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Tragic Visions: The enduring moral strength of Morgenthau’s understanding of political ethics

Tragic Visions: The enduring moral strength of Morgenthau’s understanding of political ethics

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Carl Truedsson. Originally submitted for Realism in International Relations at University of Edinburgh, with lecturer Vassilios Paipais in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Carl Truedsson. Originally submitted for Realism in International Relations at University of Edinburgh, with lecturer Vassilios Paipais in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
Word Count: 20791
Tragic Visions: The enduring moral strength of Morgenthau’sunderstanding of political ethics
Abstract
This essay will seek to demonstrate the enduring strength of Hans J. Morgenthau’s ‘tragicvision of politics’. Morgenthau’s ‘vision’ reflects an attempt to counter the bellicosedogmatic beliefs that were endemic to the political and societal milieu of the postwartwentieth century. It will be argued that in order to fully grasp Morgenthau’s ‘tragicvision’, one must consider his understanding of human nature, thus revealing theprofoundly Nietzschean lineage inherent in his argument. Morgenthau sought to exposethe pervasive traditional utilization of the concept of morality that has oft ignored theinevitability of tragic outcome in political action. He unwaveringly confronted thisproblem and postulated that, “[p]olitical ethics is […] the ethics of doing evil” (1945: 17).The tragedy lies in that the statespersons will, through political decisions saturated inmoral dilemmas, inevitably commit evil, but must nevertheless act. Whilst Morgenthau’svision of morality within political action offers no panacea to the inevitability of tragicoutcome, it does advocate for a morally consistent pragmatism that was dangerouslylacking in his era. The line of argument in this essay draws from the resurgent interestthat has spawned an expanding field of work focusing on Classical Realism withinInternational Relations theory. This renewed focus has led to the re-discovery of uniquetheoretical insights by often-ignored or misinterpreted scholars, whose caliber of apprehension to the pressing issues and dilemmas of their time should not be forgotten.By combining a variety of arguments put forth by Morgenthau throughout his career, thisessay offers a particular rendition of what Morgenthau sought to describe through his‘tragic vision’.
 
Word Count: 20792This essay will seek to demonstrate that Hans J. Morgenthau’s understanding of morality within politics reflects an attempt to counter the bellicose dogmatic beliefs thatwere endemic to the political and societal milieu of the postwar twentieth century. Withfocus on the political realm, Morgenthau sought to expose the pervasive traditionalutilization of the concept of morality that has ignored the oft inevitability of tragicoutcome in political action. Morgenthau unwaveringly confronted this problem andpostulated that, “[p]olitical ethics is […] the ethics of doing evil” (1945: 17). The tragedylies in that the statespersons will, through political decisions saturated in moral dilemmas,inevitably commit evil, but must nevertheless act. Whilst his ‘ethics of evil’ is arguablytragic, there is a consistency within Morgenthau’s argument that sanctions honestexpediency in political action that is denied in the deeply rooted traditional moralarguments. Through first outlining the neglect that genuine tragedy has received intraditional moral thought, it will be shown how Morgenthau sought to both expose thedangers of this neglect and to prescribe a modus operandi. By arguing that Morgenthau’sthought traces a profoundly Nietzschean lineage, his understanding of human nature andpower will be revealed as the cornerstone to his ‘tragic vision of politics’. This willdemonstrate that whilst his vision of morality within political action offers no panacea tothe inevitability of tragic outcome, it does advocate for a morally consistent pragmatismthat was dangerously lacking in his era.Reference to the concept of tragedy within analytical political thought hastraditionally received a distorted and neglected engagement. Tragedy, as Chris Browndefines it, following the Greek tragedians,
“involves a situation where duties are in radical conflict, such that whatever is done willinvolve wrongdoing […] the only way to preserve integrity and honour is to accept thetragic nature of one’s choice: that is, to acknowledge that to act is to wrong” (2007: 9).
Traditional theoreticians have failed to grapple with the concept of tragedy in a mannerthat actually highlights the often-inherent complexity and non-solubility of circumstances.Brown distinguishes two of the most prominent strands of moral philosophy,
 
Word Count: 20793Utilitarianism and Liberalism, and how they have failed to engage with tragedy in ameaningful way. In Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian thought, the rigid distinction betweenactions as either promoting or denoting the greatest possible utility “precludes thepossibility of a clash between the two, effectively morally equal, courses of action” (ibid:7). With this distinction, the true element of tragedy is denied, as one course of action isalways better than the other, thus neglecting the possibility of opposing interestsconjuring a tragic and irresolvable outcome (ibid: 7). Albeit different from Bentham’sneglect, one also finds the neglect of genuine tragedy within elements of ImmanuelKant’s Liberal philosophy. For Kant, his emphasis on intentions over consequences, thatthe individual by doing the right thing receives vindication, closes the avenue forconsidering that these ‘good’ actions can in fact have tragic repercussions (ibid: 7).Morgenthau’s sentiments can be understood as very similar to those of Brown onthe apparent neglect of tragedy within traditional political thought. He saw this neglectspawned by the dominance of rationalism, which professed the ability to “mould both[the social and physical] worlds through the application of the same rational principles”(1947: 11). This static philosophy, Morgenthau held, could not account for the radicalchanges and events of the early to mid-twentieth century. For these events were the“outward manifestations of an intellectual, moral and political disease which ha[d] itsroots in the basic philosophic assumptions of the age” (ibid: 12). It was under theumbrella of rationalism that precise and absolute solutions infused with moral certainty,were prescribed to the political realm. Referencing events spanning from WoodrowWilson’s Fourteen Points through to Dumbarton Oaks, Morgenthau lamented that, “it isutopian to assume that a rational system of thought by its own inner force can transformthe conditions of man” (1945: 145). The prerationalist age, Morgenthau asserted had beeninvariably different in that by its awareness of the opposing forces of God and the devil,it actually understood the,
“tragic sense of life, the awareness of unresolvable discord, contradictions, and conflictswhich are inherent in the nature of things and which human reason is powerless to solve”(1947: 175).

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