Thursday, March 16, 2006

Niebuhr and the Origins of the Immoral Society

In this chapter, Reinhold Niebuhr lays out his political doctrine of depravity. The imaginative abilities of Human beings far outstrip the limits of their own being and environment. The resources of the world are in limited supply. Getting those resources, keeping them and distributing them is the function of power (Niebuhr calls such power coercion). Negotiation of power and between powers (coercive factors) is politics: "an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises."(4) In the process, families, communities, nations come into being--and with them, conflict.

"Society is perennially harassed not only by the fact that the coercive factors in social life (which the limitations of human intelligence and imagination make inevitable) create injustice in the process of establishing peace; but also by the tendency of the same factors, which make for an uneasy peace within a social group, to aggravate intergroup conflict. Power sacrifices justice to peace within the community and destroys peace between communities. It is not true that only kings make war. The common members of any national community, while sentimentally desiring peace, nevertheless indulge impulses of envy, jealousy, pride, bigotry, and greed which make for conflict between communities."(15-16)

The origins of conflict aren't completely bad. Niebuhr understands that human beings have a tendency toward other people.

"Man is endowed by nature with organic relations to his fellowmen; and natural impulse prompts him to consider the needs of others even when they compete with his own. With the higher mammals man shares concern for his offspring; and the long infancy of the child created the basis for an organic social group in the earliest period of human history. Gradually intelligence, imagination, and the necessities of social conflict increased the size of this group. Natural impulse was refined and extended until a less obvious type of consanguinity than an immediate family relationship could be made the basis of social solidarity. Since those early days the units of human cooperation have constantly grown in size, and the areas of significant relationships between the units have likewise increased."(2)

Also, human beings have brains. Human ingenuity gains dominance over nature, increasing production to satisfy the demand for more. Yet want and greed always outstrip every gain.

"The frustrations of the average man, who can never realize the power and the glory which his imagination sets as the ideal, makes him the more willing tool and victim of the imperial ambitions of his group. His frustrated individual ambitions gain a measure of satisfaction in the power and the aggrandizement of his nation."(18)

Conflict, then, is inevitable. "Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life. . . . It is man's sorry fate, suffering from ills which have their source in the inadequacies of both nature and human society, that the tools by which he eliminates the former should become the means of increasing the latter." (Ibid.) Like Foucault decades later, Niebuhr sees little hope: "there will be no salvation for the human spirit from the more and more painful burdens of social injustice until the ominous tendency in human history has resulted in perfect tragedy." (Ibid.) "Neither the prophets of Israel nor the social idealists of Egypt and Babylon, who protested against social injustice, could make their vision of a just society effective." (13) "Every group, as every individual, has expansive desires which are rooted in the instinct of survival and soon extend beyond it. The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power."

Power and coercion offer seemingly the only option available to guarantee oneself a piece of the pie (or at least some peace and protection from the violence of others.) Force is necessary for social cohesion and survival, and with force comes social inequality and the coercion necessary to enforce it. "All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion." (3-4) Such coercion can either be heavy-handed, as in despotism, or made largely covert, as in democracy. Indeed, democracy, rather than eliminating coercion--what Niebuhr calls a "romantic myth"--is absolutely coercive. The majority presses its will upon all minorities, using force, military and police, if necessary. Thankfully, because democracies check violence and encourage mutual consent, "the coercive factor in social life is frequently covert, and becomes apparent only in moments of crisis and in the group's policy toward recalcitrant individuals. Yet it is never absent." (4-5) "The coercive factor is always present in politics" with "political opinions . . . rooted in economic interests." And even religious organization do not escape. "If they are sufficiently large, and if they deal with issues regarded as vital by their members, [religious organizations] resort to coercion to preserve their unity." Though they "have usually availed themselves of a covert type of coercion (excommunication and the interdict) or they have called upon the police power of the state." (6)

Social power coalesces and centralizes for efficiency, says Niebuhr, and this creates inequality--inequality which is "impossible to justify." And at the center of all are the men of power. Through history, such men have been soldiers, landlords and priests. Today, however, economic power is in the ascendancy. "The economic, rather than the political and military power, has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions of the state to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power."(7)

