I’ve got a few things to say about the rest of the book, but I’ll keep it much more concise than the last post. First I’d like to shoot off a complaint about his reference to quantum mechanics in order to make a point about something other than the natural sciences. Please, people, stop doing that. Unless you have a really thorough understanding of Q.M, it probably has no impact on whatever it is you’re discussing and you should just stick to those facts found in the field you know something about. Morgenthau is using it to point out that even physicists don’t believe in a completely predictable world, but “scientific man” (who is not an actual scientist) still does. Who is scientific man then? In that context, I don’t know because (at least in the section on science) he doesn’t give specific examples or quote any statements he disagrees with. He even says “It has become rather trivial nowadays to point out the fallacy of the rationalistic conception of man”, so I’m not sure what he thinks he’s adding to the conversation. But it’s amusing that was written in the mid-40s, and it’s still brought up today, particularly in critiques of economics. Throughout much of the book he gave off the impression of a background in “continental” philosophy, which is less precise and often harder to understand than the “analytic” style more common in the Anglosphere.

I think I may have given an inaccurate impression of his stance on ethics in the previous post. He’s not a complete amoralist, and even gave the impression of indicating that statesmen have a moral obligation to be pragmatic. But later on he explicitly rejects the Hobbes/Machiavelli view, somewhat akin to his earlier verdict that fascism failed because it neglected the moral side of man’s nature. Morgenthau sees both innate human morality and evil to be eternal and irresolvable. There is no way to create a comprehensive, coherent ethical system and it is unavoidable that man will make groping attempts to do so (although only some of the W.E.I.R.D will go for utilitarianism, man as a whole feels the pull of nonutilitarian ethics). In some parts he seems to be promoting Bryan Caplan’s view of common sense moral philosophy, but he has extremely different conclusions (which wouldn’t necessarily surprise Caplan). For example, Morgenthau quotes Cavour saying that if he and his supporters had acted for any reason other than the unification of their country, they would be considered scoundrels. Morgenthau actually takes Cavour’s position to be self-evidently true and proof that statesman must act differently than private figures! He isn’t even a particular fan of nationalism (regarding it as linked to modernism/liberalism and pointing out its incompatibility with more internationalist tenets of liberalism), but can’t bring himself to a radical conclusion like “This just shows the war of independence wasn’t worth it!” At the same time, Morgenthau also claims to reject a double standard for private and political action. He insists that the ends pursued by extraordinary means must truly be good (acknowledging that every terrible political act will find such a justification), but implies that even then the act is tainted by its means. We must make tough choices, accepting the tragic necessity of compromising our values in some cases to avoid greater wrongs. He even bluntly says “Political ethics is indeed the ethics of doing evil.” Man can at best “be as good as he can be in an evil world”. This was a surprise to me because of his earlier derision of liberals for associating politics with immorality and holding the private standards for conduct as absolute. Morgenthau actually agrees that while evil exists in private action as well, it reaches its apogee in the political sphere.  He even says that the modern state accelerates the corruption of the political sphere, due to the displaced reverence of a more secular age, its tremendous power and the lack of restraints on it. He can also accept an Augustinean condemnation of power politics as “intellectually and morally justified”. His objection is to the more modern Kantian view which holds itself as rational and cannot come to grips with the tragedy of eternal evil, dooming it to tremendous missteps in its “sham battle” with power politics.

Beyond mere politics, Morgenthau critiques the Age of Science for dropping the tragic wisdom of the Greeks and spreading the delusion of progress. I was particularly interested in his associating it with the (obviously false) idea that “death is a problem to be solved“. And he hadn’t even heard of singularitarianism! He sees death speaking to us in more mystical terms, and as an extremely important part of how we relate to existence that science cannot grapple with. Instead man’s wisdom has found expression in religion, although I don’t know whether Morgenthau (ethnically jewish according to wikipedia) actually believed in any and don’t feel like reading a whole book on the subject. He references a number of Christian thinkers (both Catholic and Protestant), but they mostly just seem to be representatives of western civilization. He doesn’t actually reject science, but he contrasts “more-than-scientific man” with “nothing-but-scientific man”. He thinks that Aristotle discovered truths like “man is by nature a political animal” which are as eternal as mathematical theorems, and eternal in contrast to the findings of “natural science” that can subsequently be overturned! In some ways he reminds me of Jonathan Haidt, who began from a liberal perspective but noticed that the vast majority of humanity has extremely different views and concluded that there must be some bits of truth they’re glomming onto which the liberal minority is ignoring. But that doesn’t lead Haidt to hostility toward liberalism and insistence that everyone else is doing it all wrong, just a desire to improve social psychology by including more diverse perspectives. Again I’d attribute some of that to Haidt living & working in a more peaceful era while Morgenthau was reacting to a perceived nadir in the history of human civilization.

I suppose I’ve been excessively critical because the things that irk me motivate me to write more, perhaps indicating that I should read more books of that type! I would probably be receptive if he had delivered a critique of rationalism in rationalistic trappings, rather than a polemical (not sure if that’s the right word) tract. It’s the sort of work Mencius Moldbug would enjoy, although it’s possible his reaction would be “tell  me something I don’t already know”.

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