Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Revised Edition)

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Overview

For years, moral language has been the province of the Right, as the Left has consoled itself with rudderless pragmatism. In this profound and powerful book, Susan Neiman reclaims the vocabulary of morality—good and evil, heroism and nobility—as a lingua franca for the twenty-first century. In constructing a framework for taking responsible action on today's urgent questions, Neiman reaches back to the eighteenth century, retrieving a series of values—happiness, reason, reverence, and hope—held high by Enlightenment thinkers. In this thoroughly updated edition, Neiman reflects on how the moral language of the 2008 presidential campaign has opened up new political and cultural possibilities in America and beyond.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
Deep and important. . . . 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.
— Simon Blackburn
Wall Street Journal
The problem with our liberal elites, [Neiman] insists, is lame metaphysics—a lack of philosophical nerve. . . . Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide . . . [who] writes with verve and sometimes epigrammatic wit.
— Gary Rosen
Slate
Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller. . . . [Her] retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job . . . are themselves worth the price of admission.
— K. Anthony Appiah
Dissent
[Moral Clarity] is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. . . . [A] lucid and impassioned study.
— Richard Wolin
New York Times - Simon Blackburn
Deep and important. . . . 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.
Wall Street Journal - Gary Rosen
The problem with our liberal elites, [Neiman] insists, is lame metaphysics—a lack of philosophical nerve. . . . Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide . . . [who] writes with verve and sometimes epigrammatic wit.
Slate - K. Anthony Appiah
Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller. . . . [Her] retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job . . . are themselves worth the price of admission.
Dissent - Richard Wolin
[Moral Clarity] is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. . . . [A] lucid and impassioned study.
From the Publisher
A New York Times Notable Book of 2008

"Deep and important. . . . 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."—Simon Blackburn, New York Times

"The problem with our liberal elites, [Neiman] insists, is lame metaphysics—a lack of philosophical nerve. . . . Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide . . . [who] writes with verve and sometimes epigrammatic wit."—Gary Rosen, Wall Street Journal

"Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller. . . . [Her] retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job . . . are themselves worth the price of admission."—K. Anthony Appiah, Slate

"[Moral Clarity] is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. . . . [A] lucid and impassioned study."—Richard Wolin, Dissent

Dissent
[Moral Clarity] is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. . . . [A] lucid and impassioned study.
— Richard Wolin
Slate
Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller. . . . [Her] retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job . . . are themselves worth the price of admission.
— K. Anthony Appiah
Simon Blackburn
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.
—The New York Times
Booklist

The Enlightenment project of constructing a rational morality-pronounced dead by commentators on the left and right-has found a champion determined to resurrect it for the twenty-first century. (starred review)

The Wall Street Journal

[Susan] Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide to the unjustly maligned Western 'canon.' But she is not some kind of scold or stodgy traditionalist, wagging a disapproving finger at our fall from a golden age. She is, in fact, a self-conscious woman of the left. She knows that our own debates over political and economic fundamentals have intellectual pedigrees worth learning ... Ms. Neiman writes with verve and a sometimes epigrammatic wit ...

