May 20, 2010

Motes, beams and nations

El Cabrero has been musing lately about the political insights of 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work has been vastly influential. Niebuhr was no fundamentalist but he took the idea of sin as in egoism seriously and applied it particularly to social and political life.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, he was particularly skeptical about the moral claims of nations, which always justify whatever they do (however unjustifiable) in the most grandiose terms:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised.

There has probably never been a war of aggression or colonial adventure which wasn't justified in the highest terms by people who may or may not have actually believed it.

No nation has ever made a frank avowal of its real imperial motives. It always claims to be primarily concerned with the peace and prosperity of the people whom it subjugates.

Along with hypocrisy, nations also have self-righteousness down pretty good.

Nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother's eye; and individuals find it difficult enough. A perennial weakness of the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national life.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. I apologize to email subscribers. Yesterday, as I was working on a draft post, I must have hit the wrong button and a not-ready-for-prime-time post may have hit your mailbox. My bad.

MORE STUFF FOR THE COAL INDUSTRY TO DENY. Leading groups of scientists just published a report calling for serious action on climate change.

I WANNA READ the book reviewed here.

WELFARE MOMS. How are they doing these days?


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