Why moral therapeutic deism and geopolitics don’t mix

A system of ethics that depends on being “good, nice, and fair to each other”  is questionable at the best of times. And becomes truly silly when applied to geopolitics.

Let’s kick off with Syria. President Assad (who is bad) is a nasty guy with a bad moustache who only got the job because his Dad had it before, but then he got so nasty that his people rebelled and the Rebels (who are good) started winning. (Hurrah!) This is despite the dorky Assad having a rather dishy British wife who was universally believed to be good, until she spent too much on shoes and stuff and became generally considered to be bad.

Moral philosophy needs to extend further than ‘be nice’. And geopolitics isn’t about ‘being nice’ either. It’s about balancing the competing interests of Westphalian nation-states, which are still with us – much as we cosmopolitans can dream otherwise.


  • It makes sense if you think of it in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma.


    Pinker has argued (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0052REUW0/) that many religions and governments are designed to “move the Nash equilibrium” so that the situation where both parties cooperate dominates. (Ignoring the Nash Equilibrium is also known as “being a sucker.”) Everyone is much better off when we all choose cooperation over betrayal, but that can’t happen unless betrayal is punished somehow.

    For example, if you believe that God will get you if you betray the other person, then the “betray and hope the other guy stays silent” strategy looks unappealing. The “moral therapeutic deism” in the article seems like a purified version of that idea. Government punishment of thieves and frauds falls into the same category. Life is MUCH better when you can do business without having to assume that EVERYONE will try to cheat you.

    But it only works when there is a higher authority that makes betrayal too costly. In international affairs, the Nash Equilibrium stays on “both betray,” except where there are strong alliances that punish betrayal somehow.

    • Thanks for the lengthy reply. Wow! 🙂

      The problem, as I see it, is that moral therapeutic deism is too vague about what constitutes cooperation and it doesn’t deal with intractable conflict. It’s possible to see all points-of-view simultaneously (as I often do) and find there’s no room for compromise. In that case, the concept of ‘fairness’ needs to be more clearly demarcated.

      Punishing betrayal is never ‘nice’. In situations where everyone is a moral therapeutic deist, no one wants to be the ‘not-nice’ person who has to suggest punishing the betrayer. And, by suggesting that punishment, the person becomes automatically ‘not-nice’ or has to find some way of rationalising their ‘horrid’ behaviour.

      As I’m not religious, I favour a system of secular ethics as the basis for morality.

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