Walter's Reviews > Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics

Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr
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's review
Oct 18, 2009

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 insights are the observations that individual and collective ultimate goals are different (the former favoring unselfishness, the latter justice) so that society is not simply an aggregation of individual interests; that even moral aims may require coercion and other means that are not themselves generally considered moral; that economically-driven class interests are most often disguised in political and social processes; that the privileged tend to favor the preservation of the status quo and its attendant "peace" over the agitations of the less fortunate who have greater exposure to injustice; and that the American Negro may need to use Gandhi-like non-violent strategies in order to effectuate a change in his social, et. al., condition. (With respect to this last suggestion, remember that it was written in between the World Wars in 1932, anticipating the American Civil Rights movement - led by Gandhi devotee Martin Luther King - by a generation!?!)

Suffice it to say that the incredibly prescient observations are legion, but there are a few misguided conclusions, too. Among them are his suggestion that because socialism more closely aligns with the ultimate collective goal of justice (especially when demonstrated by providing equality of opportunity to all) it is the preferable economic system (though he does acknowledge its limitations due to difference between the theory thereof and the practical reality of what humans actually do in the attempt to bring it into being). Also, there are some sentences whose prose is so dense and obtuse that they are mystifyingly impenetrable. For example, in a section - actually a single paragraph that encompasses two and a third pages - on the topic of the religious sense of the absolute, Niebuhr shares this gem of a sentence:

"Whether the religious sublimation of the will-to-live mitigates the sharpness of the conflict between the will-to-power of individuals on the historic level, by lifting the energy of life to a higher level and beguiling the soul to seek ultimate satisfactions in a tranhistorical and supramundane world, is a difficult question to answer." After reading it over a half-dozen times, trying vainly to relate it to what precedes it and what comes after, I could only think of and paraphrase the classic 70s sitcom Different Strokes in trying to describe this sentence: "What you talking about, Neibuhr?"

Other than a few of the above head-shakers, though, this is a deep and deeply affecting and insightful book, well worth the considerable effort required to identify and digest its contibutions. I recommend it highly, but not for light reading.... :-)

Also, I will note that though he is considered one of if not the imminent American theologian of the 20th century, this is not actually a work of theology as much as one of social theory (broadly defined) and critique. As such, then, I would argue that the theologian label limits Niebuhr and the appreciation for the true scope of his contributions.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 16, 2009 – Finished Reading
October 18, 2009 – Shelved

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