Moral Realism, Moral Maturity

Radio Open Source
5 min readApr 3, 2022


This week: a conversation with Brandon Terry and Andrew Bacevich about Martin Luther King’s version of realism. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.

Debates about US foreign policy can revolve endlessly around questions of Machiavellian realist strategy vs. morality, but there could be a way to bring together strategists and moral philosophers. This week, we hear from Harvard’s Brandon Terry about Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral realism, evident in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech of 1967.

Terry describes how moral qualities, for King, provide a sound basis for realist policy:

You have to be diligent and vigilant . . . by living up to the principles of constancy, consistency. So how can [King] raise his voice against violence in Watts and Detroit and Newark if he can’t raise his voice against violence in Southeast Asia? He’s right about that.

How can you expect the Vietnamese revolutionaries to see America as a beacon of freedom and equality, egalitarian ideals and defense of the principle of self-determination, if when nonwhite peoples express those principles, they side with the neo-colonial project, they try to help the French restore colonialism? How can anyone take this seriously? And it really does matter, even for a realist paradigm, because: insofar as realism is meant to predict what other people do based on their interest, based on their understandings and worldviews, they’ve got to give an account of how utterances made by policymakers and statesmen are going to be heard. And the charge of hypocrisy matters an enormous deal in this arena.

Brandon Terry.

A crucial moral/political/strategic quality for King’s realism is “maturity.” Terry says:

Why maturity here? Well, for King maturity is about understanding when you are wrong, understanding that nobody’s perfect and that you need to confront the tragedies of your decision-making, the errors in your ways, and try to admit and atone for where you’ve gone awry, for the sins you’ve committed in the world, the errors in your ways, even including—and this is a kind of Veberian impulse—even when that wasn’t your attention.

You know, part of what political responsibility requires is understanding that even unintended consequences are your fault, and then trying to make reparation for those harms. And so King contrasts that with a picture of American policymakers and American media locked in a perpetual, image-generating machine, trying to live up to a projected image of strength, of innocence, of purity that other societies and their own dissenters can see right through, and that sometimes we go to war just to shore up an image instead of having the maturity to recognize where we’ve fallen short and try to make amends and rebuild an international order around a sense of genuine acknowledgment about moral wrongs perpetrated in our name.

Joining Terry in conversation is Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Bacevich also describes a historically grounded understanding of moral questions:

I come to the moral piece from a historical perspective, in the sense that—I hesitate to use the phrase history teaches, but I will: I mean, history teaches that war is a problematic undertaking. It’s not predictable. It’s not controllable. With astonishing frequency, it gives rise to unintended consequences and costs far greater than anybody expected. Iraq and Afghanistan, in that regard, end up being Exhibit A and Exhibit B. If war were an effective mechanism for correcting wrongs, for doing good for others, then I might be a militarist. But everything we know about war tells us just to the contrary. And therefore, there does need to be a strong moral inhibition toward using force. And that’s been absent from American politics, you know, for a long time

Andrew Bacevich.

Read: Karuna Mantena on Gandhian Nonviolence

We also learned this week of “Another Realism,” by Karuna Mantena, which describes Gandhi’s version of moral realism:

Gandhian nonviolence is premised on a form of political realism, specifically a contextual, consequentialist, and moral-psychological analysis of a political world understood to be marked by inherent tendencies toward conflict, domination, and violence. By treating nonviolence as the essential analog and correlative response to a realist theory of politics, one can better register the novelty of satyagraha(nonviolent action) as a practical orientation in politics as opposed to a moral proposition, ethical stance, or standard of judgment. The singularity of satyagraha lays in its self-limitingcharacter as a form of political action that seeks to constrain the negative consequences of politics while working toward progressive social and political reform. Gandhian nonviolence thereby points toward a transformational realism that need not begin and end in conservatism, moral equivocation, or pure instrumentalism.

Watch: Niebuhr in Action

On our show you’ll also hear about Reinhold Niebuhr—the leading theologian who influenced King and also called for restraint in foreign policy. Here’s an old film of Niebuhr in conversation, on the subject of morality.

Listen: Chomsky and Open Source

Noam Chomsky also spoke with Open Source recently—about “morality 101” and US foreign policy. Find it at our site!

This week’s ephemeral library

Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar Diary. The NYT won an Oscar for its terrific short documentary The Queen of Basketball. Wesley Morris on The Slap. Who’s heard of Joan Joyce? She struck out Ted Williams! Chas Freeman on Ukraine. The Cult of Adam Tooze. Bill McKibben: The Man Who Gobbed Up Earth.



Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.