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The Recovery of Liberalism: Moral Man and Immoral Society Sixty Years Later*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2012


This essay is a discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr's 1932 classic Moral Man, which critiques the Liberal Movement up to the 1930s. Little reviews some of the books fundamental conclusions. First, according to Niebuhr, to believe that individual self-interest is fulfilled in a collective good is to subscribe to a “utopian illusion”. He faults liberals for allowing themselves to be victims of the Enlightenment, i.e. being incurable optimistically rational about morals and politics. Second, he addresses the issue of the will for power inevitably dominating the will for good. Liberalism, in the sense of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and John Locke, lends itself as a venue for this to occur through its condonation of egoism as the intrinsic element of total social harmony. Little develops on Niebuhr's theory of conscience where there is a sharp distinction between individual and collective morality, the latter being much less susceptible to liberal morality than the former. Where individuals are endowed with an emotional sense of sympathy and consideration toward their kind, groups or nations would find this difficult, if not impossible due to their inclusive nature. Finally, he points out the mixture of morality and power in national life: where politics, while being inseparable from virtue and legitimacy, still abuses those beliefs in the interests of “national egoism”. When moral language is used in international politics without application of self-criticism, it diverts attention from the real motives of the statesmen who use it. Little does indicate deficiencies in Niebuhr's attempts to recover liberalism in his later writings toward the end of the essay.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 1993

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1 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics 1932; (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960)Google Scholar. The page numbers for all subsequent citations of this book are given within the text.

2 Niebuhr was forty at the time, having been born in 1892. His first book, Does Civilization Need Religion? was published in 1927. According to Richard Fox, the book offers rather vague and sentimental solutions to the problems of the period, and Niebuhr was already outgrowing them by the time the book was published. See Fox, Richard, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 100104Google Scholar.

3 Jr.Schlesinger, Arthur M., “Reinhold Niebuhr's Role in Political Thought,” in Kegley, Charles W. and Bretall, Robert W., eds., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 141, 142Google Scholar.

4 See citations in Stone, Ronald, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), 8586Google Scholar.

5 “The Revival of Feudalism,” Harper's (March 1935), cited in Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, 170Google Scholar.

6 Faith for History's Greatest Crisis,” Fortune 26 (July 1942), 126Google Scholar; cited in Davis, Harry R. and Good, Robert C., Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics: His Political Philosophy and Its Application to Our Age as Expressed in His Writings (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), 24Google Scholar.

7 Niebuhr, , Christianity and Power Politics, 188,Google Scholar cited in Davis, and Good, , Reinhold Neibuhr on Politics, 25Google Scholar; emphasis added.

8 Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 190Google Scholar.

9 The full statement is somewhat tentative, though still quite interesting: “[The communist's] power would be purely political, and no special economic interests would tempt him to pursue economic policies at variance with the national interest. He might nevertheless have private ambitions and dreams of grandeur which would tempt him to sacrifice a nation to them.”Google Scholar

10 “Marx, Earth and Israel's Prophets,”Christian Century (January 30, 1935)Google Scholar; cited in Schlesinger, , “Niebuhr's Role in Political Thought,” 138Google Scholar.

11 Ibid., 138–39. Schlesinger draws these contrasts from articles written by Niebuhr in 1953 (fn. 21, p. 139), but they are mostly touched on in chapter 6 of Moral Man, “The Ethical Attitudes of the Proletarian Class,” especially pages 146–49, 154–57, and 159–65Google Scholar.

12 Schlesinger, Cf., “Niebuhr's Role in Political Thought,” 139Google Scholar.

13 Preface to Moral Man (1960 ed.), ixGoogle Scholar.

14 This is the title of an article Niebuhr published in Radical Religion 1 (Autumn 1936)Google Scholar.

15 A Faith for History's Greatest Crisis,” 122, 125Google Scholar.

16 See Moral Man, 124–35Google Scholar; Niebuhr, cf., Children of Light and Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944),Google Scholarchap. 1 for a somewhat fuller account. See also Davis and Good, Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, chap. 2, “The Soft Utopians: The Liberals”; and Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr, chap. 2, “The Disillusioning of a Liberal.”

