The Margin Makes the Difference: John Courtney Murray on Morality Foreign Policy

In his magisterial study, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), John Courtney Murray told of his difficulties in entering the argument over morality and foreign policy in the early 1950s. “My introduction to the state of the problem,” Murray wrote, “took place… in a conversation with a distinguished journalist who is now dead. In public affairs he was immensely knowledgeable; he was also greatly puzzled over the new issue that was being raised. What, he asked, has the Sermon on the Mount got to do with foreign policy? I was not a little taken aback by this statement of the issue. What, I asked, makes you think that morality is identical with the Sermon on the Mount? Innocently and earnestly he replied: ‘Isn’t it?’ And that in effect was the end of the conversation. We floundered awhile in the shallows and miseries of mutual misunderstanding, and then changed the subject to the tactics of the war going on in Korea.”

The essence of Murray’s approach to this perennial issue of morality and foreign policy was summed up in his query to his journalist friend: moral reasoning was not simply a matter of repeating the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in as dense and complex a field as foreign policy. Unlike those who saw the bulk of the problem of “morality and foreign policy” as lying on the side of “foreign policy” (it being assumed that all the disputants understood what was meant by “morality,” and that the only remaining questions involved applying that “morality” to the policy agenda), Murray thought the real issue was precisely the opposite, and had to do with the nature of moral reasoning itself. “The root of the confusion” in the debate over morality and foreign policy, Murray wrote, revolved around one straightforward question: “What is morality?”

Answering that question properly meant recognizing “the shortcomings and falsities of an older American morality that dominated the nineteenth century and still held sway into the twentieth.” This “Older American morality,” or what I will call moralism, had, in Murray’s review, a distinctive style, particular sources, a discernible mood, and a dominant spirit.

“Its style was voluntarist,” Murray wrote. “It sought the constitution of the moral order in the will of God. The good is good because God commands it; the evil is evil because God forbids it. The notion that certain acts are intrinsically evil or good, and therefore forbidden or commanded by God, was rejected. Rejected too was the older intellectualist tradition of ethics and its equation of morality with right reason. Reason is the dupe of interest and passion… In the search for moral principles and solutions reason can have no place….


“In its sources the older morality was scriptural in a fundamentalist sense. In order to find the will of God for man it went directly to the Bible. There alone the divine precepts and prohibitions are stated. They are stated in so many words, and the words are to be taken at their immediate face value without further exegetical ado….

“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; what matters is not what you do but why you do it. And it was strong on the point that an act is moral only when its motive is altruistic—concretely, when the motive is love. If an element of self-interest creeps in, the act is corrupt and sinful.

“Finally, in its whole spirit the old morality was individualistic. Not only did it reject the idea of a moral authority external to the individual conscience. It also set its single focus on the individual existence and on the moral problems that arise in interpersonal relationships. As for society, it believed in a direct transference of personal values into social life…. Its highest assertion was there would be no moral problems in society, if only all men loved their neighbor.”

It was against this kind of moralism, which provided “no resources for discriminating moral judgment” amidst the complexities of world affairs, that the Realist school reacted in the 1940s. Hans Morgenthau, the early George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr warned that general principles were to be held suspect in the conduct of America’s business with the world, and that moral principles were the worst sort of general principles, because to the dangers of unwarranted universalism they added the compounding miseries of zealotry and utopianism. Muddying the already-murky waters of foreign policy with moral principles would, the Realists argued, lead to a naive belief that certain of the flashier forms of diplomacy—conferences, verbal proclamations of peace, etc.—could be substituted for altered facts on the ground, and could lead all sorts of usually-unqualified hands to try and bake the delicate bread of foreign relations. The Realists, especially Niebuhr, insisted that diplomats, above all, must take Man as he is, not as we might like him to be; the diplomat must recognize, and act on his recognition of, the fact that the peculiar perversity of sin, when it enters the political arena, is its capacity to mask egotistical drives with universalist pretensions. At bottom, the Realists were Hobbesians (Niebuhr, in some of his moments, may be absolved of this charge): war was the natural state of man, and those who failed to understand that, and conduct their policy accordingly, would only worsen the misery of an already-miserable world.

The Realist case against the application of moral norms in the design and conduct of foreign policy must be understood in its historical context. Wilsonian idealism (so reflective of the “older morality” as Murray sketched it) had been broken upon the wheel of 20th century tyrannies, the worst the world had ever seen. A morality of noble intention, set loose in the League of Nations Palace in Geneva, had led to bits of fluff like the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war; but, more cruelly, it had also helped create the circumstances in which the West stood paralyzed in the face of Hitler. Given a tyranny even worse than Hitler’s, this time armed with nuclear weapons, the Realists’ case for a diplomacy based on raison d’etat and Realpolitik was understandable.

