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Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists Hardcover – May 5, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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*Starred Review* The Enlightenment project of constructing a rational morality—pronounced dead by commentators on the left and right—has found a champion determined to resurrect it for the twenty-first century. Neiman acknowledges, with distress, that the moral vocabulary of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant now survives only among conservatives, whose religious orthodoxies and political agendas she rejects. But progressives must recover that vocabulary, she asserts, if they are to renew society’s commitment to egalitarian justice. Ideologically disarmed by the collapse of Marxism and philosophically paralyzed by the radical skepticism of postmodernism, left-liberal thinkers risk surrendering the young to religious fundamentalists and cynical nihilists if they cannot reclaim the secular ideals of pioneering Enlightenment writers. Committed to the pursuit of happiness through reason, these writers defy their detractors’ caricatures by soberly acknowledging the limits of human faculties, even voicing reverent gratitude for nature’s inexplicable mysteries, while still cultivating hope that human endeavor can advance good and defeat evil. In such mature hope, Neiman finds the possibility for a twenty-first-century moral heroism that brings to our age both the protean adaptability of Homer’s Odysseus and his resourceful resolve to shape his own future. An engaging analysis that will attract even readers who do not share Neiman’s left-liberal premises. --Bryce Christensen


"Her prose is clear and vigorous, and as exhilarating as a good spin class, but don't be mistaken: This is not Philosophy for Dummies...If you prefer your philosophy to offer make-nice advice ("Tolerate diversity!" "Recycle!"), Moral Clarity is not for you. Neiman attacks both the left and the right for their failings--and praises them for their different strengths. You might find yourself disagreeing with some of her analyses, which is inevitable--and even desirable. Neiman wants engagement, not sheeplike agreement, and her book is meant to spark conversation." -- Body and Soul Magazine, June 2008

"The Enlightenment project of constructing a rational morality--pronounced dead by commentators on the left and right--has found a champion determined to resurrect it for the twenty-first century." -- Booklist (starred review) April 1, 2008

"The seemingly endless contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is, among other things, a referendum on that perennial question: what ails the American left? To this stale discussion Susan Neiman brings a new thought: the problem with our liberal elites, she insists, is a lack of philosophical nerve. The task Neiman sets herself is to rescue today's political left from its own handicaps. Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide to the unjustly maligned Western canon (who) writes with verve and a sometimes epigrammatic wit....Moral Clarity is a plea for renewal, an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country." -- Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2008

"Neiman's particular skill lies in expressing sensitivity, intelligence and moral seriousness without any hint of oversimplification, dogmatism or misplaced piety. She clearly and unflinchingly sees life as it is, but also sees how it might be, and could be, if we recaptured some of the hopes and ideals that currently escape us." -- The New York Times, July 27, 2008 (Simon Blackburn)

"Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller; her new book Moral Clarity offers retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job that are themselves worth the price of admission. But she also has stories about the origins of her own position that place her in both larger intellectual narratives and more local political ones...Her project can be seen as a progressive alternative to (Allan Bloom's) The Closing of the American Mind." -- Slate, May 27, 2008 (K. Anthony Appiah)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (May 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151011974
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151011971
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #343,972 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Doron Ben-atar on May 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Susan Neiman is a most unusual philosopher. Whereas most academic philosophers produce inaccessible archaic meditations, she addresses the central social and ethical issues that define the human search for meaning and truth. And she does so in a jargon free and lively style that invites readers to consider her profound insights. Moral Clarity reclaims the discourse of values and ethics for the liberal left. Drawing on her expertise in Kant and the Enlightenment, Neiman demands that the liberal left reclaim the language of nobility and virtue. Moral Clarity is an inspiring work that provides the intellectual foundations for the new generation of progressives.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Eng J. Amarante Santos on June 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I will try to be as clear as the title: this book has as central thesis that the world we live in can and should be improved. There is abundant evidence showing that this has happened many times but there are no guarantees that we will continue to improve. There is always the risk that the world we live in will get worse. Given these circumstances, all human beings are called to give their small, medium or large contribution for the improvement of the world.

The thesis may seem relatively trivial but there are many philosophers which adopted an extreme pessimism and do not subscribe it. We also hear very frequent references to the immutability of "human nature", and the subsequent call for resignation.

The author is an American philosopher born in Atlanta with an entry in Wikipedia and a Web site. She has other books, namely the "Evil in Modern Thought" published in 2002.

The author has a great fascination for the Enlightenment thought and is strongly influenced by Kant. The "Evil in Modern Thought" owes somehow its genesis to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, to the heated philosophical discussions caused by this event and to the difficulty of reconciling the existence of a kind God, constantly intervening in the world, with the occurrence of a disaster of the magnitude of the earthquake, in a Catholic country often called "Much Faithful Nation" by the Vatican.

The excellent reception of the book has encouraged the author to move to this new one, in which the philosophy, by enabling us to better understand the world in which we live, gives us the tools to transform it. The title of the book "Moral Clarity" is an American expression dear to the political right.
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53 of 59 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on September 9, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a well intentioned but muddled book. I'm sympathetic to the author's politics, ethical position, and her goals in writing this book but the analysis and quality of writing are relatively weak. This book is driven by Neiman's disgust with the Bush administration, the general conservative predominance in American life, and the unjustified assumption that religiosity confers an ethical advantage. Neiman advocates a secular, rational form of ethics. This book is divided into 3 sections. In the initial section, Neiman provides a diagnosis of the present problem. In her analysis, leftists/liberals have abdicated the moral high ground to conservatives because of failure to explicitly espouse moral values. Neiman argues that in this conflict of `ideas have consequences,' leftist/liberal intellectuals have become preoccupied with post-modernist relativism and on a practical level with narrow interest group politics. Neiman suggests also that the collapse of Marxism as a creditable doctrine deprived leftist intellectuals of an organizing framework. While this assessment contains some particles of truth, a lot is questionable. The impact of post-modernism is greatly exaggerated and Neiman overrates the impact of intellectuals in general. As for the collapse of Marxism, while she could be correct about Europe, Marxism was not a very potent doctrine in the USA. What is particularly striking about Neiman's analysis, however, is that it conforms closely to standard conservative critiques of liberalism. Virtually everything she writes has popped up, repeatedly, in conservative attacks on American liberalism. But is the conservative/Neiman assertion of the left/liberal retreat from moral language and moral assertion correct?Read more ›
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67 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Boston Law Prof on May 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity asks a lot of the reader, but returns the investment many fold. The issue here is how it came to be that the political right managed to usurp the "embarrassing" Enlightenment values like hope, reverence, and reason, ones that the political left prefers to avoid for fear of what? Offending? Taking a clear stand? Sounding sappy or unsophisticated?

To my mind, the key here, as in Evil in Modern Thought, is her gift in articulating a philosophy that does not come easily: Kantian or perhaps Jewish transcendentalism, in which we acknowledge that there are moral imperatives accessible to us by our reason, which imperatives or values are very real, yet not objective in the sense that they can be proved. The left reviles the religious certainty of the Bush and the neo-conservatives - morality there is real and a matter of truth; the right reviles the left's post-modern rejection of moral imperative as having any reality at all. How do you challenge God? How do you manage the paradox of radical uncertainty about the source of moral clarity, but the sense, on the other hand, that there are some clear answers (as least from time to time)?

Ranging from Abraham's confrontation with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, to a defense of the Enlightenment thinkers, to a retelling of the lessons of Odysseus's journey home from Troy, Susan Neiman proposes a method for approaching moral clarity. There are no easy answers, and we need not necessarily agree in our conclusions (an irony about moral clarity), but, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
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