17 Though Niebuhr mentions that toward the end of his life Bentham, “expressing a reaction from too romantic hopes”(Moral Man, 46),Google Scholar appeared to lose his confidence in the natural propensities of human beings to coordinate their individual interests with the common good. Bentham's latter-day realism Niebuhr found “nearer the truth than the early hope of the utilitarians that reason could resolve the conflict between self-interest and social interest.”

18 Niebuhr, , Children of Light and Children of Darkness, 2430Google Scholar.

19 Ibid., 108Google Scholar.

20 See Halevy, Elie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955)Google Scholar for a classic discussion of the development of this thesis. “For political economy, ever since Adam Smith, has rested entirely on the thesis of the natural identity of interests. By the mechanism of exchange and the division of labour individuals, without desiring or knowing it, and while pursuing each his own interest, are working for the direct realization of the general interest” (p. 16). “The general confidence of an identity between self-interest and the common weal…underlies liberal democratic theory” (Children of Light and Children of Darkness, 28).

21 See Moral Man, 27, 37ff.,Google ScholarPubMed for a critique of Kant and “Kantians.” Niebuhr does find some moral value in reason, and seeks to make room for it in his own position. We shall return to this question.

22 “An Open Letter (to Richard Roberts),” in Robertson, D. B., Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (New York: World Publishing Co., 1967), 270Google Scholar.

23 “History's Greatest Crisis,” 125Google Scholar.

24 Luke 16:8, which, of course, provides the text for Niebuhr's book, The Children of Light and the Children of DarknessGoogle Scholar.

25 Ibid., 232Google Scholar.

26 “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical.”Children of Light and Children of Darkness, 1011Google Scholar.

27 Ibid., 234–35Google Scholar.

28 See chap. 3 of Moral Man, “The Religious Resources of the Individual for Social Living,” esp. 7582Google Scholar.

29 Ibid., 81,Google Scholar emphasis added. For all the development that takes place in Niebuhr's theological thinking after Moral Man, this way of putting things is recurrent and persistent throughout his career. These words epitomize the heart of Niebuhr's “prophetic religion,” which later becomes his hallmark.

30 Since the ends societies base their actions on are highly “inclusive” (read: indeterminate), the process of evaluating actions on the basis of consequences is an open-ended, unfinished activity. “Since society must constantly deal with these inclusive ends, it always seems to capitulate to the dangerous principle that the end justifies the means” (ibid., 175). As a matter of fact, Niebuhr's view here gets rather subtle, if not confusing, and the usually sharp distinction between individual and collective morality—between “moral man and immoral society”—begins to lose its clarity. Immediately after the above comment, Niebuhr makes the following dense, and somewhat unexpected, statement: “All morality really accepts that principle [the end justifies the means], but the fact is obscured by the assumption, frequently though not universally justified, that the character of immediate consequences guarantees the character of the ultimate end.” What he appears to mean is something like this: 1) Action for everyone (“all morality”) is justified with reference to consequences, and all consequences are, in turn, justified with reference to an ultimate end. 2) The consequences of some acts appear to be more directly and regularly in accord with the ultimate end than others. Those acts come to be mistakenly accepted as inherently or intrinsically right, as right, that is, contrary to the principle, “the end justifies the means.” This is a mistake, since no acts are right without reference to consequences. Some only appear to beGoogle Scholar.

31 I say “partially,” since Niebuhr's relation to pragmatism as a philosophical movement is somewhat unclear. His biographer, Fox, makes a good deal of Niebuhr's underlying connections to pragmatists like James and Dewey, despite Niebuhr's penchant for ridiculing Dewey. “Like Dewey, [Niebuhr] was a pragmatist, a relativist, and a pluralist at heart. He hated absolutism of any kind. Life was an adventure in which people could create their own world if they had the courage and intelligence to do so” (Reinhold Niebuhr, 165).Google Scholar“[Niebuhr's] religion, for all its Biblical allusions and ethical drive—was more like a philosophy of life than a mystical encounter. It was much closer to the secular and relativist faith of William James” (Reinhold Niebuhr, 172; cf. 84, 125, 217).Google Scholar Ronald Stone also discusses Niebuhr's relations to pragmatism at some length (Reinhold Niebuhr, 145–57). While Niebuhr certainly interpreted his political pragmatism in the “non-principled” way mentioned above, and while he frequently talks in an anti-absolutist, or “relativist” and “pluralist,” way about moral values, he does not seem to talk like that when it comes to some of his religious and moral beliefs. For example, the comment mentioned in the next paragraph in the text about good will as the only intrinsically good thing does not sound like the utterance of a pragmatist. (Fox confuses things, I think, by lumping James and Kant together as influences on the young Niebuhr [Reinhold Niebuhr, 84].) Frankly, I doubt that Niebuhr ever thought all this through very fully.