John Courtney Murray understood that argument even sympathized with it. But he could not, in the final analysis, accept it, because Realism (as Morgenthau in particular understood it) involved a fundamental bifurcation of the human universe: it denied that the moral order was coterminous with the order of political reality and reason. Murray would have sympathized with Charles Frankel’s pungent critique of Morgenthau’s claim that “to know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nonetheless, is moral courage”; this was, Frankel asserted, simply “moral melodramatics.” Given his understanding of natural law reasoning, Murray would also have agreed with Frankel’s positive formulation of the problematic, namely, “that thinking about morals and thinking about power may interact on each other so that the uses of power are guided by moral considerations even while moral principles are corrected and criticized in terms of their applicability to the realistic possibilities of life.”

What the Realists had rejected, in other words, was the moralism that Murray had also decried. This moralism raised three “pseudo-problems” that had to be cleared away before a morality based on reason could address itself, through the virtue of prudence, to the tangled web of foreign policy.

The first pseudo-problem was the alleged “gulf between the morality of the individual and collective man.” Posed in these terms, the question becomes how to close the “gap” between the two. Then, when the gap appears uncloseable, one “is driven back upon the simplist category of ‘ambiguity,’ ” or “sadly admits an unresolvable dichotomy between moral man and immoral society.”

Such a pseudo-problem did not exist “within the tradition of reason—or, if you will, in the ethic of natural law.” In this tradition, Murray wrote, “society and the state are understood to be natural institutions with their relatively autonomous ends or purposes…. These purposes are public, not private. They are therefore strictly limited…. The obligatory public purposes of society and the state impose on these institutions a special set of obligations which, again by nature, are not coextensive with the wider and higher range of obligations that rest upon the human person (not to speak of the Christian). In a word, the imperatives of political and social morality derive from the inherent order of political and social reality itself, as the architectonic moral reason conceives this necessary order in the light of the fivefold structure of obligatory political ends—justice, freedom, security, the general welfare, and civil unity or peace…. It follows, then, that the morality proper to the life and action of society and the state is not univocally the morality of personal life, or even of familial life. Therefore the effort to bring the organized action of politics and the practical art of statecraft under the control of the Christian values that govern personal and familial life is inherently fallacious. It makes wreckage not only of public policy but also of morality itself.”

The second pseudo-problem had to do with the question of “self-interest.” Murray understood that defining the national interest was a matter for constant moral scrutiny; self-interest, national interest, was not “to be interpreted in the sense of the classic theory of raison d’etat, which was linked to the modern concept of the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state.” Rather, “the tradition of reason requires, with particular stringency today, that national interest, remaining always valid and omnipresent as a motive, be given only a relative and proximate status as an end of national action. Political actions stands always under the imperative to realize, at least in some minimal human measure, the fivefold structure of obligatory political ends. Political action by the nation-state projected in the form of foreign policy today stands… under the imperative to realize this structure of political ends in the international community, within the limits—narrow but real—of the possible. Today, in fact as in theory, the national interest must be related to this international realization, which stands higher and more ultimate in political value than itself…. The national interest, rightly understood, is successfully achieved only at the interior, as it were, of the growing international order to which the pursuit of national interest can and must contribute” (emphasis added).

The answer to moralism was not, then, Realpolitik; it was moral reasoning, properly understood. Once that had been settled, the serious work of statecraft could begin. “I am, of course, much troubled by the question of the national interest,” Murray concluded, “but chiefly lest it be falsely identified in the concrete, thus giving rise to politically stupid policies. But since I do not subscribe to a Kantian `morality of intention,’ I am not at all troubled by the centrality of self-interest as the motive of national action. From the point of view of political morality, as determined by the purposes inherent in the state, this motive is both legitimate and necessary.”

The third pseudo-problem was the problem of power. The older moralism was one in which “a cold breath of evil more than faintly emanates from the very words ‘power’ and ‘force.’ it seems to have been part of the American dream that this nation could go through history with clean hands by the simple Kantian expedient described in Peguy’s genial phrase: `Kantianism has clean hands, because it has no hands.’ ” Here, too, Realpolitik, with its schizophrenic view of the relationship between the moral order and the political order, was of little help. The tradition of reason, Murray argued, could again help resolve the resident confusions on this question. Natural law theory “rejects the cynical dictum of Lenin that ‘the state is a club.’ On the other hand, it does not attempt to fashion the state in the image of an Eastern-seaboard ‘liberal’ who at once abhors power and adores it (since by him, emergent from the matrix of American Protestant culture, power is unconsciously regarded as satanic). The traditional ethic starts with the assumption that, as there is no law without force to vindicate it, so there is no politics without power to promote it. All politics is power politics—up to a point.”

