Thursday, June 10, 2010

Niebuhr, Reinhold - Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics


In the introduction to this work Niebuhr states his thesis clearly and succinctly. His overarching thesis is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and groups, including nations and economic classes. Individuals are able to overcome their egotism and transcend themselves and their interests and consider others. Groups, however, lack this capacity. This is a result of collective egoism in which individuals sublimate their individual egos into the group, but the group re-expresses this egoism at a higher level causing intergroup conflict.

Niebuhr, thus, aims to engage in a polemic against moralists, those thinkers who think that the same resources that allow individuals to transcend their egos in their personal relationships, rationality or religion, can also be used in order to establish harmony between groups. Niebuhr argues that the moralists do not realize the limitations of rationality and religion to check the overwhelming egoism and self-interestedness of groups. They also do not realize the way in which rationality is bent in order to serve group interests and how human being lack the moral imagination to sympathize with others outside of their personal interactions. In contrast, he argues that the relationships between groups, both classes and nations, will always be governed by a clash of forces. Ethics may govern relations between individuals, but politics and, thus, the power of coercion must always govern the relations between groups.

Chapter One: Man and Society: The Art of Living Together

Niebuhr's overarching point in this chapter is that social relations are governed by a dialect in which "power sacrifices justice to peace within the community and destroys peace between communities."

He argues that while human beings may be motivated by the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill to consider the needs of others, there are limits to these capacities. Human beings lack the rationality and moral imagination to fully extend their sympathy for others and their interests beyond a certain boundary. Thus, all social cooperation beyond the level of an intimate social group requires a measure of social coercion in order to prevent individual from merely pursuing their own interests.
In order to ensure unity within a social group the will of the dominant subgroup will be imposed by force on the others. This will not necessarily be amoral; there will always be an interpenetration of ethics and coercion in politics.

However, the coercive aspect of politics, while allowing for social cohesion and peace, also allows for injustice. Social power necessarily develops towards social inequality as the more dominant group uses the force necessary for social cohesion in order to serve its own interests, chiefly its economic interests
A dialectic thus develops in which social power is necessary in order to ensure peace, both internal unity and protection from external forces; but, because social power inevitably leads towards social inequality, this inequality can undermine social peace because of the animosities that it fosters.

Additionally, because this social, intergroup inequality is at variance with the individual, interpersonal moral codes that individual live by, hypocritical, rationalizing ideologies are developed in order to justify the inequality. Even democracy is not free from this problem of social power and social justice. Democracy is enmeshed in the interests of the commercial classes that played a major role in its development.

Moreover, individual use the larger group in order to sublimate their basic egotism. They play out their drive for power through the relations of their group to other groups, thus exacerbating inter-group relations.

Therefore, Niebuhr claims society is in a perpetual state of war. Coercion is necessary but it leads to perpetual conflict. The goal therefore is not to create a social ideal, where power and coercion are absent; rather it is to strike the right balance between power and justice.

Chapter Two: The Rational Resources of the Individual for Social Living

In the next two chapters Niebuhr examines the arguments of the rationalist and religious moralists. His basic claim is that while they are right about the role that rationality and religion can play in the support of morality between individuals, they are wrong about its effectiveness in inter-group relations.

Because the basic source of social conflicts and injustices is ignorance and selfishness, rationalists often maintain that increased intelligence and rationality can overcome social conflict and injustice. Niebuhr disagrees. He claims that reason does allow individuals to transcend themselves and to consider the needs of others. Rationality increases our moral imagination and, thus, allows us to vividly appreciate the need of others. However, there is a basic limit to the range of humans' moral imagination and sympathy. Moral imagination and sympathy depends on personal contacts and direct relationships. Within a larger society moral imagination and sympathy must give way to a purer rationality of duty in order to check selfish impulses and consider the needs of others. Thus, growing rationality can destroy the uncritical acceptance of injustice. However, there are limits to the power of pure rationality as well.

