In December 1932, a 40-year-old theology professor who had recently left his Michigan pastorate drew nationwide attention with his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two sentences into the introduction, the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, was already walking back the title, saying the distinction it suggested was too unqualified. Reflecting on his classic work of social ethics three decades later, Niebuhr wrote that a better encapsulation of his thesis would have been, “Not So Moral Man and Even Less Moral Society.” By then he had become one of the principal definers of 20th century American liberalism.
The notion behind the title was that while individuals might be able to muster sympathy “for their kind,” human groups and societies have little such capacity for self-transcendence. It might have been the least emphatic argument of this unsettlingly unsentimental book, which can be as startling today as it was 80 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression.
Niebuhr wrote Moral Man in a time arguably not unlike our own, when both economic and political power had concentrated in fewer hands. The wealthiest Americans had succeeded in making government “more pliant to their needs,” he argued. But the professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary did not unleash his brash analytical power on plutocrats alone. He aimed squarely at his fellow liberals, who believed in the efficacy of moral suasion and rational argument, and who imagined that “men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been apprised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” Niebuhr’s intent was to disabuse them of these illusions.
One essay in this volume that seems to especially evoke our situation today is titled, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Privileged Classes.”
The attitudes have largely to do with economic inequalities. The chapter starts with a bow to the truism that such gaps are inevitable and stem partly from different levels of talent and skill. Niebuhr’s clear-eyed view of human nature and destiny could hardly make him suppose that inequality, along with a fair bit of misery, is unnatural. But he quickly adds that personal attributes never explain extraordinary degrees of wealth inequality. These are due chiefly to “disproportions of power,” he says, alluding in part to money’s grip on politics.
For Niebuhr, the task of plutocracy or government by the wealthy is to justify this power and privilege. Plutocrats do so by identifying their special interests with the general good. “Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold,” he observes.
Such thinking requires a certain amount of self-deception, according to Niebuhr. But he says it also involves hypocrisy—in that the privileged often salute one thing (the good of all) and engineer something else (narrow self-interests). He continues:
The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions. As long as society regards special rewards for important services as ethically just and socially necessary … it is always possible for social privilege to justify itself, at least in its own eyes, in terms of social function, which it renders. If the argument is to be plausible … it must be proved or assumed that the underprivileged classes would not have the capacity for rendering the same service if given the same opportunity. This assumption is invariably made by privileged classes.
As Niebuhr further limns this mind, he points to its understanding that the masses of people are economically unfit not simply because of their lesser intellects or purported lack of opportunity. They are also seen as succumbing to character flaws, namely their inclination toward what the Puritans (his spiritual ancestors in the Calvinist fold) styled as “laziness and improvidence.”
Niebuhr’s analysis echoes in current debates. For instance, Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats, notes a tendency among the super rich to “confuse their own self-interests with the common good.” Niebuhr’s plutocrat, though at times a cardboard figure, finds voice in billionaire activists such as Leon Cooperman (quoted in Freeland’s book), who wrote a open letter a year ago to President Obama, enumerating services rendered by his class: “As a group we employ many millions of taxpaying people … fill store shelves at Christmas … and keep the wheels of commerce and progress … moving.”
The “special rewards” today might include Wall Street bailouts, preferential tax rates for capital gains, and the carried-interest loophole that withers tax bills for hedge fund managers like Cooperman. “Specious proofs” abound with the notion, for example, that half of all Americans will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” as Mitt Romney declared in his famous behind-closed-doors remarks about the 47 percent.
Yet few commentators would match Niebuhr’s unrelievedly unsentimental view.
Most decent people would hope to see different parties and factions engage in good-faith dialogue about the common good. Niebuhr would say: Don’t count on it. Because he saw reason as largely subservient to self-interests, he felt that relations between groups must always be “predominantly political rather than ethical,” meaning that those who favor greater equality should rely on sheer power and political mobilization, not just cogent arguments and appeals to conscience. The clear message: Expect little from conversations with plutocrats.
Among the many who found little uplift in Niebuhr’s critique was Niebuhr himself. “All this is rather tragic,” he said at the end of the book. He was speaking of unpalatable means toward the goal of greater equality, such as appealing to raw emotion and even resentment.
At times it’s hard to tell if Niebuhr is endorsing such behavior or trying to whip up an air of crisis. He certainly preferred loftier means such as civil discourse—provided they were effective. But a word he used favorably in this context is “coercion,” directed at the powerful, by the people through their government; he also saw an eternal need for power blocs such as labor unions and the pressures they apply. This would be “class warfare” by today’s squeamish standards.
Moral Man and Immoral Society was Niebuhr’s first major work. At the time, many readers and reviewers (including his fellow liberal Protestant clergy) were understandably alarmed by what they saw as his cynicism, and Niebuhr’s response was characteristically defiant. Gradually, however, he gave a little more due to the possibilities of grace and goodness in political life. He also turned a scornful eye to self-righteousness on the left as well as right.
At the same time, Niebuhr applied his thoughts about the “brutal character of all human collectives” to an increasingly dangerous world. He inspired many a liberal Cold Warrior—and a latter-day adherent, Barack Obama, who calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. In recent decades the Niebuhr brigades have arguably been filled with neoconservatives more than liberals, animated by their interpretation of Niebuhrian realism, the idea that the search for perfect justice is dangerously utopian.
Still, Niebuhr was always a creature of the left. He cofounded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 and opposed the Vietnam War, which was still raging when he died in 1971. And he remained a sober prognosticator of the human condition. He often said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine was Original Sin, which he found more steadily reliable than any belief in human perfectibility.
With his acute sense of tragedy and paradox, Niebuhr would not put full faith in grand designs of economic justice (if those existed today). But he would also doubt there could be even proximate justice, apart from a confrontation with privilege and an unabashed plying of worldly power.