Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Resuscitating Reinhold Niebuhr

William Galston writes a brief for Niebuhrian humility (he calls it "moral doubt" and defines it as "the suspicion, grounded in psychology or religion, that the actual motives of individuals and nations are never pure and that the announced motives are always in some measure self-serving") and deploys it, quite compellingly, against the never humble Andrew Sullivan and the George W. Bush of the Second Inaugural, who doesn’t put his own humility in the foreground.

Of course, it doesn’t help Niebuhr’s cause that the last political leader to cite him as a big influence was Jimmy Carter.

For a very smart critique of Bush, calling more for prudence rather than humility (clearly it’s possible to be humble without being prudent, but it’s less obviously possible to be prudent without in some sense being humble), see Dan Mahoney’s contribution to this volume. Dan, if you read this, is there a web version of that chapter anywhere? Do you make a similar argument in another piece that’s available electronically?

Update: Here’s the praiseworthy Mahoney piece. A snippet:

President Bush is not wrong when he argues that despotism violates the moral law and mutilates the wellsprings of the human spirit. But he is too quick to identify human nature with a single overarching impulse or desire, and he goes too far in conflating the ways of Providence with the empire of human liberty.

Near the end of the Second Inaugural, Bush anticipates some of these criticisms.
While continuing to express “complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom” he attempts to distance himself from arguments about historical inevitability. “History” by itself determines nothing. Instead, our confidence in the universal triumph of liberty must be rooted in the fact that freedom is the “permanent hope of mankind” and the most powerful “longing of the soul.” These poetic invocations do not adequately take into account the decidedly “mixed” character of human nature. The President should not be expected, of course, to speak with the precision of a political philosopher. Still, this President
of deep Christian conviction paradoxically
shows little appreciation for the tragic dimensions of history and the pernicious and
permanent effects of original sin on individual and collective life.

It is, as Dan says in his comment, a friendly criticism.

Discussions - 3 Comments

My piece originally appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Intercollegiate Review and is available at the ISI and ISI Books website. You shouldn't have any trouble linking to it(I,on the other hand, haven't the slighest idea how to begin linking an article).
I just saw a reference to my piece in a new Yale University Press book by Amitai Etizioni where he referred to me as one of Bush's "friendly critics." That was exactly the spirit in which my sometimes hard-hitting criticisms--and defense of a true "politics of prudence"-- were offered.

Whenever I hear calls for Presidents with "moral doubt," I can't help suspecting the proponent of doubting the President's policies and wishing the President shared his doubts.

Of course if the model presidential "moral doubter" is the Great Emancipator, by all means lets have more Presidents with Lincoln's "moral doubts" about emancipating enslaved people.

2: Yes, mega-dittoes, Dennis.

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