“Moral Inversion” (Moral Reductionism) and the Current Gaza War

Like many people, I have been horrified by the images of the recent pro-Hamas demonstrations on college campuses and elsewhere and the resurgence of antisemitism in the West generally and in America in particular. One of the most disturbing images involves those where young people are screaming irrationally at one another, yelling what can only be described as hateful speech. Each day, I read a feed of news that allows commentary, and I am equally appalled by calls to drop unconventional weapons on Gaza and to destroy the nation of Israel by creating a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” For those who do not understand the phrase, it means that the state of Palestine would run from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, eliminating the State of Israel.

I have traveled to Israel and the West Bank in the past and had the opportunity to see the complexities of the relations between the citizens of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. I have taken some time to study the creation of the State of Israel after the Second World War and the warning to President Truman given by some of his advisors that the course of action proposed would involve the United States in a long and complex conflict. Those advisors have been proven correct.

In the end, the power of the Jewish lobby in Washington and the moral outrage at the situation of the Jewish people in Europe convinced Truman and the United Nations that the State of Israel should be created. Since 1948, the United States and Western Europe have struggled to find some way to make a lasting peace where there is much hate and distrust. This is not to say that the decision was wrong or unjustified or that Truman made an error. It is simply to outline the complexity of the situation.

Recently, the Abraham Accords and the gradual process of normalizing relations have created some hope that progress is being made toward an end to the overarching conflict.  I believe the recent war, in part, reflects the reaction of those who do not wish this to happen, particularly the regime in Iran. The problem Israel and the West face is both complex and challenging, and simplistic jingoistic solutions from either side are not helpful. Indeed, they are harmful. Unfortunately, many intelligentsia in the United States have fed the problem. This leads to a discussion of how contemporary political thought is damaged by a kind of moral reductionism that fails to understand the complexity of many moral quandaries and the need to balance many and sometimes conflicting moral impulses.

The Problem of Moral Inversion

The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, famously critiqued what he called the “moral inversion” that often characterizes modern radical political movements. Polanyi saw moral inversion as a perversion resulting from the moral idealism of the Christian faith being cut off from its deeper roots in the process of secularized, materialistic thinking.Polanyi believes the strong demand for moral perfection characteristic of Christianity, combined with the materialist reductionism of modern thought, ends in an objective moral nihilism. This, in turn, results in a destructive form of moral reason. [1] In Logic of Liberty, Polanyi describes the phenomenon (speaking of Russian Marxists and German Nazis) as follows:

“In such men, the traditional forms for holding moral ideals had been shattered and their moral passions diverted into the only channels which a strictly mechanistic conception of man and society left open to them. We may call this the process of moral inversion. The morally inverted person has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of moral aims by material purposes, but is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.” [2]

In this statement, Polanyi describes a process by which people who have lost confidence in traditional morality channel their moral energy into a single cause, believing that force and power are the only relevant realities, in the vain attempt to create a better world or right a perceived moral wrong. In the process, they create even greater injustice and human suffering.

Human beings are, by nature, moral. When denied an intellectual ground for their moral passions by education or training, these passions, like a river that has run out of its banks, flow in an uncontrolled flood into whatever channel lies conveniently at hand. In modern, materialistic societies, that channel has been revolutionary action designed to create a “more humane” society along strictly materialistic lines. Communism or some form of national socialism has been the preferred channel. The political disasters of the 20th and now 21st centuries are often powered by moral energy resulting from this destructive rechanneling of moral passions.

Moral Reductionism

What Polanyi calls “moral inversion” might better be called “moral reductionism” or “moral absolutism.” The problem is often not with whether the underlying idea of morality is immoral or moral but with the fact that one moral ideal is sought to exclude other important ethical principles. For example, the willingness of Lenin, Mao, and their followers to destroy human life and engage in great cruelty sought the goal of an economically more just society at the expense of the equally important value of human freedom and human life. This phenomenon involves not so much an inversion as a kind of reductionism or absolutization of one value to the exclusion of others. This same kind of thinking is embodied in the modern slogans of “right to choose” and “right to life.” The attempt to reduce the moral quandary to a single maxim oversimplifies the moral reality.

