Moral Man and Immoral Society

Moral Man and Immoral Society A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics) Reinhold Niebuhr, Cornel West 9

An outspoken progressive and reformer from the beginning, Niebuhr was also a keen observer of human behavior. Niebuhr was critical of the pacifism that permeated the social programs of mainstream liberal Protestantism (the "Social Gospel") that sought to correct political and social injustices mainly through appeals to "reason." Niebuhr did not believe "reason" worked. In "Moral Man and Immoral Society," Niebuhr makes the case that man is basically selfish and that those who have power do not listen to "reason" - that they will never surrender power if it is not in their own self-interest. He wrote, "reason is always the servant of [self-] interest in a social situation." Niebuhr insists that "power" (e.g., armies, laws, trade unions, etc.) is the only method that can affect change and correct injustice in settling the competing claims of nations, races, and social classes.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Niebuhr may seem to be out of fashion. This is unfortunate because his writings and observations about human nature are still as relevant today as they were in 1932.

Consider these passages, for example:

"No personal whim, which a human being might indulge, is excluded from the motives, which have prompted [rulers] to shed the blood of their unhappy subjects. Pride, jealousy, disappointed love, hurt vanity, greed for greater treasures, lust for power over larger dominions, petty animosities between royal brothers or between father and son, momentary passions and childish whims, these all have been, not the occasional but the perennially recurring, causes and occasions of international conflict. The growing intelligence of mankind and the increased responsibility of [rulers] to their people have placed a check upon the caprice, but not upon the self-interest, of men of power. They may still engage in social conflict for the satisfaction of their pride and vanity provided they can compound their personal ambitions with, and hallow them by, the ambitions of their group, and the pitiful vanities and passions of the individuals who compose the group."

Of Napoleon, Niebuhr wrote, "He could bathe Europe in blood for the sake of gratifying his overweening lust for power, as long as he could pose as the tool of...patriotism and as the instrument of revolutionary fervor. The fact that the democratic sentiment, opposed to the traditional absolutisms of Europe, could be exploited to create a tyranny more [bloody] and terrible than those which it sought ostensibly to a tragic revelation of the inadequacies of the human [mental capacities] with which men must try to solve the problems of their social life."

Of Teddy Roosevelt (and the Spanish-American War) Niebuhr wrote, "The ambition and vanity which prompted him could be veiled and exalted because the will-to-power of an adolescent nation and the frustrated impulses of pugnacity and martial ardor of the...`men in the street' could find in him symbolic expression and vicarious satisfaction."

Clearly these passages have great relevancy as we examine the question of how the United States got involved in an unprovoked and unnecessary war in Iraq - a war that has cost us more than 4,000 American young men and women, and uncounted numbers of Iraqi citizens. Using words attributed to Plutarch, Niebuhr wrote, "The poor folk go to war, to fight and die for the delights, riches and [luxuries] of others."

Perhaps more readers may want to consider picking up a copy of "Moral Man and Immoral Society" to understand its relevancy and its insights on human nature and the uses and abuses of power.

Floyd Johnson
Peoria, Arizona

78 of 86 people found the following review helpful

Some Sun Through Clouds of Self-Interest

By Charles G. Yopst on February 9, 2006

Format: Paperback

At first glance, Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892-1971) book "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (New York:Scribners, 1932, 1960), still relevant today, could seem to breed a cynical future "from the perspective of those who will stand in the credo of the nineteenth century," ". . . enmeshed in the illusion and sentimentalities of the Age of Reason." (xxiv) Niebuhr was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and previously pastor during the Great Depression of a small congregation in or near Dearborn, Michigan, many of whose parishioners worked for Ford Motor Company's factories. Niebuhr, having lived through the frustrations and hypocrisy of the Victorian era and economic depression and two World Wars, assessed people in group types of church denominations, nations, privileged classes, the middle class, blue-collar working classes, and mobs. He lamented the necessary time restraints that representative democracy requires and that permit self-interest to misuse information and lapse into greed.

The theme of Niebuhr's text is that sometimes more or less those persons who look and act morally, quickly revert to immoral behavior in the face of the crowd. This is a special, powerful, deceptive influence of emotional "contagion." He expands upon Lord John Acton's (1834-1902) famous sentence, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." (Letter to Bishop Creighton, April 5, 1887; Niebuhr, 6) "The Liberal Movement both religious and secular seemed to be unconscious of the basic difference between the morality of individuals and the morality of collectives, whether races, classes or nations." (ix, xi, xxv, 257f., 262, 1960 edition) He elaborates on the crowd's collective original sin powerful to influence others.

Religious insights, Niebuhr wrote, powerfully make people "conscious of their preoccupation with self." (54) "The disrepute in which modern religion is held by large numbers of ethically sensitive individuals, springs much more from its difficulties in dealing with those complexities [--ethics and politics (257) and economics (5, 15, 142)--] than from its tardiness in adjusting itself to the spirit of modern culture." (63, 75f.)

And about psychology, "There is nothing, that modern psychologists have discovered about the persistence of ego-centricity in [hu]man[ity], which has not been anticipated in the insights of the great mystics of the classical periods of religion." (54)

Niebuhr's ten chapters then continue to illustrate and explore his theme as basic to human nature, in a rich multiplicity of historical events: religion, politics, socialism, justice, wars, hypocrisy, and so on. Niebuhr cautions about blind belief in governments: "The creeds and institutions of democracy have never been fully divorced from the special interests of the commercial classes who conceived and developed them." (14) "Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality . . . ." (95, 117, 141, 177f.) Sinclair Lewis's (1885-1951) novel "Babbitt" (New York:Harcourt, Brace Co., 1922) reflects the history in Niebuhr's theme. So also does the historico-religious work of J. B. Noss's (and his brother David in later editions) "Man's Religions" (New York:Macmillan, 1964). Collective emotions, especially anger masked as justice, are exploited to their maximum.

Though Niebuhr wrestled with the basic polarization of authoritarianism versus true democracy and with human nature's compulsion of action-reaction, he does not reflect further upon and explore the phenomena that the majority consists of collections of minorities which control their leadership and polarization. (4, 5) Nevertheless, his perception of the historical human predicament is alarmingly accurate.

Niebuhr sees no comprehensive solution to this dilemma -- the individual motivated by love and society by justice -- though he hopes for groups of individuals that may bring about more of it. "Love must strive for something purer than justice if it would attain justice." (xxiv, 226, 264-266, 273f., 277)

The Rev. Dr. Charles G. Yopst, D.Min., D.T.R.
Mount Prospect, Illinois, NW of Chicago
[email protected]