Niebuhr writes that "Men will never be wholly reasonable and the proportion of reason to impulse becomes increasingly negative when we proceed from the life of individuals to that of social groups." (35) Niebuhr sees the social group as a collective entity, one that has a diminished rationality and a magnified will-to-power. Reason can be extended in order to control individuals' impulses, but its power drops off when it is applied to a group.

Additionally, reason can serve to augment collective egoism both by providing rationalizing justifications of social injustices and, through self-consciousness, spurring individuals' on to transcend themselves and give absolute significance to the interests of their group. In self-conscious awareness of her own finitude the individual seeks to transcend herself by participating in something greater than herself. Therefore, she reifies the group and its interests. Thus, she dedicates herself to promoting the interests of the group at the expense of justice for other groups. In this way the very extension of human sympathies beyond the individual to the group, while reducing conflict on a local level, increases conflict on a higher level. This allows the individual to see herself as moral, though this is an illusion.

Thus, while reason does allow the individual to extend beyond themselves to others, it lacks the ability to abolish social and political conflicts and may, in many cases, exacerbate them.

Chapter Three: The Religious Resources of the Individual for Social Living

Religious idealists believe that religion provides the resources for the abolishment of social and political conflict. Niebuhr wants to defend the role of religion in supporting morality on the level of individuals from the criticism of those that deny that religion has any moral benefit. However, he also argues that religion does not have the resources to abolish social and political conflict between groups.

Religion does have role in supporting morality. This is because, according to Niebuhr, "religion is a sense of the absolute" (52). It creates a perspective above and beyond humans' interests and concerns from which to judge them and find them lacking. This general insight is cashed out in four religious concepts, Asceticism, Love, Introspection, and Hope. The focus on asceticism in many religions inculcates the subordination of individual ego and self-interestedness to something beyond the self. The focus on love in religion inculcates the positive focus on others and providing for their needs. The religious attitude of contrition crucially involves introspection. Introspection allows for the discovery and rooting out of egoistic impulses. The religious messianic hope for an absolute society in which the ideal of love and justice will be fully realized allows for a vantage point from which to critically evaluate the present state of society.

However, religion does not have resources to solve the problem of social and political conflict. Indeed, paralleling his discussion of rationality, Niebuhr claims that it may exacerbate it. This is because, at the same time that religion expresses the relativization human interests before the absolute, it is also the fullest expression of human interests. God is not only the absolute before which humans' humble themselves, he is also the absolutizing of the self. Following Feuerbach, Niebuhr argues that, though God is seen as transcendent, he is also conceived as related to humans' both in terms of his qualities and his interest in humans. Thus, God and religion can be seen as a sublimation of the will-to-live. Religion can therefore be used to justify and encourage the pursuit of the interests of the self and the religious group

Additionally, religion with its focus on the absolute and otherworldliness can encourage moral, social and political indifferentism, removing the drive to establish justice in the world. Also, the religious focus on love as the motive for concern for the welfare of others has two drawbacks: As an emotion there are definite limits to the social range to which it can extend. Therefore, it is powerless to really effect relations in large social group, not to mention between groups. It draws the focus to the possession of a perfect motive as opposed to actual consequences. Finally, because religion envisions an absolute society as the goal, it may encourage defeatism in improving actual society. The distance between the actual society and the absolute society is vast. Religion, therefore, might encourage the idea that there is nothing humans can do in order to create the absolute society; this must come about through God.

In sum, religion cannot provide the resources for the building of a just society because its "highest visions are those which proceed from the insights of a sensitive individual conscience." (81) These can be realized in an intimate religious community but not in wider society or in the relations between nations or societies.

Chapter Four: The Morality of Nations

In this chapter, Niebuhr brings central focus on his thesis that "group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterize individual relations" (83) He does this through an analysis of the structure of groups as well as through historical examples, I will only focus on his analysis.

Nations, according to him, are intrinsically selfish. There are a number of reasons for this:

As a collective entity, a group, in contrast to an individual, does not have direct contact with others. Individuals from different groups may come into contact with one another, but the group does not directly come into contact with another group. Contact with others is a prerequisite, however, for the perception of need and the development of sympathy and justice. Because a group does not have these contacts, therefore it does not develop sympathy for others and their needs.

