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Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists - Revised Edition Revised Edition
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For years, moral language has been the province of the Right, as the Left has consoled itself with rudderless pragmatism. In this profound and powerful book, Susan Neiman reclaims the vocabulary of morality--good and evil, heroism and nobility--as a lingua franca for the twenty-first century. In constructing a framework for taking responsible action on today's urgent questions, Neiman reaches back to the eighteenth century, retrieving a series of values--happiness, reason, reverence, and hope--held high by Enlightenment thinkers. In this thoroughly updated edition, Neiman reflects on how the moral language of the 2008 presidential campaign has opened up new political and cultural possibilities in America and beyond.
"Deep and important. . . . 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."---Simon Blackburn, New York Times
"The problem with our liberal elites, [Neiman] insists, is lame metaphysics--a lack of philosophical nerve. . . . Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide . . . [who] writes with verve and sometimes epigrammatic wit."---Gary Rosen, Wall Street Journal
"Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller. . . . [Her] retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job . . . are themselves worth the price of admission."---K. Anthony Appiah, Slate
"[Moral Clarity] is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. . . . [A] lucid and impassioned study."---Richard Wolin, Dissent
"Morally and politically compelling―and a delight to read."―Michael Walzer
- ASIN : 0691143897
- Publisher : Princeton University Press; Revised edition (September 6, 2009)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 480 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780691143897
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691143897
- Item Weight : 1.45 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.21 x 9.1 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,421,923 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Many would dismiss her views in Moral Clarity - a guide for grown-ups as unrealistic and naïve. In these post-everything times she dares to discuss the concept of goodness and even heroism. Following a detailed comparison between Achilles and Odysseus, she offers four present-day candidates that could possibly be called heroes. Rather than excelling in big, brash, and eye-catching braveries they take small, everyday steps in the right direction. These people are heroic in their daily life, going about their business as they think they ought to, seemingly without second thoughts. They don't seem to take into consideration the dangers they face or the possible rewards they might receive. Even the outcome of their actions seems irrelevant - they just have to do it. Whether it be producing soap with local villagers in Afghanistan, preventing settlers from emptying buckets of water Palestinian mothers carry to their sheep or teaching Algebra to poor children. Surely there are grander forms of heroism but just as evil is not always spectacular, goodness is often ordinary. You don't have to be Mandela or Martin Luther King to do good. Neiman states again and again that the fact that you can't achieve your highest goals doesn't imply you shouldn't give it a go. Aiming for the stars will bring you up the hill. Claiming something can't be done is often just a convenient excuse for doing exactly nothing.
Intertwined with these daily stories, is a rather sophisticated and abstract philosophical defense of Enlightenment values. She views many modern critiques of the Enlightenment as simplistic, shallow and sometimes flaunting. A case in point is British political philosopher John Gray, of `Straw Dogs' fame. Gray believes, with Heidegger, that there is a straight line that runs from the Enlightenment to technology to the Holocaust. Neiman thinks that the idea of holding `technology responsible for the Holocaust is about as useful as holding airplanes responsible for 9/11' (p.253). When Gray seems surprised that Al Qaeda is making use of cell phones, laptops and the Internet, Neiman wryly ripostes: They're supposed to use carrier pigeons? Technology per se is neutral - it's to which ends you use it that's crucial.
Concerning the Enlightenment concept of reason, Isaiah Berlin described it like this:
1. All genuine questions can be answered.
2. All genuine answers can be known.
3. All answers are compatible.
4. We must find a single abstract truth that explains all of reality, and the right way of acting in every circumstance.
All fine and well, but he `neglected to say which of its thinkers actually held such a dim-witted view' (p.177). Much of this kind of critique rests on far too simplistic conceptions and it's overlooked how doubtful many Enlightenment thinkers themselves were of the powers of reason. Hume for example, `argued brilliantly that nothing whatsoever is certain' (p. 130) and considered reason to be a slave of the passions. Kant and Voltaire and Rousseau were also well aware of reason's limits, `so the charge that it had none is the kind of slander that's offered more to discredit than to communicate' (p. 184).
Her informed views on Enlightenment thinkers past and present, especially her favorites Kant and Rousseau, are impressive. She seems to have read every book on the subject. I'm in no way qualified to be judgemental in these matters but Neiman states her case with eloquence and conviction without ever being haughty. It's a pleasure, albeit a hard-won one, to read a book devoid of the ubiquitous cynicism and misanthropy. Call it starry-eyed or idealistic and you'd be right. That's just what it is - but for grown-ups. It might even turn out to be visionary.