That point, in Murray’s mind, “is set by multiple criteria. To be drastically brief, the essential criterion is the distinction between force and violence. Force is the measure of power necessary and sufficient to uphold the valid purposes both of law and of politics. What exceeds this measure is violence, which destroys the order both of law and of politics…. As an instrument, force is morally neutral in itself. The standard of its use is aptitude or ineptitude for the achievement of the obligatory public purposes. Here again, the casuistry is endlessly difficult, especially when the moralist’s refusal to sanction too much force clashes with the soldier’s classic reluctance to use too little force. In any case, the theory is clear enough. The same criterion which governs the state in its use of coercive law for the public purposes also governs the state in its use of force, again for the public purposes.”

Indeed the casuistry would be “endlessly difficult,” particularly under the pressures of a nuclear age. Still, Murray argued, reclaiming the tradition of reason would not only eliminate the pseudo-problems corrupting both moral argument and public policy; it could also help set the ground on which civil debate about the “endlessly difficult” casuistry could go forward. Such a reclamation would not only deal with the potentially-paralyzing problem of “ambiguity”; it would also provide means for coping with ambiguity’s cousin, the problem of “complexity.”

No one, least of all Murray, would deny that complexity was the hallmark of moral reasoning on issues of war and peace, security and freedom. But complexity ought not lead to hand-wringing (literal or figurative). Murray captured some of the blind alleys into which the bogeyman of complexity, detached from the tradition of reason, could lead in a famous (and barbed) example: “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.” The answer to this kind of paralysis, Murray believed, was to face our problems frankly in the full measure of their messiness, and then get on with the task of moral reasoning and prudential judgment: “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.”

For the body politic, Murray urged, was “neither a choir of angels nor a pack of wolves. It is simply the human community which, in proportion as it is civilized, strives to maintain itself in some small margin of safe distance from the chaos of barbarism. For this effort the only resources directly available to the community are those which first rescued it from barbarism, namely, the resources of reason, made operative chiefly through the processes of reasonable law, prudent public policies, and a discriminatingly apt use of force…. The traditional ethic, which asserts the doctrine of reason in public affairs, does not expect that man’s historical success in installing reason in its rightful rule will be much more than marginal. But the margin makes the difference.”

In sum, then, the fundamental question that had to be settled is “not how foreign policy is to be guided by the norms of moral doctrine. It is, rather, what is the moral doctrine by whose norms foreign policy is to be guided?” But the discussion could not simply end with this assertion; moral doctrine would be refined and deepened by its participation in the policy debate. Thus, Murray ended his essay on “War as a Moral Problem” with a call for a new “master strategic concept”: a call which resonated with the Murray Project’s analysis of the need for a reclamation of American national purpose in the world. Technology would not, of itself, provide such a sense of purpose and direction, for “technology tends toward the exploitation of scientific possibilities simply because they are possibilities.” Rather, what was needed was a master strategic concept that wedded power to moral principle. “Power can be invested with a sense of direction only by moral principles,” Murray argued. “It is the function of morality to command the use of power, to forbid it, to limit it, or, more in general, to define the ends for which power may or must be used and to judge the circumstances of its use. But moral principles cannot effectively impart this sense of direction to power until they have first, as it were, passed through the order of politics; that is, until they have first become incarnate in public policy. It is public policy in all its varied concretions that must be `moralized’ (to use an abused word in its good sense). This is the primary need of the moment.” That is surely as true of our own time as it was of Murray’s. The fundamental debate that has to be conducted is a moral debate: about identity, purpose, values, and appropriate means to public ends. Here, the grand Murray Project (defining the moral foundations of democratic pluralism) and Murray’s specific address to the moral problem of war are, at bottom, one effort. They cannot be separated, without doing grave damage to both.

The American Proposition was morally worthy of defense. Yet that Proposition, and the institutions of peace-as-public-order (tranquillitas ordinis) to which it gave rise, also suggested a horizon of this-worldly possibility against which present foreign policy could be judged, and toward which future policy should tend. “Peace,” Murray knew, was not simply a matter of pious intention. But neither did peace “lie in the triumph of force” alone. Rather, peace, in the classic Catholic sense, involved “the permanent, ever-renewed triumph of law over force, in the triumph of political intelligence operating under the guise of moral sense.” The rule of law, the politics of peace, required a “manifold work of moral and political intelligence,” Murray told the graduates of Western Maryland College in 1967.

That charge does not seem to have been met in contemporary American Catholicism, where the moralism that Murray so feared has displaced the tradition of reason as the entry point for debating morality and foreign policy in numerous activist, intellectual, and leadership circles. Taking up Murray’s challenge anew, beginning the “manifold work of moral and political intelligence” required of a Church that wishes to stand for both peace and freedom, would be an eminently appropriate way to celebrate the bicentennial of American Catholicism as a distinctive Church, as we approach the 200th anniversary of John Carroll’s 1789 appointment as the first Bishop of Baltimore.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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