Dynamo-Objective Coupling, Moral Inversion, and Hypocrisy

According to Polanyi, the false ideal of objectivism, when coupled with the moral urges of humankind, creates a “dynamo-objective coupling,” whereby alleged “scientific assertions” of a group are accepted because they satisfy the moral passions of human beings. [3] In other words, the dynamic power of moral impulses can be perverted by denying conventional morality coupled with an objectivist excuse for unleashing moral energy in service to a particular cause. Paradoxically, this is precisely what Marxist and Nazism and a host of modern “isms” can achieve, particularly among the young.

There is no critique of Christianity more common than the complaint that Christians are hypocrites—that is to say, Christians do not live up to the high moral ideals of Christ, which they profess to admire. This is, of course, true. One only needs to read the Beatitudes to see that Christ upholds a moral standard we may aspire to but can never obtain. In Polanyi’s view, the perfectionistic impulse of Christian faith is responsible for a great deal of the moral progress of Western civilization. Unfortunately, among those afflicted with a loss of belief or no faith at all in any moral or spiritual ideals, the deeply seated moral urge to achieve moral objectives can become a breeding ground for moral inversion powered by a feeling that all traditional morality is hypocritical. [4] This potential for the emergence of a kind of moral inversion is not limited to Western society. The criticism can be and has also been urged against other traditional ethical systems. [5] The postmodern charge makes this more dangerous because of the claim that all moral claims, whatever their source, are merely bids for power.

Beginning with the Enlightenment and its exaltation of critical reason, virtually all forms of faith and morals, including the social ideal of justice, have been placed under the dissolving power of reductionistic, critical thinking. The materialism of the modern world, with its reduction of all reality to material particles and forces acting upon that reality, eventually led to the critique of Nietzsche that God (spirit) is an illusion, that Christianity is a slave religion, and that the Will to Power is the final characteristic and justification of sound moral reasoning. This thinking leads directly to the appalling irrational immorality of contemporary politics, where winning is everything, and any immoral action is justified if it furthers a moral ideal held by a particular group.

The reductionist character of modern thought is seen in the tendency of the left and the right to reduce and constrict moral thinking to personal preferences. It is a short step from this position to a decision for a single moral good to the detriment of other, seemingly less important, ethical goods. [6] In contemporary society, we have seen played out the view that some moral ideal held by one particular group is the supreme moral good. Other ethical duties, such as protecting the rights of the accused to a fair trial, the responsibility of the prosecutors to investigate carefully before bringing charges, the rights of businesspersons to their property and businesses, the rights of the public to safe streets, the need of children and others for secure homes, etc. can and should be abandoned in the search for some single moral good urged by a particular group. [7]   All these are examples of a kind of moral inversion or moral reductionism that seeks a single moral good at the expense of other equally important moral goods.


It should be evident that the extreme views of many contemporary political groups, the violence of rioters and looters, and a media egging them on are incompatible with the freedoms they purport to be advancing. A society built on terror is a terror to everyone: good, evil, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless. I was able to travel to Russia just after the fall of Communism. Communism was physically, morally, and spiritually impoverishing to everyone in Russian society. What we see playing out on the streets of our cities in America is unfortunately too similar to the phenomena that led to millions of deaths under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pot Pol, all of whom played upon the moral sentiments of their people and created unmitigated horror and suffering.

There is much suffering in the world. Currently, the situations in the Ukraine and Gaza vie for the attention of Western people. Both involve complex problems with long and complex histories. Neither side is entirely right in both cases, and complex moral issues are involved. There is no easy or simple solution—and it is improbable that war alone can create a just and lasting peace.

