The West urgently needs moral rearmament to confront the challenge of aggressive autocrats

In his recent book The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism of 2023, political philosopher John Gray claims to be writing a requiem for liberalism which he argues has currently betrayed itself.

An atheist who has respect for religion, Gray adroitly combines the Hebrew scriptures and the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan, a hugely influential analysis of state power.

Gray’s Leviathan is evil drawn from a monstrous regression to a state of nature, which—far from any romantic view—represents chaos. Times have changed, hardly for the better, and he believes that the monsters have multiplied. He includes the Russian Leviathan after the invasion of Ukraine, as well as a number of international monsters.

But the West has its own Leviathans, among others sadly drawn from the former good of liberalism. As Gray puts it:

Liberalism was a creation of Western monotheism and liberal freedoms, part of the civilization that monotheism engendered. Twenty-first-century liberals reject this civilization, while continuing to assert the universal authority of a hollowed out version of its values. In this hyper-liberal vision, all societies are destined to undergo the deconstruction that is underway in the West,

This analysis bears echoes of the Augustinian insight that evil stems from a negation of the good—in this case in the form of regression—since it is hardly creative in and of itself. I will now explore how the contemporary “Western” Leviathans hinder the goal of moral rearmament that our times so badly need.

Why we need moral rearmament

What is moral rearmament? In his The Road to Ukraine: How the West Lost Its Way (2022), British sociologist Frank Furedi studies the moral decline of the West and poignantly argues that a key to facing the threat from Russia is moral rearmament, which is more necessary than military rearmament. A first step towards that is overcoming historical amnesia. Unfortunately, Furedi’s call has little chance of being heard, even where it is needed most—for instance, in Poland, a NATO flank country, where I live.

Part of the evidence that Furedi provides is the lack of willingness of Europeans to defend themselves. For instance, in a 2019 survey of readiness of Europeans to defend their country if it were attacked, only 15 percent of the Dutch claimed they would be willing to fight for their country -- this was not unusual. I

In Poland, 47 percent claimed they would defend their country, which is rather high in Europe. But the study took place before the outbreak of the current war, so close by with its genuine horrors. A later survey—conducted by a respectable Polish daily—found that in case of military aggression approximately a third of Poles would wish to escape from an attacked region or even from their country. Only a small percentage would be willing to fight.  


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Lack of a sense of community

Poland is Ukraine’s neighbour -- unsurprisingly the need for military rearmament is agreed upon by a broad political spectrum of the society. But the need for moral rearmament is mostly felt by those who intuitively realize where heroes come from: the strength of community.

In contemporary Europe this seems to be hardly understood.

Communities draw us from out of ourselves. Conversely, one of the moral degradations of modern societies in the West is the radical shift from the “We” to the “I”. As Jonathan Sacks puts it in his Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (2020), “If we focus on the ‘I’ and lose the ‘We,’ if we act on self-interest without a commitment to the common good, if we focus on self-esteem and lose our care for others, we will lose much else.”

The late Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth goes on to categorize some of the results of the losses: the emergence of a market that will be inhuman, and politics that are divisive, among others. “Freedom itself will be at risk,” he warns, with “the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, the far left dreaming of a utopia that will never be.”

Sacks points out the basic institutions necessary for all countries and cultures: an economy that creates opportunity for wealth; a state that fosters a just use of power; and, crucially, a moral system, “which is the voice of society within the self; the ‘We’ within the ‘I’; the common good that directs our pursuit of private gain.”

He warns of the moral havoc that is incurred when too much stress is placed on wealth and power. Society ceases to be free since a free society is a moral achievement, which paradoxically requires self-restraint: “without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of the heart that we call virtue, we will eventually lose our freedom.”

As culture-creating, meaning-seeking beings, people need moral community to support these endeavours. That is where religion comes in. Religiosity inspires altruism and empathy. “Religion creates community,” Sacks professes, “community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and toward the common good.”

Returning to the problem of moral rearmament, the new Leviathans have their ways of tampering with the common good in the West.

Take the European Union. There is a rich literature on the democratic deficit of this organization. The EU has no “demos,” as constitutional expert Joseph Weiler has observed. Thus, possessing a loaned sovereignty, it often undemocratically absorbs the sovereignty of its member states to a greater extent than the accession treaties allow, likewise employing favouritism and double standards in the treatment of its members.

The “European values” trumpeted by Eurocrats hardly foster moral community and their hyper-liberalism smothers it. Perhaps this is why the citizens of many of its member states shudder at the thought of having to defend their national communities.

A related explanation for this state of affairs is the rise of meritocracies among the Eurocrats and among the political class of member states. In his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit, political philosopher Michael Sandel argues that when a society develops a powerful meritocracy, the result is divisive politics. Many of its members will be highly individualistic and place little value on community and the common good. Sandel uses American examples, but his analysis applies to the Polish meritocracy, as well.

And so now in Poland, the meritocracy bows to a hyper-liberal Leviathan that continually undermines moral community and obstructs moral rearmament. Not rarely this is augmented by deference to the EU meritocracy. These people misunderstand or undervalue the rich resources of Poland’s history. As a result, in the event of a genuine military threat, those willing to fight may be outnumbered by those taking flight.