Additionally, the collective group, or the nation, only possesses the rationality that is necessary in order to curb egotism in attenuated sense. Some or even many of its citizens may be highly intelligent, but the nation as a whole functions more as a result of will and emotion than intelligence. Thus, the nation lacks the means for self-criticism and the transcendence of its own interests. Indeed, the nation often interprets internal criticism and disloyalty and punishes its critics.

Moreover, because social unity is attained through social power and results in inequality, the nation will often pursue the interests of the dominant power within it.

National selfishness is also magnified by the paradox of patriotism. Patriotism and patriotic sacrifice involves the self-transcendence of the individual in his or her subordination of his personal interests to that of others and the nation. At the same time, however, "the unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation's power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations." (91)The nation, therefore, allows for the projection and vicarious satisfaction of individual egotism. It is therefore both" a check upon and a vent for the satisfaction of individual egoism "(93)

In addition to its intrinsic selfishness, the nation is infected with hypocrisy. The nation uses hypocrisy in order to rationalize its selfish motivations. It identifies its particular interests with universal values and ideals, which are, in truth incompatible. It asks for its members' loyalty both as an expression of their devotion to their own particular community as well as purported universal values and ideals. Niebuhr gives a number of historical examples in order to illustrate this phenomenon.

Niebuhr then closes this chapter with reflections on why this situation is irremediable. He argues that subordinating the use of force to morality by placing its control in the hands of an impartial authority has not worked both within the nation, where powerful classes control the courts, and in the international arena, where powerful nations control the League of Nations. Furthermore, the economic and social structure within nations, where dominant classes use the nation in order press their interests, ensures the conflict between nations. Until this internal problem is rectified, the clash between nations is inevitable. He moves in the coming chapters to discuss these class conflicts and the possibilities for their resolution.

Chapter Five: The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes

According to Niebuhr, the economic circumstances of classes inevitably influence, or even determine, the social and ethical outlook of their members. This is a fact that, while appreciated by many economists, has not been noticed by the religious and rational moralists. Thus, they do not take it into account when they claim that social conflict can be abolished through religion or rationality. The selfishness of classes may be qualified by religion and rationality but it cannot be done away with.

The privileged classes' ethical attitudes are colored by self-deception and hypocrisy, in which they elevate their particular class's interests to the status of general interests and universal ideals.
They mobilize their intelligence in order to defend the social inequalities that favor them, when in fact the inequality is too great to have any justification.

The most common form of this hypocrisy is the claim that their special privileges are just compensation for performing especially useful or meritorious functions, like I-Banking. The privileged classes claim that the underprivileged classes lack the capacity to perform these functions, either congenitally or because of lack of education. Education, in fact, is a good example of the potential and limitations for the abolishment of class conflict through rational means. While it can allow underprivileged the opportunity to attain a measure of equality with the privileged classes, it also can be used by the privileged to inculcate their own hypocritical ideology among the lower classes.

Beyond claiming greater intelligence and capacity for performing special functions as the source of the privileges, dominant classes often assert their moral superiority in order to buttress their claim for privilege. A particular example of this is the ideological belief that hard work and thriftiness always results in the attainment of privilege. This belief is often held by the middle classes. The upper classes often identify 'class' and 'manners' with the moral superiority that justifies privilege.

More generally though, privileged groups often identify the political and social arrangement that benefit themselves the most as necessary for the peace and order of society in general. They then defend this organization in the name of law and order. The privileged classes' claim to only want to protect peace and order is belied, however, by their embrace of violence in international relations.

Because of the way these economic factors affect the ideology of the privileged classes, social conflict is less susceptible to abolishment by reason than the moralists believe. Indeed, their belief that rationality can dissolve these conflicts is a result of their comfortable economic situation, which blinds them to the desperate problems of social justice that afflict the proletarian class.