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691143897
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/17/2009
  • Edition description: Revised
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 1,424,495
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum. She is the author of "Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin", "The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant", and "Evil in Modern Thought" (Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One American Dreams Of all the things in the world that need changing, metaphysics may not be high on your list of priorities. But to understand how metaphysics circumscribes your life, consider what you mean when you tell someone: Be realistic. A good translation would be: Decrease your expectations. It’s a sentence you use on someone who is younger than you are, or someone you want to feel that way. He still has dreams and goals you’ve given up, or never had in the first place, and they are a standing challenge to the limits on life you have long since accepted. He wants more of the world than the world tends to give. Realizing his plans would require changing pieces of reality you believe to be fixed. And so you meet him with a palette of platitudes about human and other sorts of nature, the most harmless of which seems to be the well-meant advice to be more realistic. These are matters we usually refer to psychology. Do you treat the world cynically, or can you meet it with a measure of hope? But whatever combination of nature and nurture gave rise to your stance toward the world, there is a metaphysics that grounds it. Whether or not you acknowledge it is immaterial; indeed, the tendency to overlook metaphysical dependencies only makes them deeper. For they determine, among other things, what you hold to be self-evident and what you hold to be possible; what you think has substance and what you can afford to ignore. People who resist cynicism are called idealists because they don’t believe the world as it’s given to us exhausts reality as a whole; they are convinced that ideas, too, haveforce and consequences. Hope is based on, or undermined by, a metaphysical standpoint. Observers of contemporary American conservativism tend to spend a lot of time speculating on the beliefs of individuals, in a manner more psychological than anything else: Was Cheney ever dedicated to anything but the greater glory of Halliburton, or Bush really captured by his own visions of redemption? These are questions about individual sincerity, and they are less important than they seem. Cynicism and fanaticism can be equally ruthless. Understanding the two completely distinct metaphysical strands that underpin conservative positions is simpler, and more important. One strand rests on the conservative worldview that goes back to the English philosopher Hobbes, and even further. On this view, reality is fixed in a rather grim frame. What moves people, and the nations they compose, is an unending struggle for power, goods, and glory. People who believe this call themselves realists, and they’re careful not to call this a belief but a fact. Anything else is just the rhetoric we produce to disguise our real ends. Appeals to justice and dignity and duty are smokescreens sent up to blind weaker people to the motives of the strong. (Occasionally the weak turn the tables when the strong are napping, and use the same rhetoric to manipulate those they couldn’t beat in fair fights.) It might be nice to live in a world where such concepts had substance, but growing up requires us to accept the realities of this one. Good sense, even honor if you seek it, demands that you see through the bombast with which morality and religion obscure the motors that drive the world. Anyone who takes it seriously is at best naive, and at worst . . . Well, didn’t Stalinism show us what happens to those who think the world can be run on ideals? "The only world we have ever lived in is one where those with power, believing they have right on their side, impose their sense of justice on others." It’s easy enough to find claims like these in the editorial section of most any newspaper. Made by Robert Kagan, it is worth examining because, as one of Bush’s most influential neoconservative supporters, his opinions provide good general clues to the changing views of that White House. He is also the only contemporary conservative writer to be explicit about the philosophical questions at issue in international affairs. While his treatment of these questions is confused enough to leave him defending opposite views in successive books, he still deserves thanks for showing that metaphysical issues resound in the contemporary political world. His 2003 Of Paradise and Power expanded an essay that argued for the looming U.S. attack on Iraq. It became an international bestseller—the Washington Post called Kagan "the rock star of international affairs"—because it went beyond immediate foreign policy questions to offer a worldview that seemed to explain the state of the West as a whole. His description of the growing distance between Europe and the U.S. was memorably captured by the claim that Europeans are from Venus, Americans from Mars. The two continents were separated not by any old difference; one is enthralled by the seductive charms of the goddess of love and other luxuries, while the other submits to the manly claims of the god of war. Why not? We may be from another galaxy entirely, for all we know or care. Far more important was Kagan’s less catchy assertion, "One of the things that most