Like other countries in the West, many of the political and cultural elite of Poland barely understand the need for the common good of an enriched community and for moral rearmament. Meanwhile, Russia poses a mortal danger. Will Poland be prepared to fight? Will its Western allies? 

What do you think about the need for “moral rearmament”? Tell us in the comments below.  

Christopher Garbowski is a professor emeritus at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. He has been primarily interested in values and religion in literature and popular culture and is the author and co-editor of a number of books. He is also on the editorial board of “Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe” and was formerly a book review editor at “The Polish Review”. His most recent book is “The Problem of Moral Rearmament: Poland, the European Union, and the War in Ukraine” (2024). 

Image credits: Russian soldiers on parade / Bigstock 


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  • Angela Shanahan
    commented 2024-05-18 21:40:52 +1000
    Also Ayn Rand was a nut.
  • David Young
    commented 2024-05-18 18:59:27 +1000
    Moral rearmament is not necessarily about being willing to fight for your country although it might fit in certain circumstances. In “Atlas Shrugged” Ayn Rand defines morality as "Judgement to distinguish right and wrong, vision to see the truth, courage to act upon it. Dedication to that which is good, integrity to stand by the good at any price.”. That’s the kind of rearmament we need in the entire world today.
  • James Dougall
    Liberalism has engendered individualism. Western civilization has become profoundly individualistic. With little sense of the common good, with the consumer rights mentality reigning supreme, why would people be prepared to join the armed forces in order to defend their countries? Why would they trust the leaders of such a society? Liberalism is by its very premise, the exaltation of individual freedom, incapable of moral rearmament. A child of the Enlightenement, history, tradition, is despised. Liberalism has not betrayed itself, liberalism is true to itself but is now a spent force as a philosophy capable of inspiring society. It’ll take a lot more to achieve any form of moral rearmament.
  • Angela Shanahan
    commented 2024-05-18 00:48:02 +1000
    It is not surprising no one wants to fight the Russians. In fact a lot of Ukrainians don’t want to fight the Russians . They are losing men and not just on the battlefield. Desertion is a problem there, as it was in Russia. There is also no evidence that Putin wants to invade Poland, and if Ukraine had not allowed itself to be manipulated into thinking it could be in outrageously, the NATO, then this might not have happened. The west , and the current administration in the US has really stuffed this up.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-05-16 15:53:49 +1000
    The deficit in the author’s line of reasoning is, that he does not explain what the current status of the common good and morality is.

    Had a spent a few minutes on these issues he might have better understood why so many people are not willing to defend their western home-country.

    Why defend a country that has been corrupted, is morally and financially bancrupt, and where your own family is in ruins (see the almost 50 percent divorce rate)?
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-05-15 11:45:48 +1000
    Here is another example of moral decline.

    The case of Raymond V. Gilmartin, former CEO of Merck.

    In 1999 Merck got FDA approval to market Rofecoxib, a painkiller, under the name Vioxx.

    I want to make it clear that no one at Merck intended to market a lethal drug. But there is always an element of risk when a new drug is released to the market. That is why post-release surveillance is so important. It enables the medical profession to catch adverse effects early on.

    For what happened next I’ll quote Wikipedia:

    “In September 2004, Merck voluntarily withdrew rofecoxib from the market because of concerns about increased risk of heart attack and stroke associated with long-term, high-dosage use. Merck withdrew the drug after disclosures that it withheld information about rofecoxib’s risks from doctors and patients for over five years, allegedly resulting in between 88,000 and 140,000 cases of serious heart disease. Rofecoxib was one of the most widely used drugs ever to be withdrawn from the market. In the year before withdrawal, Merck had sales revenue of US$2.5 billion from Vioxx.”

    For five years, under Gilmartin’s leadership, Merck went to great lengths to hide Vioxx’s often lethal side effects. In Australia the company went to the lengths of putting out fake medical journals that assured doctors Vioxx was safe.

    Is it really possible that Gilmartin was unaware of these efforts? Documents that came to light during subsequent litigation show that scientists at Merck were warning management of reports of ill-effects. They were effectively told to shut up because their comments could harm sales.

    Here is a video of Gilmartin lecturing on “Ethics and the Corporate Culture” in 2003 while Merck was engaging in decidedly unethical behaviour.

    When the whole thing blew up Gilmartin stepped down. He had to be satisfied with what is by today’s standards a measly $4 million severance package. He is currently an adjunct professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School.

    Does Gilmartin belong in jail? For manslaughter if not murder?

    Have we reached the point where CEOs of large corporations are effectively above the law?

    The recent banking Royal Commission revealed criminal activities in Australia’s major banks. Why did no one go to jail?

    One of the banking CEOs at the time was Good Christian Andrew Thorburn. Shortly after becoming CEO of NAB he was interviewed on ABC. He explained how being a Christian made him a better leader.. The commissioners found him an unreliable witness. I guess being CEO of a bank that stole $600mn from it’s customers is kind of hard to explain.

    Yep, moral decline alright.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-05-15 10:49:38 +1000
    Well, there certainly has been a moral decline.

    A symptom of the decline, not the cause mind you, but a symptom, is the election, and probable re-election, of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

    The fact that an obvious charlatan like that can have such a grip on the minds of the electorate of the most powerful nation on Earth says it all.

    And this image personifies it.

    Three Fat Trumpies:

    It’s not only a “moral” decline. It’s also an intellectual one.