My alternative vision was to recognize the stunning success of liberalism in the post-world war II period, which saw Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, racial integration and the crumbling of racist ideology, legal abortion, gender equality, widespread of alternative lifestyles, including homosexuality and gay marriage. It is because of the success of the idealistic liberal vision behind these social institutions that we now have run out of steam. Personally, I would like to see my country committed to extending these fabulous accomplishments to other countries that routinely oppress their citizens, but I am not sure that this is a winning electoral strategy. I have been reading a lot of books to find out what might be an inspiring and feasible alternative.
Moral Clarity comes with great endorsements by Todd Gitlin, Michael Walzer, and Cornel West, saying how inspiring is the political and moral vision of this book by philosopher Susan Neiman. I'm sure it will indeed inspire readers who are convinced peaceniks and Eastern Establishment Liberals, but it left me quite cold. I don't appreciate spending my time reading about what Moses and Job can tell us about the modern condition, or why Kant is so important for idealist moral philosophy. There is absolutely nothing new here at all. Neiman informs us that conservatives are realists and liberals are idealists, conservatism is based on tradition and liberalism is based on innovative Enlightenment thought. I heard all that stuff fifty years ago. It may indeed be true, but that does not give us a vision for a better society, or a political platform that can both win voter approval and extend the blessing bestowed upon this country to other less fortunate peoples.
Reading this was like eavesdropping on an erudite conversation, with the author speaking all of the voices. I had previously enjoyed Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought, pleasantly surprised that it served as a good overall history of philosophy, broader than the title might imply.
Moral Clarity is almost up to the same standard, though it is something more of a mishmash, mixing stories and insights from the Biblical and philosophical canons with illustrations based on contemporary public figures and events. Neiman does not make it especially clear what moral clarity is. You know it when you see it, I guess. She is clearer on what it is not. For example, it is not the same as moral purity, just having good intentions. One's motives might in fact be mixed. Outcomes of one's actions do matter, however. Neiman seems to be a kind of Kantian consequentialist. Moral clarity requires two goods, good principles and good consequences, she argues.
Top reviews from other countries
First it is a wake up call for the political left who has surrendered the moral high ground to the radical right by discarding its Enlightenment intellectual heritage and indulging in identity politics. The author clearly deplores the recent political developments in America with the rise of a complacent cynical political right, that manipulates high sounding principles with the callous projection of brutal Power.
Second without condoning its violent expressions, it contains an interesting analysis of religious fundamentalism as a desire for transcendence, a search for a more fulfilling meaning to life in order to free oneself from the brute reality of a sinful unjust world. Third and most importantly, the text offers a well argued defence of the Enlightenment against its numerous past and modern detractors. Its opponents have scorned the power of Reason, others have endorsed moral agnosticism or repudiated the efforts to improve the human condition as a counterproductive deluded or futile exercise, particularly after the failure of Soviet socialism.
Her eloquent vindication of the Enlightenment reminds us of its main objectives as the use of the powers of Reason/ Science to increase human happiness, to spread hope and eliminate fear with a grounded belief in the possibility of progress while preserving a sense of reverence and awe for the Natural world as well as the gratitude and acknowledgment of the goodness in human actions. Fourth it contains an illuminating treatise outlining the philosophical exchanges between the moral realists and the idealists, the observers of the”is” and the advocates of the “ought”. In other words those who upheld beliefs in the unchanging malevolent nature of humans from St Augustine, to Hobbes to the modern evolutionary psychologists and those meliorists who believed in the essential goodness of Man like Leibniz or his capacity for improvement in the right social and political circumstances like Rousseau. Another interesting later exchange was between Hume who viewed Morality as the servant of passions ( sentiments) and Kant who put the primacy of universal Reason as the guide to moral behaviour culminating into the “ categorical imperative”. Fifth, the author taking her cues from Biblical and Homeric stories and armed with her Kantian approach delves in to the nature of heroism in the Modern world, with some cogent real life illustrations.
The author is best described as a Modern NeoKantian philosopher who places Kant’s philosophy right at the center of her moral and political concerns. The index contains far more entries devoted to Kant than all the other thinkers put together mentioned in the Enlightenment or our own times. She is on the side of Hope and Reason while acknowledging the complexity and fuzziness of the political and moral issues that bedevil our World, from wars to ecological crises, from social inequality to the restriction of freedoms, from terrorism to racial and gender discrimination. But this is not an excuse for oversimplification or denial, but an invitation to moral seriousness that is moral clarity. A measured appraisal of our ethical choices.
The book itself is divided into 13 chapters.
1. This chapter assesses the typical political ideologies of the left and the right. Most noticeably it is an assessment of Hobbes' and Hegel's political theories.
