RALEIGH — I heard two very different people Thursday dismiss the notion of “moral leadership.”

First, I heard an interview on the BBC with a French diplomat and scholar commenting about the rift between France and Britain concerning the war on Iraq. Naturally, the conversation turned quickly to American policy, which according to the Frenchman was clumsy, dangerous, and likely to be counterproductive. But what’s wrong, the BBC interviewer asked, with the American goal of promoting freedom and democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East?

The snooty French diplomat replied with a poorly disguised snort. The “European” outlook on Iraq and other trouble spots around the world, he said, was “sophisticated.” President George Bush, on the other hand, had only a “simple” grasp of the international situation. But still, the interviewer insisted, surely there is a role for world leadership inspired by clear, black-and-white declarations of good and evil.

Astoundingly, the French guest’s answer “no.” He said (I’m trying to remember the exact quote) something like: “In today’s world, we cannot afford moral leadership.”

Sure was a clarifying moment for me. At least this individual wasn’t trying to cloak his cynicism the way some of his country’s leaders have.

The second conversation was one I had with a local elected official who wanted to complain about some of the research and writing the John Locke Foundation had done on the issue of economic incentives. Of course, he said, paying taxpayer money to large companies that promise to invest in a community and create jobs there is “wrong.” But in today’s economic climate, he continued, you just can’t afford to let your “morals” stand in the way of getting “results for your people.”

These two persons apparently think they are worldly wise. The opposite is true. One of the chief functions of human moral systems — Western and non-Western, religious and secular, individualistic and collectivistic — is to help human beings make difficult decisions. This help is in the form of the collective wisdom of fellow human beings who in countless previous generations of experience have seen it all, lived through it all, made virtually all the possible mistakes, and learned from them.

If you try to make every important decision in your life in a moral vacuum, attempting like some extreme utilitarian to calculate costs and benefits for every conceivable permutation, you will for all practical purposes be immobilized. With moral standards to follow, however, you can tap the wisdom of your elders, your spirituality, or your God. This won’t always relieve you of making a difficult decision. There are moral complexities and contradictions in life. But those who see shades of gray everywhere aren’t sophisticated. They are color-blind.

In international relations, it should be obvious that a policy is flawed if it requires a country perpetually to ignore the tyrannies and miseries of others, to do business with fascists and murderers, and to risk attack with weapons of mass destruction on the assumption that a bluff about nuclear retaliation is a sufficient deterrent.

In economic development, it should be obvious that a policy is flawed if it taxes some businesses in order to subsidize others, if it essentially punishes entrepreneurs and investors who don’t play ball compared to their politically connected peers, and if it imposes the cost of government services — the public safety, education, transportation, and other needs associated with a development and its workers — disproportionately on third parties, especially small businesses and households.

It should be obvious. The fact that, for two people today, it wasn’t obvious is testament to our desperate need for moral leadership — the protestations of sniveling French weasels notwithstanding.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.