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Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics)

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4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  557 ratings  ·  42 reviews
"Moral Man and Immoral Society" is Reinhold Niebuhr's important early study in ethics and politics. Forthright and realistic, it discusses the inevitability of social conflict, the brutal behavior of human collectives of every sort, the inability of rationalists and social scientists to even imagine the realities of collective power, and, ultimately, how individual moralit ...more
Paperback, 284 pages
Published January 1st 2002 by Westminster John Knox Press (first published January 1st 1930)
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Szplug
What Niebuhr is selling* with this bad boy from 1932: It pains me to have to say this, but it's Cluebat time for all you arm-linked and well-intentioned but tunnel-of-love-visioned LOLcat lightweights, awash in pacifist dreams and tiptoeing about waiting for the Kingdom of God to answer all of your pinned-and-needled hopes. That happy realm lies in the occluded future; the present is anointed in Original Sin. It's a dark, hard, cold world, the more so as we lose ourselves within the collective—a ...more
Mikey B.
There were some good points raised in this book – but for the most part I find the style overly verbose - an overuse of words. I agree with the main prognosis of the individual (good) arrayed against society (conformist – evil). There are a lot of obvious statements – like society being resistant to change.

I feel the proletariat is romanticized – who will be their leader – to be a leader one must rise above the proletariat level. In Hitler’s rise to power he was supported by all levels of societ
...more
Walter
This is Niebuhr at his finest (though most dense and packed with stream-of-consciousness). Insights into human nature, society, the influences on our choices from moral, ethical, spiritual, religious, political, economic and social perspectives, etc., are plentiful. The prose is tough - and, in truth, at points, impenetrable - but ultimately the cost is worth it to access so many critical guidelines for more effective individual and collective living.

Among the incredibly abundant piercing insigh
...more
Adrian Colesberry
A difficult book but essential reading for anyone wanting to engage in the conversation about how to effect improvement in the human condition. He judges society and any corporate body to be patently incapable of making moral decisions. In light of recent events, I don't know that any American today would disagree with him.
It's also nice to be reminded of a time when religious thinkers had nuanced intellectual positions. I'm sure these thinkers exist today, but the only opinions I hear from rel
...more
Andre
Niebuhr brought forth a great idea on the moral problem by contrasting the ethical attitudes of the 'Privileged' and 'Proletarian' classes. This is one of his most important explanations in MM&IS. Another solid suggestion in the book is learning to harmonize the animal nature of man with the spiritual needs of man in order to achieve justice and social progress. These two cases serve as pillars for every other premise in the book.

Niebuhr's writing implies that he had little room in his hypot
...more
Trice
The final chapter was focused on what I was hoping to read all along, looking at how we reconcile ethics with politics and idealism with realism, without ignoring either. The previous 9 chapters were certainly thought-provoking, however. It was interesting, too, to come across the completely unexpected reference to Moral Man, Immoral Society in Paulo Freire's and Miles Horton's spoken book, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. This put a lot of what Niebuhr ...more
Conor Williams
The following is part of my writeup on Moral Man and Immoral Society from my undergraduate thesis on John Dewey:

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr claims that Dewey underestimates the place of coercion and violence in human interactions. Niebuhr doubted that the social sciences could follow the natural sciences through experimentalism, since they were tied so carefully to various biases and predilections. From his perspective, interest-free social science was an oxymoron.

In his 1932 e
...more
Tony Gualtieri
Niebuhr's central insight is that personal morality and group mentality are incompatible and that the latter will always trump the former. This means that social change can only be achieved through political means and by economic coercion. Ethics and education may change individual minds but they will never overwhelm the inherent selfishness of the collective will. Thus, patriotism is used to justify evil ends, making the individual feel part of a select and morally exempt group.

It's a pessimis
...more
Robert D. Cornwall
Published in 1932 "Moral Man and Immoral Society" continues to speak with wisdom and clarity to the issues humans face. While individuals may have a certain sense of morality, society exists on a very different plane. Hypocrisy and self-preservation stand at the heart of human society, and humans are often compromised by it.

While not everything in this book transcends time, it is amazingly prescient about the political troubles we face. One of the issues he handles head on is our desire to see o
...more
Isai
I loved H. Richard Niebuhr's "Christ and Culture," so I decided to pick up this book written by his brother. Reinhold Niebuhr taught for many years at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the areas of ethics, theology, and political philosophy. The ethics and the political aspects are front and center as seen by the subtitle of the work. However, the theological aspect is kept to a minimum only appearing in glimpses by means of "religion," "Christianity," as well as other words. Nevertheles ...more
Adam
Brilliant. Has an uncomfortably Enlightenment-era view of reason, but his social critique and his analysis of the tension between ethics and politics is so spot-on. I wonder at some of his conclusions in the final chapter, but they're unsettling and challenging in ways I found helpful. In particular, the book problemitized my growing, and largely naive, faith in liberal progressivism as the solution to most major social problems. While I haven't quite abandoned the liberal ideal, Niebuhr has giv ...more
Robin Friedman
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -- 1971) was an American Protestant theologian and social thinker whose works continue to be read. The Library of America is about to publish a volume of Niebuhr's writing, including four books and a collection of essays, sermons and other works which has been provided to me for review. Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics: (Library of America #263) I am in the process of reading and reviewing the four books separately before reviewing the LOA volume.

