Saturday, July 12, 2014

Moral Man and Immoral Society is a book founded upon a simple observation, namely that human immorality is amplified by ever larger societal structures - a group of people can make a decision that no individual in the group would make, precisely because none of them feel directly responsible for it.  Indeed, it is the nature of the nation-state that it is able to turn even selfless self-sacrifice into the servant of selfish immorality, as when a heroic soldier dies in an unjust war.  This simple observation has major implications.  Neither reason nor religion, according to Niebuhr, are adequate to the task - as valuable as they are, they are too easily co-opted and made servants of injustice.
Unfortunately, this leads to an all-encompassing moral cynicism, which views all of society as nothing but a mad scramble by individuals and factions for power and influence.  A fully "just" society being impossible, and peace being impossible without justice, even violence cannot be excluded as a political tool, except possibly on prudential grounds.  Niebuhr does not deny the existence of moral values, but he does claim that they cannot be established or maintained on a societal level except through coercion.  The only recourse, then, is to a dismal utilitarianism.
Niebuhr's logic is compelling if and only if the reader accepts his unstated premises.  For those who do not accept the dogma of the total depravity of man, or Hobbes' location of the motivating force of government in a war of all against all, or Marx's identification of justice with the equalitarian cause, however, it cannot satisfy.

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