Moral Clarity

Moral Clarity

Moral Clarity, by Susan Neiman. 2008

Am about 100 pages into Moral Clarity, Susan Neiman’s defense of the Enlightenment. So far, so good. I’m reading this along with Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, which tackles John Rawls and his A Theory of Justice. Neiman’s book is written more for the general reader, and keeps the book closer to the surface. But she is very good at using topical and literary examples to make her case, to make several cases, in fact. Judging from the first 100 pages, I think her main point is that ideas matter, ideals matter, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, or afraid to talk about “ought” along with “is.” For her, no place on the political spectrum has a monopoly on ideals or values, nor does religion. She sees ideals and values and morality as existing outside as well as inside organized religions, and preaches inclusion, rather than either/or. She talks of heroes and the Enlightenment and thinks both need to be reclaimed and reasserted:

It’s no accident that rejections of Enlightenment result in premodern nostalgia or postmodern suspicion; where Enlightenment is at issue, modernity is at stake. A defense of the Enlightenment is a defense of the modern world, along with all its possibilities for self-criticism and transformation. If you think such a defense is a cause long lost, you’re invited to look again – at an Enlightenment whose virtues are not just the pale outspent ones of tolerance and fairness, but the unflagging demands for happiness, reason, reverence and hope. “Good and Evil” examines those virtues in action. What kinds of heroes are modern heroes? How do we talk about evil without slinging curses and mud? Learn to make moral judgments without clear instructions? Where does optimism end, and hope begin?


She draws on the Bible right off the bat to talk about morality and justice and reason, utilizing Abraham, his god, and Sodom and Gomorrah to do so. Socrates joins the conversation and Neiman translates his questions about goodness, or piety and gods. Is something good because the gods say so? Or do the gods recognize the inherent goodness that exists outside their command? Authority versus morality. Authority versus autonomy. Neiman notes that Abraham does the right thing by questioning his god’s desire to obliterate the cities of the plain — at great risk to himself. He asks Yahweh should the righteous be killed along with the wicked? And then bargains with him until he sees the light. She sees Abraham as on far more shaky ground when he nearly goes through with his sacrifice of his son, because his god told him to. Our ability to use reason should trump the idea of authority, even absolute authority, when we reason that something is terribly wrong. And she brings in Kant to show us that at that very moment we are liberated. We can never be more free. Sartre would make a similar claim two centuries later.

The most important part of the story, however, is what happens before the cities’ destruction. Having called Abraham into His confidence and promised to make him mighty, God reveals His plan to destroy the cities. Abraham‘s reaction is awesome. Until then, he received God’s word without question; now he pauses, and speaks up. What if there are fifty innocent people among the sinners? The judge of all the earth cannot be so unjust as to let innocent and guilty suffer alike! – The judge of all the earth agrees; if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom He will leave the city alone. But surely the Lord is not a pedant. What if the number turns out to be smaller? Would He destroy the whole city for lack of a mere five? – The answer is readily forthcoming; the Lord will save Sodom if forty-five righteous people can be found there. But the Lord cannot be arbitrary! What if there are only forty good people in the city? Abraham bargains God all the way down to ten, and the number isn‘t an accident. It‘s easy enough for a handful to flee a burning city, which is just what turns out to happen. Though Lot tries to warn them, even some of his family refuse to listen, so he gathers the others and runs.


Many thoughts come to mind while reading her book. Dozens of tangents. It takes me in many directions. One path was the idea of “justice” itself. It seems to mean many different things to different people, at different times. Will be looking for see if she covers this ground later in the book.

As in: To me, it is not really justice to turn the tables. Vengeance is not justice. Taking one’s turn at oppression after one has been oppressed is not justice. It may give us a momentary sense of exhilaration, righteousness, relief, vindication, perhaps even joy to gain our revenge . . . but it is not justice per se. I think the goal for all oppression is to end it, not continue the cycle under new management. Justice is the attainment of a space and time of peace, an establishment of our own autonomy — along with everyone else’s. Oppressing others does not enhance our own autonomy, beyond a brief, perverse moment, nor does it break cycles or create the space we need to achieve our best selves.

More about theories of justice in the next blog entry . . .


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