Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity.

Reading between the lines.
May 27 2008 7:21 AM

Whose Values Are They, Anyway?

The peculiar politics of moral passion.

Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity

If you're a philosopher, the easiest way to introduce yourself is not by elaborating a doctrine, but by telling a story. That's because philosophical views are always arguments with previous views, and so they arise within a historical narrative. Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller; her new book Moral Clarity offers retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job that are themselves worth the price of admission. But she also has stories about the origins of her own position that place her in both larger intellectual narratives and more local political ones.

Neiman, an American philosopher who runs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, worries that American progressives have drifted away from the values and intellectual traditions of the West, stretching from classical antiquity to the Enlightenment (this is the larger narrative). She is vexed that contemporary conservatism has staked an uncontested claim to these traditions. When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 (this is the more local narrative), she recalls, "I was stunned by the claim that voters chose George Bush because they cared about moral values. Either they had been bamboozled or the left had dramatically failed."

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Why have moral values become the property of the right? Her diagnosis, in part, is that "Western secular culture has no clear place for moral language, and its use makes many profoundly uncomfortable." She also connects the "rightward turn in American culture" to the reshaping of American conservatism as an intellectual rather than an anti-intellectual movement. As the principle-driven progressive politics of the '60s petered out, the American right discovered the power of ideas.

"Through organizations like the Olin Foundation, Midwestern businessmen who made their fortunes producing chemicals and telephones were sponsoring seminars in the mountains of Hungary on the nature of evil, or flying scholars to Chicago to discuss law and virtue," she writes. "As the right was completing its study of the classics, the left was facing conceptual collapse." The political successes of the right, she argues, were against a left that had abandoned high principle for identity politics—a bad idea in a world in which "everyone, everywhere, was running on moral passion." The Bush era, for her, is the culmination of a trend. In 2004, "whether voters were moved by their views about terrorism, or the war in Iraq, or abortion, what did not decide the most significant election in decades was the bottom line." Accordingly, she urges progressives to reclaim "concepts that have been abandoned to the right: good and evil, hero and dignity and nobility."

Reclamation, for Neiman, starts with rereading. She draws her first lessons from the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham's response when Yahweh tells him that He plans to destroy the cities of the plain. "Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?" the patriarch protests. "Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" When the Lord agrees to spare Sodom if 50 righteous men can be found there, Abraham presses his case: " 'Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city because of five?' And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.' "

And so the bargaining starts. Neiman's heart is stirred by Abraham's universalism (these are not his people); by his resoluteness (this is God he is challenging); and by his insistence that the details matter (exactly how many just men are there in Sodom?). And because God seems to acknowledge the force of Abraham's moral reasons, the story allows her to assert, on the basis of the Old Testament itself, that we do not "need religious authority to maintain morality." It is an elegant rhetorical move to take a favorite story of the Christian right and extract a progressive lesson: the obligation of human reason to evaluate religion's demands. If you acknowledge with Abraham, she writes, "that serious religion and serious ethics are thus separate matters, you must believe things are good or evil independent of divine authority."

Liberals who grasp this shouldn't be abashed, Neiman thinks, about exploring religious texts as sources of moral insight. She thinks there's plenty that liberals can learn from the ancient Greeks, too. It has been conventional at least since Plato's time to contrast brash, fearless, confident Achilles—hero of the Iliad—with the wily, careful, uncertain Odysseus. For Neiman, Odysseus teaches us something about the possibilities of heroism in our own age. If, like him, "heroes can tremble and cry and falter, you could also become one," she writes.