May 13, 2010

Conscience and power

Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society is a masterpiece of anti-utopianism. The book, like much of his other work, is an extended polemic against naive and overly optimistic views of human nature and society.

While he doesn't hold to the idea of the "total depravity" of humanity, he takes the idea of sin very seriously. By sin, he doesn't mean disobeying this or that divine rule but rather the self-centeredness which causes people to do harm to others, the creation and even themselves. And if individual humans have sinful tendencies, groups are much more selfish and imperialistic.

He also argued that human motivations are inherently ambiguous and people often do the most harm when they think they are being the most righteous. Oppressors often quite sincerely believe that they are acting for the good of those they oppress--and some of the oppressed might do the same given the chance.

If that's the case, then while we might make this or that social improvement, society will always be an arena of struggle:

there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure and powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium...

While democracy represents a great advance over other forms of government, it still doesn't and can't eliminate the element of struggle:

Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.

EASY STREET. Here's economist Dean Baker's latest rant on Wall Street.

ONE TO WATCH. WV Governor Joe Manchin has issued a call for a special session of the legislature to convene today. One item is health care related in the wake of national health care reform. The most contentious issues are those related to education.

CLIMATE. Here's some coverage of the new energy/climate bill that has just been introduced in the US Senate.

ONE SHOT DEAL. There's more scientific evidence that life on earth arose exactly once and that all living things have a single common ancestor.


1 comment:

hollowdweller said...

We were in the torture-chamber, Satan said. The rack was there, and the other instruments, and there was a smoky lantern or two hanging on the walls and helping to make the place look dim and dreadful. There were people there -- and executioners -- but as they took no notice of us, it meant that we were invisible. A young man lay bound, and Satan said he was suspected of being a heretic, and the executioners were about to inquire into it. They asked the man to confess to the charge, and he said he could not, for it was not true. Then they drove splinter after splinter under his nails, and he shrieked with the pain. Satan was not disturbed, but I could not endure it, and had to be whisked out of there. I was faint and sick, but the fresh air revived me, and we walked toward my home. I said it was a brutal thing.

"No, it was a human thing. You should not insult the brutes by such a misuse of that word; they have not deserved it," and he went on talking like that. "It is like your paltry race -- always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn't got, always denying them to the higher animals, which alone possess them. No brute ever does a cruel thing -- that is the monopoly of those with the Moral Sense. When a brute inflicts pain he does it innocently; it is not wrong; for him there is no such thing as wrong. And he does not inflict pain for the pleasure of inflicting it -- only man does that. Inspired by that mongrel Moral Sense of his! A sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which of them he will do. Now what advantage can he get out of that? He is always choosing, and in nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong. There shouldn't be any wrong; and without the Moral Sense there couldn't be any. And yet he is such an unreasoning creature that he is not able to perceive that the Moral Sense degrades him to the bottom layer of animated beings, and is a shameful possession. Are you feeling better? Let me show you something." -Mark Twain "The Mysterious Stranger"