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83 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moral Man & Immoral Society is a Timely Read, September 6, 2008
This review is from: Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics) (Paperback)
I must confess that it took me 75 years to finally get around to reading Reinhold Niebuhr's now classic work on human behavior, "Moral Man and Immoral Society." Written during the Great Depression in 1932, it turned out to be a very timely read in 2008.

During his lifetime, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was perhaps the best-known Christian theologian in America. In 1915, he became minister of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. From then until 1928, he personally witnessed the hardships of auto workers. This exposure made Niebuhr very critical of capitalism. In 1928, he began a long career with Union Theological Seminary in New York, serving first as professor of Christian ethics (1928-1960) and then Dean (1950-1960).

Niebuhr thought of himself as a preacher and social activist, but his theological writings on social ethics made him an important intellectual figure nationally. An early advocate of socialism, he eventually supported FDR's New Deal because he thought it was more just and more realistic than either Marxism or laissez-faire capitalism. A prolific writer and a popular, engaging lecturer, Niebuhr's influence was felt by Martin Luther King, policy makers in John Kennedy's administration, and even a young Barack Obama. In 1964, Niebuhr was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

An outspoken progressive and reformer from the beginning, Niebuhr was also a keen observer of human behavior. Niebuhr was critical of the pacifism that permeated the social programs of mainstream liberal Protestantism (the "Social Gospel") that sought to correct political and social injustices mainly through appeals to "reason." Niebuhr did not believe "reason" worked. In "Moral Man and Immoral Society," Niebuhr makes the case that man is basically selfish and that those who have power do not listen to "reason" - that they will never surrender power if it is not in their own self-interest. He wrote, "reason is always the servant of [self-] interest in a social situation." Niebuhr insists that "power" (e.g., armies, laws, trade unions, etc.) is the only method that can affect change and correct injustice in settling the competing claims of nations, races, and social classes.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Niebuhr may seem to be out of fashion. This is unfortunate because his writings and observations about human nature are still as relevant today as they were in 1932.

Consider these passages, for example:

"No personal whim, which a human being might indulge, is excluded from the motives, which have prompted [rulers] to shed the blood of their unhappy subjects. Pride, jealousy, disappointed love, hurt vanity, greed for greater treasures, lust for power over larger dominions, petty animosities between royal brothers or between father and son, momentary passions and childish whims, these all have been, not the occasional but the perennially recurring, causes and occasions of international conflict. The growing intelligence of mankind and the increased responsibility of [rulers] to their people have placed a check upon the caprice, but not upon the self-interest, of men of power. They may still engage in social conflict for the satisfaction of their pride and vanity provided they can compound their personal ambitions with, and hallow them by, the ambitions of their group, and the pitiful vanities and passions of the individuals who compose the group."

Of Napoleon, Niebuhr wrote, "He could bathe Europe in blood for the sake of gratifying his overweening lust for power, as long as he could pose as the tool of...patriotism and as the instrument of revolutionary fervor. The fact that the democratic sentiment, opposed to the traditional absolutisms of Europe, could be exploited to create a tyranny more [bloody] and terrible than those which it sought ostensibly to destroy...is a tragic revelation of the inadequacies of the human [mental capacities] with which men must try to solve the problems of their social life."

Of Teddy Roosevelt (and the Spanish-American War) Niebuhr wrote, "The ambition and vanity which prompted him could be veiled and exalted because the will-to-power of an adolescent nation and the frustrated impulses of pugnacity and martial ardor of the...`men in the street' could find in him symbolic expression and vicarious satisfaction."

Clearly these passages have great relevancy as we examine the question of how the United States got involved in an unprovoked and unnecessary war in Iraq - a war that has cost us more than 4,000 American young men and women, and uncounted numbers of Iraqi citizens. Using words attributed to Plutarch, Niebuhr wrote, "The poor folk go to war, to fight and die for the delights, riches and [luxuries] of others."

Perhaps more readers may want to consider picking up a copy of "Moral Man and Immoral Society" to understand its relevancy and its insights on human nature and the uses and abuses of power.

Floyd Johnson
Peoria, Arizona
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 22, 2009, 8:14:53 PM PST
PJ says:
Great review - just picked a copy up from my local library and am now very excited to read it!

Posted on Nov 12, 2010, 1:12:30 PM PST
GR Hines says:
I have to be honest with you Floyd, your review is accurate until you devolve into arguing about the Iraq War. I have been in the military for 13 years, and your statement about "poor folk" is obsolete. We don't have a draft anymore-it's an all-volunteer force and the people come from every economic background. You can point Niehbur's sabre in just about anyone's direction, including Barack Obama's.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 20, 2013, 6:34:49 PM PST
SJ Cowan says:
perhaps the 'poor folk' are the iraqi's? maybe Niebuhr's critique doesn't have to be so nationalistic?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 14, 2015, 9:51:46 PM PDT
Very good point, Scott.

Posted on Sep 28, 2015, 8:47:50 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 28, 2015, 8:48:39 PM PDT
K. Doyle says:
GR Hines -- I wonder how obsolete it is? Are there that many rich kids volunteering for military service?
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