To focus for a moment on the current Israel-Gaza situation, there is no doubt that the activity of terrorists in attacking and raping and killing innocent civilians is both a moral evil and a just cause for war. On the other hand, the notion that Israel can, by military means, eliminate Hamas and its supporters and create a peaceful neighbor in Gaza is fantastical. The idea that the United States and the West can impose a solution to warring parties engaged in a decades-long conflict is also delusional. In the Middle East, we see a situation where power politics and reliance on violence to achieve political ends reach logically and practically impossible conclusions. The “politics of love,” that is a realization by the parties of themselves that they live in a common land and must recognize their common interest in a lasting peace (while accommodating one another through a process of dialogue and rational adjustment based upon their common need for stability and a flourishing of their citizens) provides a counter-intuitive way out of seven plus decades of war and violence. [8]

In Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love, a Christian restatement of the Tao Te Ching, it is remarked that war is a catastrophe for the victor and defeated alike. When any conflict is over, bad feelings and a desire for revenge remain—often breeding additional conflict. [9] Therefore, the following advice is given—good advice, I think:

The best policy is this: Avoid conflict if at all possible.

If conflict arises, the best policy is this: Avoid unnecessary destruction.

If conflict continues, the best policy is this: Seek a just solution.

If conflict reaches a conclusion, the best policy is this: Show mercy and restore good relations. [10]

Blessings to all my readers, and a prayer for peace-Salam/Shalom.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This blog is partially taken from both prior blogs and a short monograph I am writing on what I call “Sophio-Agapic” political theory. This is not the place to outline the long line of moral reductionism that ends in a Marxist denial of traditional morality. Nor is it the place to discuss the movement of the Enlightenment towards nihilism, first fully exposed by Nietzsche and his concept of the Will to Power. Suffice it to observe that modern Western Society, lacking a transcendent faith in the reality of moral values, has entered a period of moral nihilism that impacts even those who deny that they accept it. The power orientation of our culture is a part of its plausibility structure. Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991).

[2] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Indiana, Liberty Fund, 1998), 131.

[3] PK, 230-233.

[4] Everyman Revisited, 99.

[5] While Polanyi was primarily interested in Western society, it may be observed that the phenomenon of moral inversion can be present in other cultures as well. For example, Mao encouraged the criticism of Confucianism because it had formed the basis of the historic order of China.

[6] The Christian author, C. S. Lewis, speaks of this tendency for contemporary people to discount the vast interlocking web of morality, which he sometimes calls the Tao, to exalt one moral principle to the detriment of ethical thinking. This has led to a preference for public morality and, on the right, a preference for private morality. See David Rozema, Lewis’s Rejection of Nihilism: The Tao and the Problem of Moral Knowledge” in Pursuit of Truth | A Journal of Christian Scholarship http://www.cslewis.org/journal/lewiss-rejection-of-nihilism-the-tao-and-the-problem-of-moral-knowledge/ (September 28, 2007, downloaded June 4, 2020).

[7] I do not want to minimize the activities of political opportunists and terror groups that may have contributed to the problems we are currently experiencing. These groups use the moral inversion of others for purely selfish purposes.

[8] As an aside, in my view, the so-called “two-state” and “one-state” solutions are inadequate for the complexities involved. The parties must look beyond the nationalism of current national and international politics and consider the creation of smaller independent political units in Gaza and the West Bank that are not fully national and cannot have offensive forces but are fully independent and self-governing. For example, there is no question that Gaza could become the Luxemburg or Monte Carlo of the Middle East, with great freedom and prosperity for its inhabitants.

[9] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed. (Booksurge, 2016), Chapters 31 and 79.

[10] Id, Chapter 68.

2 thoughts on ““Moral Inversion” (Moral Reductionism) and the Current Gaza War”

  1. Hi Chris. Your analysis explaining the decline of moral reasoning resonates with me. Thank you for a very thoughtful essay. On the heels of reading Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God” I was especially interested in Nietzche’s critique that “the Will to Power is the final characteristic and justification of sound moral reasoning.” That’s because Keller points out that Nietzche maintained that human rights is groundless in a world without God, that there is no compelling reason to be kind, loving or seek peace. I wonder how the philosopher would reconcile his two assertions.

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