06 May 2008

Morality & The Secular Left.

Apropos of Professor Webb's jeremiad below, here's a review of Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity: a Guide for Grown-up Idealists:

An American philosophy professor who directs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, Ms. Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide to the unjustly maligned Western "canon." But she is not some kind of scold or stodgy traditionalist, wagging a disapproving finger at our fall from a golden age. She is, in fact, a self-conscious woman of the left. She knows that our own debates over political and economic fundamentals have intellectual pedigrees worth learning, even at the cost of long hours spent among the most formidable of dead white European males. Her interest in the Bible and Plato, Hobbes and Burke, Hume and Rousseau springs not from nostalgia or an itch to debunk but from a need to think well in the present.

The task that Ms. Neiman sets for herself in "Moral Clarity" is to rescue today's political left from its own philosophical handicaps. How can it be, she wonders, that "moral clarity" has come to be a catchphrase of conservatives while eliciting the knowing sneers of liberals? Why are irony, detachment and pessimism the favored modes of supposed sophisticates? Why is there such a fear of being "judgmental"? What has made firmly asserted ideals seem naïve if not dangerous?

Ms. Neiman points to many factors in the left's retreat from universal principles. The demise of socialism has played a role, as has despair over the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. But the real source, she suggests, is a "conceptual collapse," a self-destructive descent into identity politics, postmodern theory and victimology. Her peers have become paralyzed, she writes, by the view that moral judgments are, ultimately, little more than "a hypocritical attempt to assert arbitrary power over those with whom you disagree."

For Ms. Neiman, the road back to the philosophical high ground leads through the Enlightenment. The central chapters of "Moral Clarity" remind us that the Enlightenment's great thinkers, despite their often radical resistance to authority and convention, had their own robust moral lexicon. Rejecting religious fatalism, they judged societies by their capacity to produce mundane happiness. They held up rationality as the key to universal justice, and they saw in the human condition, for all its folly, a source of hope. More than that, Ms. Neiman shows, they revered the world that reason revealed to them. As Kant put it: "Two things fill the mind with awe and wonder . . . : the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."

Here's the whole thing.


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