Chapter Six: The Ethical Attitudes of the Proletarian Class

According to Niebuhr, while social injustice has always been present in the past, the particular conditions of the industrial age and the rise of democratic movements has allowed for the emergence the proletarian class as a self-conscious class. The depersonalized nature of industrial labor along with its mass scale has intensified the conflict between the classes, while the education that comes along with the democratic movements has given the proletarian class the means for self-expression.

The proletarian class is marked by a unique combination of ethical attitudes. On the one hand, moral cynicism about the actual morality of men, along with, on the other hand, an 'unqualified equalitarian social idealism' as a goal for society.

Moral cynicism is expressed in terms of a Marxist materialistic and deterministic interpretation of history. Society is viewed as solely a realm of conflict between classes; all other cultural, ethical, or religious features of society are seen as mere rationalizing ideologies meant to obscure this fact.
Social injustice must, therefore, be rectified only through the use of force. For the true proletarian Marxist only revolutionary struggle will end injustice. This view of society is directed against democracy along with all other societal arrangements. The proletarian classes' loyalty to the nation is inversely related to the amount of injustice it suffers in the nation. Similarly, its self-consciousness as a class as well as individual's loyalty to the class is related directly to the amount of injustice that is suffered.
Niebuhr believes that this moral cynicism is both a negative and a positive development. It is negative in that it represents "modern man's loss of confidence in moral forces." But it is positive because it tears away rationalizing hypocrisy and exposes the true nature of mankind's collective history.

Additionally, like the development of national self-consciousness, the proletarian class, as it begins to become self-conscious, universalizes its own interests and ideals as valid for all of society. This is the source of its unqualified social idealism. In this way, the proletarian class engages in a Nietzschian transvaluation of values, exalting the values and ideals that they have acquired as an oppressed class as those of highest value. While there is an aspect of rationalizing ideology in the universalization, Niebuhr finds it less problematic than that done by nations and the privileged classes. The oppressed position of the proletarian class provides it with a more true view on society and better vantage point from which to project a social ideal. Moreover, the absolute nature of the Marxist ideal of social equality is a legitimate social ideal and serves as an antidote to any rationalizing of injustice. The fact that this ideal emerges as a rationalizing of an oppressed position and not from pure ethical imagination does not delegitimize it. Its ethical quality should be affirmed.

Niebuhr also believes that there is religious aspect to the proletarian unqualified social idealism. Contrary to the Marxist claims to provide a materialist science of history, what is really being provided is an apocalyptic vision, the realization of the absolute. At the same, there is an aspect of romantic illusion in this ideal of a classless society. The destruction of economic privilege will not remove human beings' desire to make selfish use of power. Additionally, there are questions about the preferable means for achieving social equality. It is to this issue that Niebuhr turns in the next two chapters.

Chapter Seven: Justice through Revolution

Niebuhr begins this chapter with a discussion of the immorality of violence. According to him, violence is not intrinsically immoral. Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing is intrinsically good except good-will. As a result of his analysis of the motives of the proletarian class' motives, he concludes that they are as pure as the motives of a collective entity can be. Thus, prima facie, revolutionary violence on behalf of the proletarian social ideal is permissible. Indeed, the Niebuhr claims that the objectives of Marxist politics are "identical with the most rational possible goal, that of equal justice." (Anyone think that Obama and McCain had that line in mind when the said the Niebuhr was their favorite theologian, or at least meant to admit that when they made the statement?) However, a balance must be made between means and ends. It is not true that the end never justifies the means; at the same time, it is also not true that the ends always justify the means.

The assumption that violence is immoral rests on two errors. The first is that violence is always an expression of ill-will, while non-violence is always an expression of good will. But once is it is admitted that society must always have a measure of coercion involved with it, this absolute distinction cannot be drawn. The second is due to an uncritical identification of traditional instrumental values with intrinsic moral values. But if only a good-will is intrinsically good, then all other values are instrumental in nature and must be balanced in any concrete situation. What is needed is a reflective morality, which reanalyzes purported intrinsic moral values as instrumental values. The conflict between the middle class values of individuality and hypocritical moral sentimentality and the proletarian values of classes and moral cynicism cannot be adjudicated a priori. If Marxist revolution can succeed in establishing social justice then it is legitimate.

