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Moral ClarityReview - Moral Clarity
A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists
by Susan Neiman
Harcourt Trade, 2008
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Mar 10th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 11)

In Moral Clarity, author Susan Neiman claims to be responding to requests from readers of her previous book, Evil in Modern Thought, to give "an account of my own views in relation to contemporary events" (4).  Thus she offers her philosophical training in the effort to "examine philosophical consequences of contemporary political discourse, and offer a framework for alternatives" (5). In so doing, Neiman offers us a decidedly polemical work, but one with solid theoretical grounding.  Neiman explains that her last book reinterpreted the history of modern Western philosophy as "the search for the meaning of evil and suffering as seen in the events of their day" (4).  Moral Clarity is Neiman's response to contemporary events.  More specifically, she examines the "philosophical consequences of contemporary political discourse" and offers a "framework for alternatives" (5).  In so doing she attempts to recapture moral language from political conservatives for a floundering left leaning liberalism, so that it can meaningfully talk about and envision a more just future.  "This book," says Neiman "aims to reclaim moral concepts that the left no longer uses with full force" (18). 

Moral Clarity is divided into three parts consisting of thirteen chapters (plus a lengthy introduction) in all and is suitable for a generally intelligent reading audience who may have no particular experience with ethics or philosophy.  The book is not cluttered with footnotes or endnotes.  Instead, it uses bibliographical notes to identify sources and briefly note and explain the sources of quotations.  This might be maddening to a scholar, while being a relief to the lay reader.  In "Part One: Ideal and Real," Neiman aims to show that the United States is a genuine heir to the best of Enlightenment values, that idealism is not a term of insult, but of positive value, and that embracing and enacting Enlightenment values is realistic and responds to deep American, indeed human, desires.  Neiman argues that while conservatives have invoked a Hobbesian metaphysics, a view of human nature as acquisitive and violent, to support their politics of "realism," the American left has offered no meaningful metaphysical alternative, and thus has little to say to a U.S. foreign policy founded on such a basis.  The left's problem, explains Neiman, stems from its rejection of the language of morality for fear that it will participate in the sort of justifications of violence and injustice that so many on the left have noted as the result of claims to universal virtue.  But in so doing, they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater" (62).  That is, the left has come to the "mistaken conclusion" that "all politics that appeals to theory instead of reality will always go wrong" (62).  But for Neiman, idealism, the belief that the world can be improved by means of ideals, is not the same thing as ideology.

One way to discover the sorts of ideals that might offer progressive guidance is to identify moral heroes, those who do right, even though it is not in their interest to do so.  Neiman claims that Kant used such an image to show that "morality is possible" (82).  For "such examples provide a glimpse of human dignity nothing else can replace—and lift us out of the world of sense into realms more exalted" (82).  Kant shows, according to Neiman, that our heroes show us that what we want most is human dignity.  This desire is universal, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists included.  Neiman devotes a portion of this part of the book to an interesting analysis of the profile of jihadists, rejecting the rather cliché description of them as part of a dispossessed class, or as fascists, and other overly simple conclusions.

In "Part Two: Enlightenment Values," Neiman's goal is to "take back the Enlightenment from the clichés that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be prefect and human progress to be inevitable, reason to be unlimited and science to be infallible, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past, and technology a solution to all the problems of the future" (112).  What the Enlightenment rejected, claims Neiman, was superstition, torture, and inherited privilege.  What it offered instead was a set of ideals that we can still embrace.  For example, we have a right to demand happiness.  This doesn't mean that we will achieve heaven.  What it should mean, according to Neiman,  is that we should reject "the docile submission to whatever bit of the given is coming your way" (176).  Reason, too, offers ideals.  It takes reason to transcend the given and to conceive of the possible.  Thus, reason is "opposed to authority, in particular any authority based on revelation, superstition, and fanaticism" (182).  Neiman spends much time in Moral Clarity, discussing religion and religious texts.  But the bottom line for her is that reverence and ethics are prior to religion, not the other way around.  "Reverence," she says "restrains naked power" and "creates humility" (233).  Neither Neiman nor the Enlightenment rejected religion outright.  Finally, says Neiman, the Enlightenment believed in hope.  This may be the most fundamental of all the ideals she introduces.  For, as she says, we "cannot act morally if we act without hope" (245).  Should we want to give up striving for a better world because we fear futility, Neiman offers three concrete "signposts for showing how men and women have made progress on the backs of ideas" (279).  She reminds us of the abolition of public execution by torture, the abolition of slavery, and the progress of women. 

"Part Three: Good and Evil," starts with an interesting analysis of Homer's Odyssey, showing us that Odysseus is really everyman and his struggles are models of our own.  One struggle we face today is the struggle against evil.  But Neiman understands this struggle to be as much a conceptual as a real one.  That is, only by understanding clearly what evil really is can we face it and achieve our ideals.  To embrace the second Bush administration's view of themselves as intrinsically good, while their opponents were intrinsically evil is to succumb to what Zbigniew Brzezinski called "Manichean paranoia"  (338).  In other words, "for this president, condemning terrorism as evil eliminates the need for understanding it" (329).  Neiman learned from Arendt that "it isn't wickedness but thoughtlessness that makes [one] cause a series of awful deaths without ever meaning to" (331).  Calling people evil "is polemical" (330).  It makes them "irredeemable" (330) and thus shuts off any attempt to understand real causes and conditions and possible responses and remedies.

Looking for actual role models or heroes that we can identify can be difficult if we have overblown ideas of good and evil.  Goodness can be as banal as evil, according to Neimen.  It is the little things that matter.  She offers us four examples of people working in the world today who seem to be embracing Enlightenment ideals and making a mean world a little better.  She could have chosen other examples, but she chose these because they have written about their struggles and thus, we have the opportunity to analyze their thinking.  She discusses David Shulman, who works for Arab-Israeli peace; Sarah Chayes, an American living in Afghanistan, working to rebuild that country; Daniel Ellsberg, whistle-blowing critic of the war in Viet Nam; and Bob Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, an organization bringing real education to the children that need it most.  What Neiman wants to emphasize is that being a hero "is a matter of small steps and everyday distinctions" (428).  It is fraught with disappointments and frustrations, much like being a grown-up.

Neiman's book comes at the tight time.  The world is a mess and it needs a thorough clean-up.  Perhaps after reading Moral Clarity, Obama's message of hope seems less a rhetorical ploy of yet another election campaign and more of a renaissance of an almost-forgotten discourse that embraces the Enlightenment values upon which this country was founded.  The book is a fine example of not only the philosophical basis of hope, but a reassuring message as to its possibility.

© 2009 Ben Mulvey

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network. 


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