Written to pierce any surviving liberal optimism as the Roaring ’20s gave way to the disastrous ’30s, Moral Man and Immoral Society concerns the effects of sin on human society and, in particular, on human collectivities or groups. Niebuhr says that all human life is marked by sin, especially in the forms of ignorance and selfishness, but at least the individual sometimes demonstrates the potential to rise above ignorance and selfishness to reach rational analysis and unselfish concern for others. Human groups, on the other hand, are both more stupid and more selfish than individuals. They seem especially impervious either to rational or moral appeal, easily prone to self-deception and demagoguery, and apparently needful of the imposition of a power greater than their own power if they are to accede to any changes that cut against their own self-interest. . . .I find the analysis spot on. But what to do? Marx called for Revolution, which mainly brought us concentration camps and secret police. Niebuhr called for more religion, but I am dubious of the notion that a more religious society would necessarily be a more just one. (Consider medieval Europe.) As for the “effectively organized collective power of the workers,” that got us a certain distance toward justice but seems incapable of taking us any further. I suppose Niebuhr would have said that our sinful nature sets severe limits on how just a society we could actually build in this world, and while recognizing that this may be true I am not willing to stop trying.
Moral appeals to the holders of great economic power and privilege are almost always fruitless, Niebuhr says. Their tremendous power must be countered by the effectively organized collective power of the workers, either in the form of revolution (which has its own dangers) or through political processes that gradually win gains for the proletariat through collective bargaining and government regulation to mitigate inequalities and ensure a measure of worker rights and economic security.
Niebuhr recognized that racial injustice in America could be subjected to the same kind of analysis that he offers of the economic problem. Scattered throughout his book he offers some insightful, though not always satisfactory, commentary on the plight of black Americans in a land of white privilege. Some of this commentary resonates deeply today.
For example, Niebuhr notes that “it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.” He then applies this insight to white attitudes toward black Americans, at the time the issue being white opposition to full voting rights for blacks based on the claim that they were incompetent to exercise said franchise. . . .
Moreover, privileged groups have an extraordinary ability to “identif[y] [their] interests with the peace and order of society.” Self-deception reigns among the privileged because, among other reasons, to see reality more truly would place an unbearable moral pressure on such groups to resign privilege in favor of greater justice. Instead, privileged groups call in the forces of state power in the purported interests of the “peace and order” of society as a whole, but in fact to suppress movements of the oppressed for social change and greater justice.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Reinhold Niebuhr Explains Modern Politics
David Gushee looks to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) for an explanation of America's ongoing racial troubles: