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Posted July 27, 2008
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'Moral Clarity - A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists'
By Susan Neiman
467 pp. Harcourt

IT is very hard to write well about ethics, and especially so in a way that engages and interests that elusive phantom of writers’ imaginations, the general reader. But Susan Neiman’s previous book on ethics, “Evil in Modern Thought,” was widely and favorably reviewed, and the present work is a worthy successor. 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.

In other words, like its predecessor, “Moral Clarity” is a sustained defense of a particular set of values, and of a moral vocabulary that enables us to express them. Neiman sees these values as neglected or threatened all along the political spectrum. They received their strongest defenses in the moral thought of the Enlightenment, in David Hume and Adam Smith, but more particularly in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. So the book is not only a moral polemic, but a powerful argument in support of the resources that these Enlightenment figures left us. Neiman, an American who is currently the director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, boldly asserts that when Marxism, postmodernism, theory and fundamentalism challenge the Enlightenment they invariably come off second best. I agree, and I wish more people did so.

Neiman’s Enlightenment is not the hyperbolic ideology detected by some critics. It is not the unthinking worship of science, the materialistic, technological ideology that upset the Romantics and continues to upset their followers. It is not an unthinking confidence in the human capacity for knowledge, and still less in human perfectibility and unending progress. On the other hand, neither is it merely an expression of liberty, a resistance to unearned authority and the discovery of tolerance, which, she argues, provides too pallid an ideology to tempt people away from the superstitions and fundamentalisms that promise them more. It is rather an attitude encapsulated in four virtues: happiness, reason, reverence and hope. The moral clarity of her title is therefore not the ability to calculate answers to the practical conundrums that life sets us. It is rather the ability to see life in ways infused with these categories: to cherish happiness, to respect reason, to revere dignity and to hope for a better future.

It may seem surprising that we could need reminding of these things, but a foray into an airport bookstore, or a trip around any gallery of contemporary art, would show how far our culture would have to move before it gets back to being comfortable with them. To take just one significant example that Neiman highlights, the current value placed on being a “victim,” and the glorification of victims as heroes, should be seen as a denial of human freedom and dignity, a denial of happiness and a barrier against hope.

Although her philosophical heroes are associated with the secular character of the Enlightenment, Neiman is deeply respectful of religious traditions and religious writings, and rightly dismissive of the kind of brash atheism that confidently insists there is no good in them. On the other hand, following Plato, she does not see ethics as the distinct preserve of the faithful. Instead, she writes, “religion is rather a way of trying to give shape and structure to the moral concepts that are embedded in our lives.” Her most profound engagement with a religious text is with the Book of Job, the confrontation with natural evil and injustice that conditioned almost all the subsequent contortions of theology.

Philosophically, one of the deepest discussions in the book is Neiman’s appropriation of Kant’s doctrine of freedom. This is a notoriously treacherous area, but Neiman correctly aligns it with the human capacity for noticing or inventing (it does not necessarily matter which) possibilities for action. As well as whatever is the case, we have what might be the case, or what we could make come about, as well as what ought to be the case. Freedom, in the sphere of action, is therefore associated with a refusal to accept that what is the case limits and constrains our possibility for doing the other thing, surprising the psychologist, as it were. If the biological scientist comes along and tells us that we are all selfish, we do not need to conduct surveys and build laboratories to disprove it. We just need to remember that it is open to us to tip the waitress although we will never see her again, or to refuse to comply with the unjust demand to condemn the innocent who is accused of some crime, even if it would benefit us to agree. If the biological scientist says that it is against human nature to do these things, we have it in our hands to refute him on the spot. If on the other hand he retreats to saying that doing them is just a disguise for selfishness, first, it is not clear that he is doing science anymore, and second, we can properly reply that if so it is the disguise, and not our supposed true nature, that matters to the waitress or the innocent who is accused. Theories about how moral education works are not nearly as important as we tend to think, provided we can keep our confidence that such education can work. The problem with our contemporary “scientism” about human nature is that too often it half convinces us that it cannot, and thus, Neiman says, helps dissolve both reverence and hope.

One of Neiman’s favorite examples of heroes is the Abraham who questioned God’s decision to destroy Sodom on the grounds that it would be unjust to any good people in the city. Saying no or even “Are you sure?” to infinite power is probably high on most people’s list of heroisms, one they hope, but doubt, they might achieve themselves. A more surprising hero at first sight is the wily Odysseus, the crafty wanderer whose morals are more frequently the target of raised eyebrows. But Odysseus represents the kind of engagement with the world coupled with an awareness of possibility that Neiman admires. His vitality, his adaptability, and his touching humanity are better models for grown-up living than the cardboard cutouts that inhabit most people’s moral imaginations. Plato made a cognate point by banishing the artists from his ideal republic altogether, supposing that the human imagination is too malleable to withstand without corruption their assaults of fantasy and falsehood. Again, it is a sign of our times that we find anything outlandish in this view.

Finally, besides heroism there is villainy. Neiman wrestles with Hannah Arendt’s problem of the banality of evil, and in particular the banality of evil in modern America: the betrayal of decency by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and their underlings in the institutions they helped to poison. They are easy enough targets, but in taking them on Neiman again makes deep and important points. One of them is that evil is not only banal, but often results from brutal insensitivity rather than devilish malice. George Bush is not Iago or Scarpia, but the image of him repeating in speech after speech after the Sept. 11 attacks that with the simultaneous coming of war, national emergency and recession he had “hit the trifecta” is surely, as Neiman argues, from one of the lower circles of hell.

Simon Blackburn is a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His latest book, “How to Read Hume,” will be published in the fall.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, July 27, 2008., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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