all of which were aimed at a broad reading audience. For example, FRONTIERS IN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM (Macmillan, 1957) and the edited collection DARWIN'S VISION AND CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES (Macmillan, 1960).In 1964, Ong delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale University. His 1964 Terry Lectures were published by Yale University Press in 1968 as THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY. If you are interested in seeing a bibliography of Ong's publications that is arranged in chronological order by the year of publication, check out Thomas M. Walsh's bibliography of Ong's publications that is available at the Ong Center website at Saint Louis University.

Murray says on p. 275 of the Chapter that "In its mood the old morality was subjectivist. Technically it would be called a "morality of intention," It set primary and controlling value on a sincerity of interior motive. . ."Yay, Murray! These days there aren't many ethicists who see that there is such an ethical system in which "good" and "evil" refer to the moral qualities of intentions, not just to that which is done or not done. I blame Anscombe for this narowing of morality. Her fine little work "Intention" which has had a huge influence both inside and outside the Church, is concerned mainly with the goodness or evil of the work done. Folks call her a Thomist, but as I learned him, morality encompasses *both* intention and object of intention. So it is subjective in one part and objective in another. Thus an intention can be good, while what is done is evil, and vice versa. This causes a lot of confusion even among Catholics these days.

I once tried to get into a lecture by Ong at a Modern Language Assn. convention (they're mammoth ones of language teachers), but it was crammed. I knew he was big in literary studies, but had no idea his influence extended into other fields.

It strikes me that Murray, in the post war years(in need of definition) operated in the time frame of many more "cefrtainties."Projecting how he'd look at things now IMO says more about what we think of today.BTW, since then, it strikes me also that Dave Tracy is the great American intellectual theologian, though a day may come when a woman will be so recognized.

By the way, in England Anscombe was a political activist, most famous for trying to get Oxford to cancel it's award of an honorary degree to Pres. Truman -- because she opposed the bomb. These days Michael Dummett, also an English, Catholic analytic philosopher-logician has also been an activist who has written a lot about immigration and immigration law. He was knighted because of all this.And we should also mention the Canadian Charles Taylor whose works are hugely influential outside of the Church.Then there was the Canadian Marshall McLuhan, a giant in communications theory and on the relationship of communications and culture. Also an Oxbridge productInteresting how Oxbridge, secular schools, have produced all four of them..

I have trouble figuring out just which groups of thinkers Murray is talking about when he refers to the "old morality" and the "new morality". Sometimes he seems to be definitely talking about the scriptural fundamentalists (old) and those who derive from them, yet he also seems to admit some other sort of new fundamentalists There are other classes talked about, and it's hard for me to understand how they're related.Just what are the basic distinctions he's making here?

I sympathize with the ambiguist outlook. I wish there were more among today's public intellectuals willing to articulate the infinite complexities of life and the near impossibility of finding reasonable moral positions. It is almost never necessary to take a firm moral position on anything.Of course, politicians need to make clear moral diagnoses continually. For them it is almost never possible not to take a moral position.

David ==Which problems do you have in mind? I agree that there are some difficult ones, but in most cases there are good reasons to choose one course over another.yes, politicians face many moral problems, but i'm not sure they see them that way. Now I'm being the cynic.

Ann, I was trying to be sarcastic about politicians, who state everything in moral terms for show. If they were truly moral people, they could not be politicians.In the real world of contending human priorities, a singular morality probably does not exist. Any position can probably be defended from some moral ground, just as it can be from some logical ground. In the end, it's all pragmatics. Morality, I imagine, can serve only as a guide to individual behavior. And no individual can say what is moral for any other individual.

At the risk of terrible oversimplification, let me offer a few observations about morality and political practice. In any political society that has a defensible title to legitimacy, (one that is non-tyrannical, that accepts responsibility for protecting the lives and basic dignity of all who dwell within it, non-aggression against other legitimate states,etc.) there are any number of moral restraints upon the public policies that it can rightly adopt. But these constraints are insufficient to determine which policies it would be beneficial to adopt and which ones would be harmful.All sensible public policies aim to address the relevant circumstances for which they are framed. They all come into being against the backdrop of past events that have affected the society's well-being. And they are meant to bring about future benefits. But of course circumstances change, some rather quickly and some more slowly. So all such policies, however well designed they may be, are subject to becoming outmoded. Put another way, they are all the outcome of deliberations about how to avoid past defects and promote future goods. By their nature, therefore, they are fallible. And furthermore, there are always some plausible alternatives to them, so that well founded opposition to them is always possible.All this amounts to saying that there are some policies that are clearly immoral, there is no way to certify that any policy is exactly the sole policy that is morally defensible. If this amounts to "paraqdox" or "ambiguity" so be it.

An added comment or two to the remarks I've just made. Consider the matter of state budgets or tax codes. Clearly, there can be abusive tax laws or budgets that blatently discriminate against some people. But there is no such thing as a perfect tax code or budget. Yet the effects of tax codes and budgets are often quite substantial. They provide boons to some people and burdens to others, often enough in unanticipated ways. Nonetheless, they must be made in a timely fashion if they are to have any chance of being beneficial to the society as a whole.So far as I can see, there are at least two moral demands that weigh on policy makers. One is that they always try to devise and implement policies that can plausibly claim to be to the benefit of al the members of the society. Second, they always acknowledge that what they have come up with is fallible and always open to thoughtful critique. One might call these two moral demands the "demands of truthfulness." There is nothing relativistic about them.

In any political society that has a defensible title to legitimacy, (one that is non-tyrannical, that accepts responsibility for protecting the lives and basic dignity of all who dwell within it, non-aggression against other legitimate states,etc.) there are any number of moral restraints upon the public policies that it can rightly adopt.

Bernard, you're assuming a single morality acting unambiguously on a lot of people, aren't you? How do you get to that point?I see only pragmatic restraints. If there are any moral restraints, they act on each individual individually. You may personally believe that there are restraints imposed on everyone or on governments by, say, God or your philosophy, but how do you extend them beyond yourself?This way of looking at it, by the way, suggests why character in a leader is terribly important. In the end, I think, many vital decisions come down to one individual's personal morality.

David Smith,1. You say: "Bernard , you're assuming a single morality acting unambiguously on a lot of people, aren't you?" I don't know what a "morality acting unambiguously on a lot of people" means.2. Let me suggest that you whether you really want to be a Protagorean, i. e, one who says that what's true for me may not be what's true for you?

Yes, that's what I was trying to suggest - that each of us has his own personal truths, independent of others' truths. Thus, a president , say, will act out of two sorts of motivations - pragmatism and personal morality.Protagorean? Philosophy is beyond me - I thought it was just common sense. How could it be otherwise? Humans are independent units - each of us thinks for himself, no? How can what you think affect me - unless, maybe, you have a gun?

Mr.. Smith,Sigh! "A Dieu."

Share

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.