32 Strangely, , Niebuhr neither mentions Kant here nor attempts to explain how he means to interpret the central thesis of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in the context of his broader argument. One is left to try to puzzle out what Niebuhr means, and how exactly it fits with the rest of what he is sayingGoogle Scholar.

33 Niebuhr distinguishes different forms of nonviolent action—negative physical resistance, civil disobedience, boycotts, and strikes—from “pure nonresistance,” which he identifies with religious figures like Jesus (ibid., 243), and he accuses Gandhi of confusing the two. Presumably, nonviolence of the sort Gandhi employed has an explicit political objective (and must therefore be evaluated as such), whereas pure nonresistance does not.Google Scholar

34 Jr.Luther King, Martin personally attested to the influence on him of Niebuhr's recommendation here, as well as Niebuhr's general approach to political morality. King did, however, break with Niebuhr's “pragmatic pacifism.”Google Scholar

35 Stone, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 160.Google Scholar Niebuhr himself wrote: “My second account of a gradual revision of my originally held opinions must deal, of course, with my rather violent, and sometimes extravagant, reaction to what I defined as the ‘utopianism,’ i.e., the illusory idealist and individualist character, of a Protestant and bourgeois culture before the world depression and two world wars. I must confess to some radical contradictions in my attitudes before I reached the comparatively stable and, I think, valid ‘realist’ and social emphasis that I seek to justify in these essays” (Niebuhr, , Man's Nature and His Communities [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965], 21)Google Scholar.

36 See Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 134, 135Google Scholar.

37 Plutocracy and World Responsibilities,” Christianity and Society 14 (Autumn 1949)Google Scholar; cited in Schlesinger, , “Reinhold Niebuhr's Role in Political Thought,” 147Google Scholar.

38 New Leader (August 16, 1941)Google Scholar; cited in Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 219Google Scholar.

39 “Why Is Communism So Evil?” in Lefever, Ernest W., ed., The World Crisis and American Responsibility (New York: Association Press, 1958), esp. 54, 55Google Scholar; reprinted from Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953). “My reaction to bourgeois individualism prompted me to the error of using Marxist ideas to emphasize our new collective realities” (Niebuhr, , Man's Nature and His Communities, 21)Google Scholar.

40 The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), 96101Google Scholar.

41 Ibid., 100Google Scholar.

42 For mention of Burke, see ibid., 89, 91Google Scholar. The title of chapter 5 is significant in summarizing Niebuhr's basic view: “The Triumph of Experience over Dogma.”

43 Ibid., 2533, 92–97Google Scholar.

44 See Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 214Google Scholar. As the following evidence in the text makes clear, Niebuhr did say some things later that appear to modify this central distinction, a distinction that is contained, of course, in the title itself, Moral Man and Immoral Society. On the other hand, I am not convinced that Niebuhr consistently readjusted his thinking in keeping with the revisions. The revisionary comments are made in the 1940s and 1950s. But in the 1960s, he still says that “the basic difference between the morality of individuals and the morality of collectives,” as argued in Moral Man, “is important.”“I have changed my mind about many things, but I am inclined to think that all our contemporary experience validates rather than refutes the basic thesis of this volume” (1960 Preface to Moral Man, ix; emphasis added). In his introduction to Man and His Communities, “Changing Perspectives,” published in 1965, six years before his death, Niebuhr writes: “My first venture in political philosophy, published in 1932, was entitled Moral Man and Immoral Society. Its thesis was the obvious one, that collective self-regard of class, race, and nation is more stubborn and persistent than the egoism of individuals.” Niebuhr goes on to emphasize the importance of the thesis against “secular and religious idealists.” He does recount that someone had suggested the following revised title: The Not So Moral Man in His Less Moral Communities. While such a title modifies somewhat the difference between the individual and the collective, it does not alter the essential point that collectives are “less moral” than the individual. It is precisely that point that the following comments in the text challenge.

