Moral clarity

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Moral clarity is a right-wing, specifically neoconservative buzzword typically encountered in American political discourse. It usually appears as part of an argument against Islam and for greater American involvement in the Middle East and its conflicts. It encodes a fairly complex argument that asserts:

  • A war on terror is something that can and should be fought;
  • This war pits good versus evil;
  • American values include freedom and democracy, which are universal goods that should be exported everywhere;


  • In this war of good versus evil, extraordinary measures up to and including torture and mass surveillance are justified;
  • Attempts to contextualize or explain the activities of radical Islamists are a sign of moral relativism;
  • Such relativism is an unacceptable weakness that hinders the forces of good and gives aid and comfort to the forces of evil.

The phrase has existed since the Reagan administration at least, but was popularized by William Bennett's Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.[1] It has also been invoked by Alan Dershowitz, whose The Case For Moral Clarity: Israel, Hamas and Gaza [2] makes the similar claim that since it's axiomatic that Israel is the good guy, we ought to automatically favor them against any moral claims of the Palestinians, and withhold judgment on Israeli responses to Palestinian provocations.


The concept has a number of problems. Moral clarity of a sort is in fact one of the defining characteristics of the Middle Eastern terrorists themselves. They assert supreme confidence that Allah unalterably desires the stoning of adulterers and the destruction of non-Islamic antiquities. Theirs also is a war driven by rigid concepts of good versus evil and the justification that God's on their side.

Claiming that America's Middle Eastern wars are wars of good versus evil poses other problems and glosses over life's complexities, which of course is the point. North Korea is probably just as evil as Saddam Hussein's Iraq was; why have we not attacked it? (Maybe because they do have nukes and don't have anything we need that badly?) For that matter, Saudi Arabia is oppressive in ways easily comparable to North Korea. They've also been implicated in the financing of terrorism.[3] But they have oil and money enough to hire lobbyists in Washington,[4] so we're happy to call them our friends.

Moral clarity, in short, has always been mostly irrelevant to the world of international diplomacy and military alliances. In the contexts where the argument usually appears, the argument for "moral clarity" seems a hypocritical form of special pleading.

See also[edit]


  1. Regnery, ISBN 0895261340 (2003).
  2. CAMERA Monograph Series, ISBN 0966154851 (2009)
  3. Declan Walsh, WikiLeaks cables portray Saudi Arabia as a cash machine for terrorists, The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2010.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Saudi Arabia lobby in the United States.