So the question is about the real political possibility of establishing justice through violence. However, Niebuhr does not think that the prospects are good for two main reasons. First, there are too many different classes in a complex modern society, each with its own distinct interests, which would resist a proletarian revolution. Second, there is division within the proletarian class. (This division will occasion the discussion in the next chapter about the possibilities of justice through political force.)

An additional question is about the possibility of maintaining such an ideal society, were it to be established. There are a number of reasons to suspect that it would not. First, the abolition of economic privileges requires the assertion of strong centralized political force. This centralization of political power may itself give rise to inequality and injustice. Second, and more generally, while selfish egotism may be curbed, it is a romantic illusion to believe that it can completely abolished. Egotism will resurface through any means possible and, thus, bring about social inequality. Thus, it seems that the maintenance of the social ideal of the proletarian as a reality also does not seem realistic enough to justify the violence of revolutionary action.

Chapter Eight: Justice through Political Force

As mentioned above, the proletarian class itself is divided. This division is into two major groups. The unskilled workers, who are less favored. They tend to support revolutionary action. The second group, the skilled workers, is more favored by the capitalistic system. As a result they tend to support parliamentary and evolutionary methods in order to achieve justice. The goal of the second group requires the acquisition of political power.

This method for the achievement of greater social equality has been partial successful. The political system corrects some of the injustice perpetrated by the economic system. As a political process, there is the usual mixture of ethical and coercive factors in it.

There are problems with trying to achieve social justice through democratic political means, however.
Transfer of wealth through taxation is affected by the law of diminishing returns. Additionally, the proletarian class must rely on the cooperation of the middle classes in order to achieve a parliamentary majority. However, the middle class, because of its own comfortable position in the current system, is ill-equipped to really appreciate the plight of the proletarian classes. Education cannot full rectify this situation. Additionally, experts cannot be counted to identify social inequalities and to rectify them as they themselves are influenced by their class and the power of interest groups. Finally, it cannot be hoped that the peasant and the farmer can be counted on to join with the proletariat in order to form a parliamentary majority. All these factors militate against the full achievement of the ideals of the proletarian classes.

Perhaps, however, it can achieve some of its goals gradually by collaborating with the other classes politically, while relinquishing the full realization of its ideal. There are problems with this approach as well. The abandonment of the absolute goal of complete social equality might remove the fervor that is necessary to keep the movement going. Also, there is the possibility that the political leaders of the proletariat might be co-opted through the political process by the other classes. This might occur because of personal weakness or because of more political reasons. The proletariat leaders might be co-opted because by participating in the political process they have already identified with the national unit. This leaves them susceptible to the lures of nationalism. Indeed, the proletarian movement that chooses gradual and democratic means for pressing for social justice as a whole always lies open to being complicit in nationalism. This nationalism perpetuates intra-national injustice as well as international conflict.

Thus, there are advantages as well as disadvantages both to trying to achieve social justice through revolution and through politics. A choice between the two is not possible merely on the basis of rationality or morality. It will always be determined by other factors.

Chapter Nine: The Preservation of Moral Values in Politics

After examining these more specific issues, Niebuhr returns to consider a problematic feature of his political realism. He writes, "A too consistent political realism would seem to consign society perpetual warfare. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is not possible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?" (231)

Niebuhr claims that the solution is that there is no solution. A delicate balancing act must be performed in which peace and injustice are balanced against coercion and justice. Both coercion and injustice can never be fully eliminated, but they must be minimized in order to maximize peace and justice. In

Moralism and social intelligence cannot totally eliminate coercion and injustice, but they can help in trying to strike the balance. They can also help in determining the best means used to achieve the goal of justice, just because coercion is a necessary part of political life does not mean that any coercive force should be used. Coercive power should be vested in the most impartial authority that can be found. It should not, however, be assumed that the government can ever be totally divorced from the interests of dominant classes. Also, it should not be assumed the distinction between violent and non-violent coercion is as clear as it might appear. Even the principle of mere non-cooperation can result in consequences similar to that of violence. Education as well contains coercive elements. There is an element of propaganda in all education.