45 Irony of American History, 144–45Google Scholar.

46 The words “radical departure” are Fox's (Reinhold Niehuhr, 214)Google Scholar, and he confirms the ideas in this paragraph.

47 I am indebted for the following observations to an important essay by Holleman, Warren L., “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations and Human Rights,” Soundings 70 (1987), 329–54Google Scholar. Apart from assembling Niebuhr's thinking on this subject in an illuminating way, Holleman proves, rather surprisingly, that this side of Niebuhr's thought has not been adequately treated by his standard interpreters (see 351–52, fn. 5).

48 Plans for World Reorganization,” Christianity and Crisis 2 (October 19, 1942), 4Google Scholar; cited in Holleman, “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 341.

49 World Community and World Government,” Christianity and Crisis 6 (October 21, 1944), 6Google Scholar; cited in Holleman, “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 342–43.

50 Ibid., 343Google Scholar.

51 The Illusion of World Government,” Foreign Affairs 27 (April 1949)Google Scholar.

52 Holleman, , “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 344Google Scholar.

53 Niebuhr, , “The United Nations and the Free World,” The Moral Implications of Loyalty to the United Nations (New Haven: Edward W. Hazen Foundation, 1952)Google Scholar; reprinted in Lefever, ed., The World Crisis and American Responsibility, 6970Google Scholar.

54 “United Nations and the Free World,” 75Google Scholar.

55 This typically Niebuhrian word reversal is Holleman's (“Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 343)Google Scholar.

56 The National Interest and International Responsibility,” Social Action 21 (February 1955), 26Google Scholar; cited in Holleman, “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 343.

57 Ibid., 349Google Scholar.

58 “The Illusion of World Government,” 101102Google Scholar.

59 “An international bill of rights has also been added [to the UN Charter], the significance of which has been lauded by all international idealists, despite the fact that there is no international sovereignty that could enforce its provisions upon any constituent states. All in all the instrument that has come out of San Francisco deserves all the praise that the hopeful have bestowed upon it, provided you do not look too much beneath the surface. Under the surface of this document the political realities are such as to give little assurance for the future” (“The San Francisco Conference,” in Robertson, ed., Love and Justice, 213)Google Scholar.

60 Holleman, , “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 348Google Scholar.

61 The Myth of World Government,” The Nation 162 (March 16, 1946)Google Scholar; cited in Holleman, “Reinhold Niebuhr on the United Nations,” 339.

62 See Niebuhr, , Nations and Empires: Recurring Patterns in the Political Order (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), 293–96Google Scholar.

63 Drawn from Moon, Parker, Imperialism and World Politics, 422Google Scholar; emphasis added.

64 Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 40Google Scholar. Carr singles out Moral Man as an important contribution to the understanding of the conditions of the period (p. x).

65 Meinecke, Frederich, Staatsräson, 533Google Scholar; cited in Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 88.

66 “Niebuhr frequently had to insist that his secular admirers were turning his realism into a world-weary manipulativeness that verged on moral nihilism. Political scientists like Hans Morgenthau, for example, sometimes divorced the realm of politics so completely from the realm of morality that he doubted—as he told a conference of devoted Niebuhrian followers—whether one could be both ‘a successful politician and a good Christian.’ Niebuhr gently corrected him: ‘I do not think we will sacrifice any value in the “realist” approach to the political order…if we define [it] in terms which do not rob it of its moral content’” (Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 277)Google Scholar. For Niebuhr's explicit rejection of the extreme views of George Kennan on morality and international affairs, see Niebuhr, , Irony of American History, 147–48Google Scholar.

