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Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics

(Library of Theological Ethics)

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  997 ratings  ·  73 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 morality ...more
Paperback, 284 pages
Published January 1st 2002 by Westminster John Knox Press (first published January 1st 1930)
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May 02, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Mikey B.
Dec 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
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
Laura Howard
Jan 20, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A book built on assumptions with which I cannot begin to imagine identifying—and Niebuhr did not even begin to justify those assumptions. And I don’t understand how such a book could be called theology.
Adrian Colesberry
Apr 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nov 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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 hypothesi
robin friedman
Apr 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Reinhold Niebuhr On Ethics And Politics

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. I am in the process of reading and reviewing the four books separately before reviewing the LOA volume.

At least since Plato's "Republic", philosophers
Jul 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
Although individuals can attempt to adhere to a moral code, nations constantly act in their own self-interest. This is not news, and it’s an analysis from 1931, based on pre-Nazi Germany (although Italy is already fascist by this point). Niebuhr analyses how Christian morals find or fail to find expression in democratic systems. The observations are satisfying at first, but as the book progresses, the increasing uses of the terms proletariat and other similar rhetoric, places this book firmly in ...more
Conor Williams
Feb 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: pragmatism
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
Joseph Stieb
Mar 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is the 3rd Niebuhr book I've read, although I've gone way out of chronological order. Like all of them it is fairly dense and not for the impatient. However, I still found it rewarding and interesting to trace this early stage in his intellectual evolution. Written in 1932, this book contends that the moral standards we hold for individuals (selflessness, love, reason) essentially cannot be applied to groups. The creation of coherent, functioning collectives, from tribes to churches to civi ...more
Sean Cox-marcellin
Aug 15, 2017 rated it liked it
Abstract and verbose. Certainly not as concise as Irony.(I've got something like 145 highlights, I don't know if any of them are valuable outside of their context).

It is written at a very interesting time, 1932, when Communism was in Russia but had not shown the full horror of Stalinism, fascism was in power in Italy, but not in Germany, nor had it shown the full horror of Nazism. Niebuhr analyzes the struggles between particular and general interests, individual and collective power, and the p
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
Dec 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Tony Gualtieri
Jan 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
A study from 1932, which is very relevant now, on how good individuals can combine into bad collectives. It has insights into the value of being a political realist. Neibuhr was a theologian, but he was no utopian.
Mar 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Difficult but important
Sep 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book was instrumental in my development as an adult human being. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written.
Will Dezern
Jul 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theology
Christian realism or Christian pessimism? Niebuhr rightly argues that individuals have the capacity to more easily act morally, whereas collective society has a more difficult time uphold values as groups struggle for power. Early in the book, Niebuhr argues that religion, with its vision of perfection, and education, which supplies individuals to see beyond self, are helpless to stop the will-to-power of larger groups, and on a national level, may even exacerbate the problem. Because of this, f ...more
Ben Guterson
May 02, 2018 rated it liked it
I was attracted to the premise--the gap that can exist between forging an individual, selfless ethic and the implementation of public justice--but several of the chapters in this book relied on period political considerations (Niebuhr was writing between World Wars) that slowed the exposition, as did Niebuhr's sermon-like style. Stretches of the book, however, were remarkably farsighted and remain relevant to concerns still under examination: "The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged group ...more
Don Bryant
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Niebuhr, unlike his fellow liberal theologians, makes a place for radical evil and the necessary response of force to stop it. He had been a pacifist previous to the rise of Nazi Germany. Long before the rise of the religious right and the Moral Majority, the liberal church had been politically active and dominated the religious response to political, social and economic issues. It was largely socialist and pacifist. Niebuhr's move to a just war paradigm was a break with the liberal church. He d ...more
J. Christy Wareham
This giant of 20th century American liberal Protestant theology set the terms for discussion for at least two generations. His thought was clear headed, bold and original, and he was a realist who never danced around an idea or conviction. Reinhold Niebuhr rejected Evangelicalism's anti-intellectualism, employing instead the long-standing disciplines of Protestant (and sometimes Catholic) biblical criticism so disdained by Christian conservatives of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Moral Man
Robert Fulton
Dec 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Let the title speak for itself. Despite the fact that this book is close to 90 years old, Niebuhr offers tremendously cogent insights into the nature of modern politics, society, and religion today. As you might expect from a 1930s perspective, he correctly calls out Communists and Fascists for the ways in which they dangerously manipulate emotions and beliefs, creating myths to love and enemies to hate. The value here is how the ideas and theories he lays out are particularly applicable to the ...more
Joe Miller
Oct 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you want to understand the current political climate of hatred toward political/social conservatives... If you want to understand the thinking behind the phrase "white privilege"... If you want to understand Black Lives Matter... read Niebuhr who writes:
"The physical sciences gained their freedom when they overcame the traditionalism based on ignorance, but the traditionalism which the social sciences face is based upon the economic interest of the dominant social classes who are trying to ma
Jan 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Niebuhr wrote this in the early 1930's, between the World Wars, but it reads like it was written this morning. His analysis explodes off the pages with penetrating relevance for today.

"We live in an age in which personal moral idealism is easily accused of hypocrisy and frequently deserves it. It is an age in which honesty is possible only when it skirts the edges of cynicism. All this is rather tragic. For what the individual conscience feels when it lifts itself above the world of nature and
Feb 23, 2019 rated it liked it
I read this after learning how much it influenced ML King, and it seems to be one of the few philosophical works from which one can point a direct causal result to societal change.

Niebuhr makes a number of interesting arguments: national morality tends to be selfish even with the good individual morality of its constituents, because of self-preservation; Marxists are cynical about individual morality, whereas capitalists are cynical about institutional morality; the Marxist vision thinks of itse
Aug 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Niebuhr analysis the problem of human morality from the perspective of the individual and the group and the role that religion, idealism and reason play in it.
He reflects on the limits on morality pose by human nature and the value and risks of ignoring such limits.

There is a very detail analysis of the justifications conscious and unconscious that are use by individuals of the different classes of society to justify its many injustices and maintain existing relations of power with ample histor
Jun 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In retrospect it was pretty naive of me to dive into this sucker as a layman, and without any context no less. It's worth the effort but I ran out of library renewals and ended up powering through the second half at a quicker clip than I normally would... gonna revisit this after I've recovered (and done some more background reading, because holy fuck I never appreciated how little I know about ethics or politics in general).
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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

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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.” 38 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.” 11 likes
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