Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Reviews of Susan Neiman's MORAL CLARITY.

Neiman, Susan. Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown-up Idealists. Boston: Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt, 2008. Gray, John. "Book of the Week: Moral Clarity, by Susan Neiman." The Independent July 10, 2009:

Moral clarity is something that everyone claims to admire, so it is always useful to find out what they mean by it. In the case of Susan Neiman, one need not look very far. In the first chapter of her "guide for grown-up idealists", discussing the crimes of the last century, she writes: "Arbitrary imprisonment, famine, and murder were not new, though the scale seen in the 20th century was. What was devastating about Soviet crimes was that they were committed in the name of principles most of us hold dear. The rebuttal to this is easy enough: Theoretically speaking, Stalin's Gulags no more undermined the legitimacy of socialist ideals than the Inquisition undermined Christian ones."

This passage, and many others like it dotted throughout the book, give the reader a pretty good idea of how Neiman understands clarity in moral thinking. She is clear that morality is a matter of having ideals, and no less clear about which ideals we are obliged to serve. "Most of us", she writes, cherish the ideals of the former Soviet Union." If post-communist Russians prefer to forget the Soviet era, the explanation is "easy enough": the Soviet state did not live up to the hopes on which it was founded.

The possibility that most Russians - along with most people in communist regimes everywhere - may never have shared these hopes does not occur to her. The 19th-century Russian anarchist Bakunin shrewdly defined Marx's ideal society as a pedantocracy, and Lenin's dreary collectivist utopia may be a pedant's idea of heaven. But for the mass of humankind - and on this point I count myself with the human majority - a world in which practically every aspect of life is yoked to a vision of progress is just a repulsive fantasy. The actuality, with all its horrors, is preferable.

The comprehensive failure of the Soviet experiment was in fact its only redeeming feature. This is something of a problem for Neiman for, despite the tens of millions it killed, she undoubtedly views communism as a progressive cause.

But it is not a problem that detains her for very long, for the solution is straightforward: we must all simply try harder. From time to time, no doubt, there may be tricky choices to be made; but Neiman is clear that anyone who does not share her ideals is obtuse, confused or else wicked. . . . (

Black, Tim. "‘We Want to Determine the World, not be Determined by It’." Spiked Review of Books 26 (July 2009):

In person, Neiman, like her writing, is spirited. Her passion for philosophy, indeed for the practical power and importance of ideas, is infectious. That Moral Clarity leaves you with a desire to read Immanuel Kant, that most rebarbative thinker from an era of highly demanding but hugely rewarding thinkers, is itself a testament to the force of her central idealist conviction: ideas matter.

It was partly Neiman’s desire to reclaim philosophy from the stultifying ‘scholasticism’, as she puts it, of Western academia that informed her previous book A History of Evil in Modern Thought. ‘The focus on epistemology and metaphysics [in philosophy teaching] as in “is the external world real, or is it all a dream?” is a huge diversion’, explained Neiman: ‘It is not actually the problem that these thinkers were grappling with.’ What Neiman suggested instead was that the history of philosophy was dominated far more by the kind of questions that inspire the young to study the subject in the first place, questions ‘of how to live, of the meaning of life, of the relation between morality and politics’. This is stirring stuff. Unfortunately what students find upon entering a university philosophy department is something very different: ‘an appalling distance from the real world’, according to Neiman. . . . (

O'Grady, Jane. "Right Reasoning." Guardian July 25, 2009:

Whereas those on the conservative right once proclaimed humanity too irredeemably flawed for large-scale reform, now they have coopted the Enlightenment, with its notions of freedom and perfectibility, to their cause. Meanwhile the left, disenchanted with ideals that were once expected to change the world, has junked all ideals equally, in a petulant sense of betrayal.

Moral Clarity analyses and challenges the sources of this defeatism, urging the left to reclaim the language of morality, idealism and Enlightenment. Neiman could be accused of treating these three concepts somewhat interchangeably, but she reminds us that American and European ethics are moulded from Enlightenment ideals, that America set out to be "Enlightenment made tangible" - a land "not determined by the traditions you draw from the past, but the visions you have for the future". What about the Native American Indians, slavery, Latin America, Iraq? That these ideals have been betrayed, says Neiman, does not invalidate them. Contaminated in practice though they are, they set in motion the repudiation of inherited privilege, superstition, racism, and made possible a greater equality for women and the downtrodden.

Those who uphold Enlightenment ideals over fundamentalism are often accused of themselves being "Enlightenment fundamentalists", or branded Eurocentric. But, argues Neiman, it was the Enlightenment that created the intellectual and emotional basis for challenging and destroying tyrannical certainties, including (in a perpetual self-questioning) its own. And it was the Enlightenment, in its fury for self-criticism and "its zeal to understand the rest of the world", that diagnosed and condemned Eurocentrism in the first place. . . . (

Cottingham, John. "From Job to the Enlightenment." Standpoint (July/August 2009):

Our idea of modernity is in many ways defined by that extraordinary flowering of scientific and philosophical ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries known as the Enlightenment. Yet current attitudes to the Enlightenment are ambivalent. Many still see it as unequivocally a good thing: mankind's coming of age, learning to think freely and independently and throwing off the shackles of obedience to received authority. But there is a dissenting view that has gained new momentum in recent years — that far from heralding a new and glorious dawn, the Enlightenment was born of an overweening arrogance, grossly overestimating the power of human reason and technology to solve our ills and inaugurating a crass materialistic era that has destroyed our reverence for the world and eroded our sense of the sacred.

Susan Neiman's latest book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, offers a distinctive reading of the Enlightenment that attempts to recover its authentic ideals and rescue it from some of the caricatures advanced both by its defenders and its critics. An American moral philosopher who has taught at Yale and Tel Aviv and now works in Germany, Neiman is committed to promoting a broadly liberal political agenda and, as a writer, to making philosophical ideas accessible to a wide reading public. The latter aim is one in which she largely succeeds in the present book, even if at times she seems to work almost too hard to keep the reader's attention. A vast and colourful tapestry of texts and events, stretching from the 18th century back to Homer's Odyssey and the Book of Job and forwards to 9/11 and Abu Ghraib prison, certainly offers plenty to think about, but does not always make the thread of the argument as easy to follow as it might have been in a shorter presentation. . . . (

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