67 See Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 234–35Google Scholar. I am indebted to Professor Frederick Ferre of the University of Georgia for reminding me of this point.

68 Adolf Hitler, speech at the Nazi Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration at Buckeberg, October 7, 1933; cited in Bullock, Alan, Hitler (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 401Google Scholar.

69 Niebuhr, , “The United Nations and the Free World,” originally published in pamphlet form as The Moral Implications of Loyalty to the United Nations (New Haven: Edward W. Hazen Foundation, 1952)Google Scholar; reprinted in Lefever, ed., The World Crisis and American Responsibility, 6970Google Scholar; cited above, fn. 53.

70 There is some variation in the number of primary prohibitions among the “emergency clauses” of the various international instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 4), the European Convention on Human Rights (Art. 15), and The American Convention on Human Rights (Art. 27), but they all include the four prohibitions mentioned above. Compare this to Article 3 which is contained in all of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 governing the treatment of combatants and noncombatants in times of war or military occupationGoogle Scholar.

71 See Meron, Theodor, “On a Hierarchy of International Human Rights,” American Journal of International Law 80 (January 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 This point, in turn, casts doubt on some of Niebuhr's conclusions about nonviolence, but the subject is too complex to go into here. See Childress, James, “Reinhold Niebuhr's Realistic Critique of Pacifism,” Moral Responsibility in Conflicts: Essays on Nonviolence, War, and Conscience (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982)Google Scholar for an illuminating discussion of the issues.

73 See fn. 44 aboveGoogle Scholar.

74 I have dealt at some length with the difficulties with Niebuhr's views on this subject in “Duties of Station vs. Duties of Conscience: Are There Two Moralities?” in Jones, Donald G., ed., Private and Public Ethics: Tensions between Conscience and Institutional Responsibility (New York: Mellen Press, 1978), 125–57Google Scholar.

75 Cited in Fox, , Reinhold Niebuhr, 204Google Scholar. Fox goes on: “Calhoun's conclusions, even if prompted partly by a desire to display his own mastery of historical theology, was surely on target. Niebuhr's historical survey was rudimentary in the extreme; a stringing together of incautious judgments and random quotations, a sequence of straw ideas easily knocked down in his fuller but still highly selective treatment of the Biblical perspective.”

76 See Colman, John, John Locke's Moral Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), 237Google Scholar: “Notwithstanding the emphasis he places on happiness as the end of morality, Locke himself cannot properly be categorized as a utilitarian. His ethic is a natural law theory of morality.” Cf. Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, 6–7: “Although Locke is universally recognized as the forerunner of the new spirit, there is in his writings no trace…of a methodical development of a Utilitarian morality….”

77 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (New York: New American Library, 1965)Google Scholar, bk. 2, sec. 128.

78 See Ashcraft, Richard, “Faith and Knowledge in Locke's Philosophy,” in Yolton, John W., ed., John Locke: Problems and Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)Google Scholar, for an illuminating discussion of the deep limitations of human knowledge for Locke. Other liberals, like Immanuel Kant, also make more room for the fallibility and perversity of human nature than Niebuhr understands. He clearly understates the role of “radical evil” in Kant's philosophy.

79 See, for example, Rumble, Wilfred E., “James Madison and the Value of the Bill of Rights,” in Roland Pennock, J. and Chapman, John W., Constitutionalism (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 122ff.Google Scholar, for illuminating references to the Lockean background of Madison's thought.

80 Niebuhr admits this in passing (see p. 5 above) but he does not stress the point sufficiently or draw out the implications for economic life and policy which are quite different from the implications drawn by Adam Smith and other devotees of laissez-faireGoogle Scholar.

81 Sartori, Giovanni, Democratic Theory (New York: Prager, 1965), 362Google Scholar.

82 Dunn, John, The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 210Google Scholar. Cf. Wood, Neil, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984Google Scholar).

83 Peter Laslett in Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (New York: New American Library, 1965), 118Google Scholar.

84 I have elaborated the Lockean background of human rights in an essay, “A Christian Perspective on Human Rights,” in Ahmed An-Naim, Abdullahi and Deng, Francis M., eds., Human Rights in Africa (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1990)Google Scholar.

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