clearly divides Europeans and Americans today is a philosophical, even metaphysical disagreement over where exactly mankind stands on the continuum between the laws of the jungle and the laws of reason." Americans, he concluded, are Hobbesians, while Europeans are Kantians; Europeans have withdrawn into a cocoon that is shielded from the harsh circumstances of conflict only because the U.S. remains in the anarchic and unstable center of history, acknowledging how bad things really are and using military power to prevent them from falling apart entirely. Europeans think we have reached the Kantian dream, in which ideas of peaceful negotiation, international courts, and common concern for sharing global wealth make things work. But though we, too, would like to live in a dream world, Americans recognize the hard facts of this one, and are resolute enough to respond to them—thereby taking on the burdens that allow Europeans to dream on. So what were Hobbes’s realities? "Fear and I were born twins," the philosopher wrote of his premature birth in England in 1588, when his mother went into labor on hearing of the approach of the Spanish Armada. His long life continued to be dramatic, and frightening. In addition to his studies at Oxford, several journeys to the Continent may have made him more aware than most that England was on the brink of civil war. In his urge to find a theory that might prevent it, Hobbes wrote books controversial enough to put him in danger. Escaping to Paris in 1640, he prided himself on being "the first of all who fled," returning to England only after Charles I’s execution, which put him in the middle of the civil war he had dreaded. Despite the provocative elements of his writings, Hobbes had to fear for his life once again only. After the Great Fire of London followed the Great Plague of 1665, a parliamentary committee investigated the grounds for the punishments with which England had been visited. Hobbes’s Leviathan was briefly accused of fomenting the atheism that must have provoked such heavenly wrath. But the charges were dropped, and though Hobbes was prevented from publishing, he was left alone to play tennis and translate Homer into a ripe old age. Taking the framework of one’s own life for granted is a common sort of shortsight; regarding your own conditions as natural is one of the things that’s natural. Hobbes was no exception. One whose birth was heralded by invasion and whose life plagued by civil war will find it hard to imagine anything else as the norm. Stripped of the fragile safeguards law had provided, the civil society he knew was truly wretched, and he couldn’t envision another. But Hobbes moved from what might have been a simple description of life in its natural state as, memorably, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," to positing such conditions as a state of nature. It’s only a linguistic shift, but the move elevated description to a blend of metaphysics, transcendental anthropology, and negative theology all at once. There is no argument for the claim that humankind’s natural state is the bloody and frightening chaos of early seventeenth-century Britain—nor could there be one. Rather, Hobbes draws a picture of a state of nature that reflected the state he knew. In the move from descriptive analysis of the reality he experienced to suprahistorical claims about reality in general, Hobbes took a step that would have enormous consequences for political theory, and politics itself. It would be silly to dismiss Hobbes’s theory solely on the grounds that it was influenced by the circumstances of his life. It is hard, for a start, to imagine any theory that isn’t. Hobbes’s bleak description of humankind’s struggle for power might reflect seventeenth-century circumstances and nevertheless be accurate for the rest of us. Perhaps he would have drawn similar conclusions about human nature had he lived in ninth-century Polynesia, or fin-de-siècle Paris. The point is that none of those perspectives can serve as a base for pronouncing on the natural state of humankind. To read current conditions back into a prehistoric state to which we have no access, further argument would be needed, and Hobbes cannot provide it. In place of the missing argument, contemporary conservatives tend to hammer out phrases like "Hobbesian realities," as if repetition were enough to suggest that anyone who views the world differently is blinded by wishful thinking. John Gray’s little essay "Back to Hobbes" is one example, quickly dismissing "the make-believe world of liberal philosophers" before concluding, "As Hobbes knew, what human beings want most from the state is not freedom but protection. This may be regrettable, but building a political philosophy on the denial of human nature is foolish. It is better to face facts."   Copyright © 2008 by Susan Neiman All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.        
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

PART ONE: Ideal and Real
Chapter 1: Hard Facts 29
Chapter 2: Ideals and Ideology 60
Chapter 3: Facing Gallows 93

PART TWO: Enlightenment Values
Chapter 4: Myths or Monsters 121
Chapter 5: Heaven and Earth 138
Chapter 6: Happiness 163
Chapter 7: Reason 189
Chapter 8: Reverence 226
Chapter 9: Hope 253

PART THREE: Good and Evil
Chapter 10: The Odyssey: An Excursion 299
Chapter 11: What about Evil? 334
Chapter 12: Enlightenment Heroes 381
Chapter 13: Moral Clarity 422

Acknowledgments 438
Bibliographical Notes 440
Bibliography 447
Permissions Acknowledgments 456
Index 457

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