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The Ongoing Tension Between Power and Morality

Robert J. Gould

American Exceptionalism is the belief that, even when the US is flawed in its policies, those politics are justifiable because there is something innately morally superior about being an American. This alleged moral high ground comes from our international commitment to promote and enforce democracy and free-market capitalism--even when it boils down to supporting dictatorships and economic exploitation.

This view has deep historical roots. We can go back 2400 years to Plato’s dialogues to find the belief that it is better to act unjustly than to suffer unjustly.  In the dialogue, Gorgias, Callicles challenges Socrates (Plato’s stalking-horse) by asserting that there is no good in being a victim, so it is morally better to be the victimizer. In my memory, there was an interesting contemporary parallel to this view when I saw a female gang member being interviewed to explain how she was tired of being a victim, that it was time to be the victimizer.             

Even though Socrates appears to defeat Callicles’ argument, we find ourselves ensnared on Callicles’ belief today. American Exceptionalism is the legacy of Callicles, where the victimizer can create and maintain power, security, and riches (aided by lawyers, accountants, and publicists, who are conveniently for sale).             

Key to the success of the modern Callicles is the use of dishonesty to make the politics of ruthless power appear to be moral. One of the most crazy-making victimizations is the ability to lie with impunity. We were lied to about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, about the alleged Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, about the RMS Lusitania off Britain, about the USS Maine in Cuba, and on and on, to make wars appear to be the moral mission of self-defense, when they have too often been instruments for the maintenance of world dominance, justified by American Exceptionalism.             

The dilemma created by Callicles is brought into bold relief when we think about Socrates counterargument, that people should work together, honestly, with justice and moderation: honesty, not lies, nor corruption; justice, not oppression; moderation, not inequality and exploitation. This dilemma finds its parallel today in the proclamations of Donald Trump, in the Callicles role, and Bernie Sanders, in the Socrates role. How the election turns out will speak volumes about how Plato’s dilemma plays out in the drama of American Exceptionalism going forward.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Robert J. Gould

Robert J. Gould, Ph.D., is an ethicist, writes for PeaceVoice, and co-founded the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University.

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