Dare to be moral
Susan Neiman’s fascinating new book, a guide to morality for grown-up idealists, reminds us of the importance of human reason in resolving the age-old philosophical tension between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’.
Sadly today, the language of morality has been monopolised by moral entrepreneurs, by individuals who are in the business of peddling simplistic ideas about ‘good’ and ‘evil’. True moral judgements, based on values and convictions, are increasingly rare.
Mainstream society seems to have become estranged from the arena of morality; many public figures seem embarrassed by morality. As Susan Neiman argues in Moral Clarity: A Guide For Grown-Up Idealists, ‘even people whose lives’ are ‘clearly guided by deep moral commitments to moral values’ are ‘reluctant to speak in moral terms’. Instead, politicians argue that their policies are ‘evidence-based’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘just’. Unless they are traditional religionists, public figures hold back from making explicit moral judgements.
Worse still, when some public figures do try to promote an idea of good and evil, they often do so in a caricatured form. For example, time and again the Holocaust is mobilised to remind people of how awful things can get. It is as if anything short of this exceptionally horrific event cannot really be categorised as truly bad. Occasionally, the spectre of the paedophile or the serial killer is wheeled out to animate a sense of public moral revulsion. Once again, only the extreme and exotic seem to deserve our moral condemnation.
We seem to have created a kind of ‘psychic distance’ between ourselves and various moral problems, and this is inhibiting society’s ability to develop, and agree on, the ideals we should live by.
One of the problems tackled by Susan Neiman in her important new book is the left’s disenchantment with moral ideals. ‘With consequences too unhappy to be ironic, most of the voices willing to speak in universal moral terms at all now consider themselves conservatives’, she writes. Many others note that in the US, the right wing’s use of the language of values has hampered the Democrats’ attempt to appeal to the self-interest of ordinary folk. Often, observers respond to this development in America by urging the Democrats to cobble together their own set of values. In Britain, too, New Labour politicians have tried to invent values in a similar way to businesses that employ public relations consultants to magic up a mission statement.
Such a calculating and instrumental approach to values does little to provide meaning to people’s lives. It also does not provide a vision of the world that might help people engage with the problems of everyday life. One of the merits of Moral Clarity is that it refuses to fall into the trap of opting for opportunistic quick-fix solutions. Instead, it ‘aims to reclaim the moral concepts that the left no longer uses with full voice’. And inevitably, that means revisiting the ideals of the Enlightenment and thinking through their implications for today.
Secular thinkers often complain that morality has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists. What they overlook is that it is often the reluctance of secular intellectuals themselves to develop and express moral ideas that helps create the narrow equation between religion and morality today. Neiman argues compellingly that religion is not the source of morality but is merely one of the forms through which people can voice their moral convictions. Philosophical ideals about virtue and good and evil were explored by thinkers such as Plato without the aid of the Bible. Moral reasoning emerges through human activity, and it does not depend on the authority of any religious text.
Indeed, it can be argued that, both logically and chronologically, moral ideals emerged prior to their codification in religious texts. From a humanist standpoint, people do not require a God or a priest to instruct them on what is good and evil. In an interesting reinterpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Neiman argues that Abraham’s questioning of God’s intentions derives from his moral courage. She puts forward a provocative thesis: that the real dividing line is not whether you believe or do not believe in God, but whether or not you uphold the principle that ‘there must be reasons for everything that happens, and that those reasons are up to us to find’. And it is precisely a lack of respect for the value of reason that creates so much moral confusion today.
Society continues to be defined by humanity’s disappointment with the promise of ideas in the twentieth century. Those who espouse ideas that they consider to be important are frequently dismissed as ‘idealists’, a term that now has an almost entirely negative ring to it. Important ideas associated with key moments in history – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions – are often portrayed as pompous rhetoric or impossible myths. Most important of all, ideas are endowed with little meaning in public life today. Indeed, instead of ideas we have the ‘knowledge society’, where change is constant and where yesterday’s insights and wisdom tend to give way to tomorrow’s new temporary truths. In such circumstances, society’s attachment to ideas takes on an episodic and pragmatic character.
Worse still, there are powerful cynical influences that are obsessed with deconstructing ideas and exposing them as myths. Post-modernists and other ‘critical’ thinkers uncritically regard ideals as ‘myths’, and, as Neiman notes, they express a sense of ‘disillusionment with the process of thinking itself’.
In fact, human reasoning is one of the most powerful moral resources for people living in an uncertain world. If we take a grown-up approach to moral reasoning, then we should recognise that there are no off-the-shelf answers to the problems that humanity faces. Intellectual maturity means having a disposition to trust the ability to reason and to make judgments. ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it’, observes Neiman.
Moreover, through reasoning, human beings can learn to exercise their active side and cease being merely the objects of forces beyond their control. ‘Growing up means taking our lives out of others’ hands and into our own’, Neiman argues. And one of the ways we can do this is through the power of ideas. Critics of ideals and idealism claim that ideas can never provide all the answers to the problems facing the world. It is true that ideals do not possess magical powers, but ideas can help to shape reality. As Neiman says: ‘Ideals function as ideals precisely because they lead us on past all that we know.’
Today, the powerful sense of low expectations amongst cynics and realists, and their disdain for the role of ideals, has all the hallmarks of moral and intellectual immaturity. To counter this outlook, Neiman has subtitled her book ‘A Guide For Grown-Up Idealists’. It is worth recalling that Kant associated reason, the key Enlightenment principle, with growing up. For Kant, the growing child served as a symbol for the Enlightenment. Neiman reminds us that for Kant the Enlightenment was ‘less a matter of knowledge than courage’. The challenge he threw in humanity’s face – ‘Dare to know’ – demands that we take ideas seriously. Neiman’s attempt to appeal to our grown-up imagination is one of the most attractive features of her book. Hers is an activist stand, which insists that clarity about reasoning can help us make the kind of moral judgments that promote civilised public life.
One of the ways that moral clarity can be gained is through focusing, not only on the way that the world is, but also on how it ought to be. Neiman takes the view that ‘truth is a matter of the way the world is’ and ‘morality is a matter of the way the world ought to be’. Throughout Moral Clarity, she demands that we enforce a clear distinction between is and ought. She goes so far as to argue that this distinction is the ‘most important one we ever draw’. The tension between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ has haunted philosophers through the centuries, and it is a tension that many religions refuse to accept.
Neiman is perhaps too uncompromising in following Kant’s tendency to separate these two spheres, however. Sometimes, such a perspective can promote a sense of fatalism, as usually what is becomes the end of the story. Neiman is aware of this dilemma, and writes: ‘The abyss that separates is and ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can do is narrow it.’ Perhaps. But true moral clarity is the outcome of the very difficult process of moral clarification which promotes a continuous exchange between what is possible and what is necessary. The very significance that the Enlightenment attached to ideals was based on a recognition that ideals could take us closer to where we ought to be. That is why moral clarification is not reducible to philosophical reflection on abstract possibilities; it also has an important historical dimension that provides people with insights on which we ought to act.
Growing up also demands that the mature take responsibility for the future. Contrary to the conventional view, being grown up need not mean becoming cynical and resigned to the world as it is. Perhaps if we were to take ideas a little more seriously, we could begin by attaching greater moral status to ourselves, both as individuals and as members of a human community.
Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, by Susan Neiman, is published by Harcourt. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.