The central issue in the use of coercive powers is thus whether it proceeds from good-will or bad-will. Whether the coercive force is violent or non-violent is important, but not essential. Thus, it is more the temper of non-violence then the method of non-violence which is important. Both the temper and the method of non-violence are useful, however, because they deprive the opponent of the moral conceit of defending the peace and order of society.

Another issue, related to the temper and method of non-violence, is resentment. Limiting resentment helps to see the situation clearly and discriminate between the evils of a social system and particular individuals. Resentment does have certain uses, however. A complete lack of it seems to express a lack of moral vigor.

Non-violent coercion and resistance seems to be the most effective and least disruptive means for pressing for justice while maintaining peace. The religious imagination plays a large role in developing non-violent resistance. Principally, it allows one to appreciate common human frailty of oneself and one's political opponent. It is a major problem that religion has been sentimentalized in Western Civilization and is not seen as a source for strength in this area. History will always be an arena of conflict. It should not be thought that religion can be used to bring about an eternal peace. Nor should it be thought that religion has nothing to do with this world. Instead religion should play the role of qualifying and limiting the inevitable strife of the world.

Chapter Ten: The Conflict between Individual and Social Morality

Because of the clash of forces that are ineliminable in social life, there is an irreconcilable conflict between "the needs of society and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience" (257), between politics and ethics. The highest ideal of society is justice, while the highest ideal of the individual is unselfishness. Justice requires self assertion, resistance, coercion and resentment. Unselfishness requires "losing and finding oneself in something greater than oneself."

This conflict is no absolute, but it is not easily harmonized. Moral imagination can lead to foolish idealism. But, moral imagination is needed both if justice is to be approximated and not to degenerate into injustice. Moral imagination makes individuals aware of the needs of others. It also moderates the means with which justice is pursued.

Politics and ethics must be balanced in regards to their overarching goals as well. From the perspective of morality, the highest act is one that comes from disinterested motives. But, from the perspective of society, a competition of interests is necessary to preserve its highest ideal - justice. The former can be identified with religious morality, while the latter can be identified with political morality. Religious morality might encourage the injustice of others, while political morality might enable injustice through its approval of self-assertion. Rational morality attempts unsuccessfully to mediate between the two. An uneasy harmony between the two is necessary.

Pure religious idealism fails to appreciate the tension between ethics and politics. True, in intimate communities love is the only way to attain justice. However, the validity of love as a social ideal is attenuated as the social group gets larger. Indeed, as result of considering the plight of African Americans, Niebuhr claims that, "[e]very effort to transfer the pure morality of disinterestedness to group relations has resulted in failure" (268).

A double dualism is thus necessary. There must be a distinction between the moral judgments applied to the self and those applied to others. Egotism and selfishness must be disapproved more strongly in oneself than in another. There must be another distinction between what we expect of individuals and groups.
The selfishness of groups must be regarded as inevitable. The selfishness of a group can be checked only be an opposite assertion of power. Moral goodwill can only qualify, but not eliminate this conflict.
But unselfishness should remain as a goal for the individual. This will indirectly aid the promotion of the interests of the group. But it is, moreover, intrinsically valuable.

In closing, Niebuhr stresses the importance of social issues for our age. It is no longer feasible for individuals to think that they can focus on their own perfection and cultivation. At the same time it is important not to get carried away into social idealism. Idealism must be tempered by a realism that moderates, but does not destroy its vision.


  1. 我對自己的信心已超越別人對我的評價........................................

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Will history ALWAYS be an arena of conflict??? "ALWAYS" implies a long, looooong time... who presumes to know for sure what the future will or will not bring? :-)

  4. Thank you so much for publishing this wonderful summary!


  5. Good article, keep it up, your writing is well consistent. ..

  6. "Individuals are able to overcome their egotism and transcend themselves and their interests and consider others." Why would "considering others" be inherently incompatible with primary concern with one's own interests?