29 January 2004

Moralism or political wisdom?

Chuck Colson's Breakpoint commentary for today, "American Moralism: Why the World Needs More of It," is not one of his better contributions. Back in 1987 Paul Marshall wrote an essay, "Politics Not Ethics: A Christian Perspective on the State," that Colson and his associates could stand to read before so recklessly embracing "moralism." Here's Marshall on moralism:

[I]n politics we must be concerned with more than morality in general. We must talk about a particular type of morality -- that of governments and states. It is not enough to know that some things such as wife battering or pornography are bad. We have to know whether they are properly matters for government action and we have to grapple with the judicial minefields of family legislation and censorship. Similarly, we must not think that something has to be immoral in the first place for governments to do something about it. Some actions, such as driving through a red light, are quite all right if there isn't a law against them. Laws can be regulations of things that are not wrong in themselves but whose regulation would achieve a good public purpose.

Unfortunately Colson's ready embrace of moralism shows little understanding of the limits and complexity of politics, particularly in the international realm, which is surprising in someone with his political experience. Here's Colson:

This attempt right now to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East isn’t only about national security. It stems from the moral conviction that tyranny and despotism are bad and democracy is good.

The only reason we care about the freedom of people thousands of miles away is our moralism and commitment to universal moral principles. Our concern for human rights is a product of America’s Christian heritage. We refuse to sit idly by while the human rights of others are trampled.

One need hardly be a political realist to recognize that a single well-meaning nation can hardly right all wrongs in the world. A further recognition of the role political cultures play in specific political communities would caution against the facile assumption that democratic forms of government can simply be transplanted into inhospitable soil. The following must thus be asked: what can and ought a single government do internationally, given the divine mandate to do justice? An appeal to an undifferentiated morality will offer next to no guidance here.

Colson would probably define himself as a conservative in some sense. Yet in this case he would probably benefit from a reading of Edmund Burke rather than Woodrow Wilson, whom he is increasingly coming to resemble.

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