Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reading Niebuhr's Moral Man: Introduction

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing." (xi) These are the words of the late Harvard political theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the Introduction to his seminal work, Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960 ed.). It is a work about social justice, and its argument exists along the margin between the doctrine of human depravity, the demand of Jesus and the Torah to love one's neighbor and the Creator's ordinance to humankind to "subdue the world."

Niebuhr's introduction divides into three parts: a critique of scientific and therapeutic moralism (including religious liberalism); a pessimistic demarcation between private and public ethics; and the suggestion of a new way toward reform which Niebuhr suggests is more realistic than what has come before.

Religious and secular moralists are the foil of Niehbuhr's argument. These "imagine that the egoism of individuals is being progressively checked by the development of rationality or the growth of a religiously inspired goodwill and that nothing but the continuance of this process is necessary to establish social harmony between all the human societies and collectives." (xii) Among these are John Dewey and John Childs, who represent the scientific and educational pole, and social scientists such as Hornell Hart and Floyd Allport, who represent the sociologists, or, in my words, the therapeutic. According to Niebuhr, the scientists and educators fail because they are "too enamored of . . . reason." Following the success of the physical sciences who gained their freedom from tradition through experimentation, these believe a similar method to success in the social arena. Tradition must be overcome by reason. The assumption is that "our social difficulties are due to the failure of the social sciences to keep pace with the physical sciences which have created our technological civilization." Therefore, better teaching, more experimental research and a little time [for Hegel's Geist?] and "our social problems will approach solution." (xiii) The problem, says Neibuhr, is that "the traditionalism which the social sciences face is based upon the economic interest of the dominant social classes." In other words, the social scientists need to wake up to the way things are; "the economic interest of the dominant social classes" means they will "try to maintain their special privileges in society" or the tradition. Those in power are going to want to keep the status quo so that they can stay in power. "Social injustice," writes Neibuhr, "cannot be resolved by moral and rational suasion alone . . . Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power." (xiv-xv)

Sociologists are worse--they don't even understand the problem! "They usually interpret social conflict as the result of a clash between different kinds of 'behavior patterns' ". Applied therapeutic techniques and accommodating dialog is the universal prescription for peace and justice (the process of which is governed totally by the social scientists, of course, who thereby set themselves up to be the next priestly class.) The therapist's hope is ridiculous and utopian, for its success lies "upon the possibility of developing a degree of economic disinterestedness among men of power which the entire history of mankind proves them incapable of acquiring." (xix) This is a "romantic overestimate of human virtue and moral capacity." (xix) Neihbuhr's response: "Only a very few sociologists seem to have learned than an adjustment of a social conflict caused by the disproportion of power in society will hardly result in justice as long as the disproportion of power remains." (xvi-xvii) "Anarchism, with an uncoerced and voluntary justice, seems to be either an explicit or implicit social goal of every second social scientist." (xix)

Classic Christian liberalism falls into this same trap. Rather than trusting in scientific or therapeutic methodology, liberal Christianity "has given itself to the illusion that all social relations are being brought progressively under the 'law of Christ.' ". Christian liberalism conflates, then, the gospel of Christ with the progress of personal and political civilization (meaning the advancement of the social power of the middle class bourgeoisie.)

Niebuhr says the emperor has no clothes. He is a muckraker. Private and public ethics (the latter he calls politics) are totally disparate. Groups are morally far inferior to individuals. "The inferiority of the morality of groups to that of individuals is due in part to the difficulty of establishing a rational force which is powerful enough to cope with the natural impulses by which society achieves its cohesion; but in part it is merely the revelation of a collective egoism, compounded of the egoistic impulses of individuals, which achieve a more vivid expression and a more cumulative effect when they are united in a common impulse than when they express themselves separately and discreetly." (xii) "What is lacking among all these moralists, whether religious or rational, is an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives, and the power of self-interest and collective egoism in all inter-group relations. Failure to recognize the stubborn resistance of group egoism to all moral and inclusive social objectives inevitably involves [moralists] in unrealistic and confused political thought. They regard social conflict either as an impossible method of achieving morally approved ends or as a momentary expedient which a more perfect education or a purer religion will make unnecessary. They do not see that the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end." (xx) "The relations between groups must . . . always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group." (xxiii)

The reason no science or therapy can coerce social reform and achieve social reform is that there are "coercive factors" operating in the political machine. The casual observer can't see them, and so overestimates the usefulness of moral and rational factors. And, these hidden factors are not benign, they coerce. They use force when necessary.

Conflict is a given. As Niebuhr writes: "Whatever increase in social intelligence and moral goodwill may be achieved in human history may serve to mitigate the brutalities of social conflict, they cannot abolish the conflict itself. That could be abolished only if human groups, whether racial, national or economic, could achieve a degree of reason and sympathy which would permit them to see and to understand the interests of others as vividly as they understand their own, and a moral goodwill which would prompt them to affirm the rights of others as vigorously as they affirm their own." But this, he says, is "beyond the capacities of human societies." (xxiv)

The utopian anthropology of the moralists must be abandoned. Their programs, no matter how good in intent, do not account for the limits of human imagination and intelligence. Thus, having made his critique, Neibuhr boldly states his intention to strike out toward a new way to achieve social justice. He's going to present his own program. He's going to make his own beginning; explore the variables in the political equation. But unlike the moralists, Neibuhr is going to keep one eye cocked toward the way things are. Good political thinking can brook no illusions, no matter how pessimistic.

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