At l
...more
Hadrian
Very interesting and skeptical view of individual vs. group morality, and would be very useful for one attempting to enact positive change in society.
David
The last three chapters Moral Man are so dense and, stylistically, almost stream of consciousness, that it really required a Herculean effort to slog through them. It was like finishing a marathon on an uphill grade. I probably took longer to get through those last three chapters than all the preceding chapters combined. Ultimately I had to abandon any hope of being able to evaluate each idea as it presented itself and resign myself to just taking one word after the other in the hopes that somet ...more
Scott
I have never been a fan of Niebuhr. But I'd never actually read him. Only secondary treatments. Having been influenced by Yoder and Hauerwas, his Christian realism never set well with me. That it could be claimed by neo-cons and liberals both in the last 13 years of American political life, didn't help.

But I found myself more persuaded than I expected. Maybe it is because I've grown more pessimistic and cynical?

I began the book in August when the world appeared to be going to hell (that I was b
...more
Tom
The final book in a series of theoretical readings I did at the beginning of this year. Niebuhr's thoughts on human moral behavior in groups was challenging both in style and content. Stylistically, the book is very dense, and contains long segments in which the author dwells on a certain idea that's somewhat tangential. Content-wise, the thesis of the book is that humans tend to act selfishly/immorally in groups when interacting with other groups, which contradicts my basic beliefs about human ...more
Chris
"THERE ARE IDIOTS. Look around." --Larry Summers

Economics, in its standard formulation, assumes rational markets, built from a base of rational actors. Summers, though a sexist jerk, was absolutely right to question that assumption, at least for purposes of dealing with real markets. Which brings us to Niebuhr. Moral Man, his 1932 bombshell, assesses the place of ethics, reason, religion, and persuasion in human societies. Niebuhr is as forceful as Summers, somewhat less of a sexist jerk, and fo
...more
Craig
One of the most influencing books on my thought on human nature. I'm not sure the book itself can be considered one of the greats, but it spoke to me in a way that resonated with my way of thinking more than other more classic texts have. Both a Christian theologian and an intellectual fluent in classical philosophy, Niebuhr's elaboration on human nature and its interaction with society brought together many different ideas and opinions I myself had been grappling with for some time. It crushes ...more
Brett
A worthy read from the perspective of its influence, not from the perspective of pleasure (it long and difficult). Even though most people have never heard his name, it is difficult to overestimate how much impact this man's political/ethical theory has influenced American thought and policy. His basic thesis is that in spite of whatever moral achievement can be accomplished in an individual life or intimate relationships, it is impossible when it comes to human collectives/societies. The collec ...more
Bob
This is the greatest book I have read in years. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Niebuhr is one of the most hard-boiled, yet reliably well-intentioned social theorists I have ever read. He is part of a great set of realistic commentators: The Prince, The Unheavenly City, Maxims, and, to a lesser extent The Complete Essays of Montaigne.
Michael
A great book, but one you'll want to dig into for long stretches as it's pretty dense (every other sentence seems like a premise for another book). My primary takeaway is that governments are incapable of behaving on moral parity with individuals, and that they should not, and that looking to them to do so is a futile endeavor that misses the point of effective government.

Current events and what they've revealed about our own expectations regarding how our government should react and behave indi
...more
John
Jun 05, 2012 John rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: to-buy
There is a lot in this book, and much of it is hardheaded, cool, and practical. While certain themes are repeated throughout, it seemed like every page had some new and provocative insight that challenged preconceived notions (he criticizes Gandhi at one point, and fairly, I might add). And though the book seems dated, I thought its age allowed the reader to judge the accuracy of some of Niebuhr's claims about, what was then, the future. Even then, this book has lost none of its relevance.
Rich Bergmann
Far be it from little old me to "review" a book by Reinhold Niebuhr, but I can say that this book, which was written between the War to End All Wars and the Other War That Followed It is STILL relevant today. An EXCELLENT treatment of morality and politics as applied to individuals and groups. An excellent read, especially given today's polarized political environment.
Bob Griffin
Read when I was in graduate school I have recently rediscovered this book and keep going back to it again and again because of the wisdom published in 1932 even before WWII. Many of these thoughts are so modern and applicable to the understanding of our present day world. Needs to be read again and again.
Tyler
The copy I read was actually printed in 1932 and it was amazing to think about how little "the course of human relations" has changed in the past seventy years. While he does make odd references to then-contemporary political scandals, all in all the book is a real classic.



Toussi21
It took me a year to finish this one. Any one who's ever questioned the role of the group in one's own personal idea of faith should definitely pick this up. Niebuhr has become my favorite theologian.
Bill
Niebuhr criticizes the naivete of socialists & moralists. But because he such an infelicitous writer, his insights are difficult to separate from the chaff that burden this overly long essay.
Andrew Brown
Anyone who wants to take pacifism seriously must first engage Reinhold Niebuhr. Purely classical text for understanding individual interaction with the structures of our society.
peter
After a lifetime of devoted pacifism, this is the one book that has made me critically re-examine not just the practicality of my views but indeed their moral and ethical import.
Charles
Can't be the final word, but an important work for Mennonites to wrestle with. Really sets the stage to read either JL Burkholder or JoHo Yo
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U.S. theologian. The son of an evangelical minister, he studied at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. He was ordained in the Evangelical Synod of North America in 1915 and served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Mich., until 1928. His years in that industrial city made him a critic of capitalism and an advocate of socialism. From 1928 to 1960 he taught at New Yor ...more
More about Reinhold Niebuhr...
The Irony of American History The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vols 1-2 Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense (Scribner library) The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses

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“Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep ordinary person on course.” 6 likes
“When economic power desires to be left alone it uses the philosophy of laissez faire to discourage political restraint upon economic freedom. When it wants to make use of the police power of the state to subdue rebellions and discontent in the ranks of its helots, it justifies the use of political coercion and the resulting suppression of liberties by insisting that peace is more precious than freedom and that its only desire is social peace.” 2 likes
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