The dominant class which controls all of this, Niebuhr calls "men of power." Men of power are the "modern professional man." Because they distribute goods, they quite naturally reserve a larger share for themselves "paying themselves inordinate rewards for their labors." Niebuhr's description of them is quite rude:

"The man of power, though humane impulse may awaken in him, always remains something of the beast of prey. He may be generous within his family, and just within the confines of the group which shares his power and privilege. With only rare exceptions, his highest moral attitude toward members of other groups is one of warlike sportsmanship toward those who equal his power and challenge it, and one of philanthropic generosity toward those who possess less power and privilege. His philanthropy is a perfect illustration of the curious compound of the brutal and the moral which we find in all human behavior; for his generosity is at once a display of his power and an expression of his pity. His generous impulses freeze within him if his power is challenged or his generosities are accepted without grateful humility. (If individual men of power should achieve more ethical attitudes than the one described, it remains nevertheless typical for them as a class; and is their practically unvarying attitude when they express themselves not as individuals but as a group.)" (13-14)

At any rate, excuses for their selfishness are "clearly afterthoughts." Here, Niebuhr’s description becomes ominous when I consider the American situation today.

"The facts [which excuse the excessive income of the economic overlords] are created by the disproportion of power which exists in a given social system. The justifications are usually dictated by the desire of the men of power to hide the nakedness of their greed, and by the inclination of society itself to veil the brutal facts of human life from itself. This is a rather pathetic but understandable inclination; since the facts of man's collective life easily rob the average individual of confidence in the human enterprise. The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior Sometimes they are as anxious to offer moral justifications for the brutalities from which they suffer as for those which they commit. The fact that the hypocrisy of man's group behavior, about which we shall have much more to say later, expresses itself not only in terms of self-justification but in terms of moral justification of human behavior in general, symbolizes one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command." (8-9)

Such lies cannot continue, however, and eventually the house of cards collapses. "All through history one may observe the tendency of power to destroy its very raison d'être. It is suffered because it achieves internal unity and creates external defenses for the nation. But it grows to such proportions that it destroys the social peace of the state by the animosities which its exactions arouse, and it enervates the sentiment of patriotism by robbing the common man of the basic privileges which might bind him to his nation." At first, the oppressed are afraid and so are coerced into cooperation with their own oppression. Still, "the same power, which prompts the fear that prevents immediate action, also creates the mounting hatred which guarantees ultimate rebellion." (11) Rebellion! A new house is erected, and the catch-22 of power and coercion begin again, no matter how much social benevolence and moral education attempt to stop it. "Society is in a perpetual state of war." What can be done?

On the heels of this depressing parade, Niebuhr begins to make judgments. "The problem which society faces is clearly one of reducing force by increasing the factors which make for a moral and rational adjustment of life to life; of bringing such force as is still necessary under responsibility of the whole of society; of destroying the kind of power which cannot be made socially responsible (the power which resides in economic ownership for instance); and of bringing forces of moral self-restraint to bear upon types of power which can never be brought completely under social control."

"So difficult is it to avoid the Scylla of despotism and the Charybdis of anarchy that it is safe to hazard the prophecy that the dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realized. It is a vision prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable of fulfillment by collective man. It is like all true religious visions, possible of approximation but not of realization in actual history. The vitality of the vision is the measure of man's rebellion against the fate which binds his collective life to the world of nature from which his soul recoils. The vision can be kept alive only by permitting it to overreach itself. But meanwhile collective man, operating on the historic and mundane scene, must content himself with a more modest goal. His concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster. That goal will seem too modest for the romanticists; but the romanticists have so little understanding for the perils in which modern society lives, and overestimate the moral resources at the disposal of the collective human enterprise so easily, that any goal regarded as worthy of achievement by them must necessarily be beyond attainment." "The future peace and justice of society therefore depend upon, not one but many, social strategies, in all of which moral and coercive factors are compounded in varying degrees."
See the previous post in this series: Reading Niebuhr's Moral Man: Introduction

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