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Book Summary: Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr | Forces of Habit

Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr


The Essence

Theologian and public figure Reinhold Niebuhr refutes social idealism as he refutes the collective’s ability to be governed by ethics. Groups cannot be held to the same standards of moral and social uprightness as individuals. We as individuals can overcome our predispositions towards sin. Yet the tools we use to liberate ourselves are insufficient when dealing with the collective ego of a given group. The collective’s vices cannot be eliminated, they may only be subdued by the brutal nature of other groups seeking to assimilate the larger collective.

Moral Man and Immoral Society Summary Journal Entry

This is my book summary of Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. The Journal write up also includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • “A Sharp distinction must be drawn between moral and social behavior of individuals and groups.”
  • Reason v. Fanaticism. I took this to describe the relationship between his own Christen realism and the idealistic causes of those in power—the ideal can only go so far.
  • Humans are better off recognizing the limitations of our imaginations when it comes to the future of a society. We have tons of ideas about how to change society for the better. But society is not governed by the same rules that our human experience would assume it to be and therefore cannot be controlled by similar means as we do for the individual.
  • “spiritual wickedness in high places”
  • Economic circumstances ultimately influence, perhaps even determine, the social and ethical outlooks of their members.
  • Man is a brutal ego driven creature—Niebuhr would probably call this the innate sin of man. Man will justify his needs above others and attempt to take more then what is needed. Therefore what is altruistic is of the highest morality.
  • As a social power grows, so does its propensity to develop social inequality. “No impartial society determines the rewards. The man of power who control society grant these prerequisites to themselves.”
  • Our herd tendencies are one of our greatest enemies when prescribing absolute ideals. The power of the group has shown to become a very dangerous asset to leaders whose intention do harm to large sects of people. Niebuhr saw WWII as an example of human nature falling prey to the dynamic power of herding.
  • Society is the product of our wants and government of our wickedness” -Thomas Pain
  • We are a bundle of our most preciously held illusions. When redeeming ourselves from egoism. Those who are most effective are able and willing to sacrifice the illusions of the past and substitute them with the more accurately postulated.
    What is our most important illusion? “The collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice.”
  • Niebuhr knows of one way to increase the purity of social morality. It’s through the efforts of the psychological sciences. Science can aid man in becoming increasingly more aware of his motives as well as what pretenses his true desires.
  • The human mind is a slave to the passions—emotions rule us. “One is never certain to what degree the fears of the privileged classes of anarchy and revolution are honest fears which may be explained in terms of their imperfect perspective upon social facts; and to what degree they are dishonest attempts to put the advancing classes at a disadvantage.” Those in power may not realize that by way of passion, they have reasoned to strip the opposing classes of dignity. And they choose to justify such actions though seemingly rational fears. Yet can we determine if these are acts of protection or an attempt to eclectically assemble more then what is minimally needed?
  • No power hold more claim over human associations than that of the modern nation.
  • “Only history can answer…”. One of my favorite quotes from the book. To me, it represents an admittance to the uncertainty of what is to come. Hindsight is 20/20—or at least our perception of ‘truth’ can be justified
  • Violence and revolution are not intrinsically immoral. Niebuhr cites two misconceptions as to why someone would believe otherwise:
    1. How we categorize violence. The belief that violence is a natural expression of ill-will, and non-violence of good-will. And citing violence as therefore being intrinsically evil and non-violence as intrinsically good.
    2. Values that do not match to orthodox are immoral. We uncritically identify the traditionalized instrumental values with intrinsic moral values.
  • “No society has ever achieved peace without incorporating injustice into its harmony”

Reading Recommendations

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what discussed in Moral Man and Immoral Society

1. Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

2. The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Alan Ehrenhalt

3. The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon

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