2. This chapter looks at Hobbes' and Thrasymachus' worldviews. The central theme being: is the world is getting better or worst. Most noticeably it is an assessment of pre and post millennial theory.
3. This chapter considers Kant's Moral Law. I found this chapter most enlightening specifically with regards the argument that the current culture wars are actually a war between fundamentalism (in all forms) versus freedoms, human dignity and self-accepted traditional values.
4. This chapter considers what the Enlightenment actually was. Anyone who has read the unjust polemics of people like Hitchens should specifically read this chapter. The central thesis is that the enlightenment far from trying to eliminate God was actually trying to safeguard his "otherness" by exposing unwarranted superstitions. It also aimed to tackle torture and privilege whilst promoting promotion through merit as well as reverence for the universe.
5. This chapter considers the different moral approaches proposed by Kant and Hume. Specifically this chapter considers the differences between is and ought, or the metaphysical conflicts of empiricism and idealism.
6. This chapter simply asks: is happiness a goal of life? The central argument is considered alongside the book of Job. The question being asked is: is happiness self made, or guaranteed by nature.
7. This chapter considers, what is reason. The central argument is: what is sufficient reason, i.e. the idea that everything should have a reason (a notion that cannot be proved by physical evidence). Reason here works as a fishnet and a calculator. Nevertheless, reason is limited and should never be considered as all encompassing (news to many reductionists I'm sure).
8. This chapter is an assessment of whether the enlightenment "killed god". The central argument is that most of the enlightenment's proponents were deists who wished to promote gratitude for creation, rather than promote superstitious idols. Rather than kill God, the enlightenment was in fact attempting to safeguard his transcendence.
9. This chapter is asks the question: is the world getting better or worse? This argument is run through the lens of evolutionary theory and the doctrine of original sin. Both lens are rejected on the basis that we do not have access to any historical moral states and therefore both lens should be ditched in favour of a, "what should we do in the future" type lens. This is not to say that things will get better, but that if we don't try it certainly won't. This is perhaps why this chapter is entitled "Hope".
10. This chapter considers the conflict between nature and reason. This is done by considering the Odyssey. The central argument is that heroes and their heroic deeds are dead, and that in the modern world focus rests on the victim and their shame. Whilst the author thinks this good she also stresses that we must return to the state where good deeds matter. The reason she concludes that they don't at present is because heroism usually leads to the hero's death (e.g. Martin Luther King) - and obviously there are few of us who would want that to be us.
11. This chapter was perhaps the most enjoyable. The chapter looks at what is evil/the problem of evil. The central argument is that evil is what people do and not just the motives that are behind their actions. Even doing nothing can be considered evil. We know evil exists because it is the gap that exists between our ideals (the ought) and realism (the is). The central question is: how do we combat it?
12. This chapter provides some examples of people whom the author considers to be good moral people. It also provides examples of the things that they are doing to try make the world a better place.
13. Finally, this chapter concludes that life is hard and man suffers. He is not always rewarded for his moral goodness, but he is nevertheless called to distinguish between good and evil, between is and ought. Life is important and so we must try our bests to be moral people. This type of morality is not mandated by God, but rather must be self-determined through reason. The author says that this is where the bible could be helpful. Her reasoning is that bible is not always moral, and sometimes it is - in fact the book shows a moral conflict of sorts, between moral clarity and the real world. The point being is that only man can determine his moral clarity through his own struggles, and if you truly love God then doing so is your duty. In this way man is called to question everyone's moral judgments (even the God of the bibles judgment) in order to be the best we can.
Overall, reading this book was a highlight for me. Whilst the author is clearly not very religious she has clearly written a book that can appeal both to the secular and the religious in turn. In doing so she shows a great deal of dignity and respect for all humans. The reason she gives for this is that if you love humanity then you must love everything that man does. As everyone is worthy of dignity everyone must be treated in this fashion. If you fail to do so then don't moan when the shoe is on the other foot, a precedent is a precedent. This style of writing really shone through for me, and was such a breath of fresh air.
My one complaint is that the author does have a tendency to carry on and on about certain points. Where 1 or 2 reasons for an argument would have surfaced she offers double, and in some cases triple that amount. This does make certain parts of the book seem longer than they need be. Nevertheless, the writing prose was easy to follow, and whilst heavily philosophical some chapters drew me in enough to make the book a bit of a page turner.
My final concluding comment is that this book has perhaps made me re-think my moral prerogatives. The book has promoted me to think differently and pay a little more attention to my life and most noticeably the things that I do in life. Because of this I thoroughly rate the book.