In Review

Enlightenment Apologist

Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists.

By Sharon Goldman

In a religiously pluralist country where many lawmakers, pundits, and public intellectuals are legitimately concerned about imposing their own brand of theological thinking, it has become de rigueur to tone down religiously inflected language, and in particular to avoid referencing liturgical texts or the work of religiously oriented thinkers. We may see our claims in moral terms, but many of us are nervous about expressing them as such. How, then, is it possible to engage in moral discourse without invoking God language or privileging the assumptions of a particular religious tradition? Do we trust that our moral sensibilities can remain afloat, untethered to the tenets of our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage? Susan Neiman, in her new book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, has taken on the project of answering these questions, and in so doing she makes a case for the viability of asserting moral judgments absent of religious bias.

Neiman insists that disentangling moral thinking from religious doctrine is not only possible, but that it is absolutely necessary. She has no interest in rejecting or eschewing the role of religion in either public or private life; rather, she argues that the moral judgment critical to maintaining a healthy democracy can be more than sufficiently vital and cogent when framed within a secular context. We can confidently assert moral claims and make ethical decisions without appealing to theistic language. For Neiman this is not an academic affair. She argues that resuscitating our impulse for ethical judgment, an impulse which she suggests is innate, is crucial to preventing the religious right from monopolizing and polarizing the moral debate.


Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, by Susan Neiman. Harcourt, 476 pages, $27.

Engraving of an 18th century man at a writing desk, with his hand reaching down to an astrolobe

Immanuel Kant (1815)  The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

An advocate of the Enlightenment, it is not a surprise that Neiman defers to Kant for the structure of her argument. In his circumscription of the purviews of human reason, i.e., its ability, its limits, and hence its proper role, Kant allows room for faith, for concepts such as God and freedom that, not being objects of space and time, are beyond the scope of reason. But his notion of the categorical imperative, the recognition of the distinction between what ought to be and what is, is a demand of reason. It is an imperative precisely because thinking about the implications of universalizing an action leads to the logical conclusion of what comprises right versus wrong conduct. For example, lying is unequivocally wrong, because if everyone were to lie, there would be no trust in the truth, the very thing that any lie is predicated on. Ethical action is thus the indisputable conclusion of logical reasoning; it is no more right to kill, to steal, or to lie than it is right that 2+2 = 5. This means moral judgment is not the product of religious doctrine, but the reverse: moral reasoning has given birth to the institutions of religion. Like Kant, Neiman argues that while religious traditions provide structure to and articulation of our moral intuitions, these traditions are not an a priori necessity for the functioning of a morally righteous society.

Neiman offers both literary and real-life examples of those she believes employ the categorical imperative, characters who under the most difficult and conflicting sets of circumstance are able to see beyond the is to aspire toward the ought, garnering the courage to act according to their convictions. Ironically, her most vivid example is Abraham of Genesis 18. This is the Abraham who argues with God about how few innocent people must abide in Sodom for God to desist from his plans for total destruction. This is not the Abraham of Mt. Moriah who almost slaughters his son, nor is it the Abraham who evicts Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. Neiman makes a point in contrasting these sides of Abraham as archetypes of distinct moral paradigms.

Neiman attributes the Abraham en route to Sodom with the ability to think in universal terms. In his concern for saving innocent lives, Abraham’s judgment extends beyond the plight of his own family. This Abraham is different from the Abraham of Mt. Moriah, who, much like Noah earlier in Genesis, obeys God’s word without questioning. While the latter is compelled by his faith in revelation, Neiman depicts the former as a man of reason, one whose conscience is propelled by cognition and who struggles with understanding and applying the moral law, that is, Kant’s principle of relating to fellow human beings as ends in themselves rather than means to an end. When Abraham argues with God, he invokes an ethic that appears to supersede even the Almighty himself, and in so doing, Abraham is able to stand outside of his religious framework and still appeal to justice. The Abraham of Genesis 18 asserts the moral law without depending upon God, thereby standing outside of his religion.

But does he really? Is radical obeisance the defining quality of piety of every shape and stripe? And if so, what do we do about Neiman’s paradoxical choice of literary genre? Surely much ink has been spilled over the centuries as to why God defers to Abraham in Genesis 18. What is at stake here, and what Neiman avoids addressing, is whether sound moral judgment is not only logically a priori, but genealogically a priori as well. In other words, could Kant and other thinkers of his day arrive at a logical framing of the Golden Rule if their culture had not been steeped for centuries in Judeo-Christian values? Does moral judgment function independently and parallel to religious tenets, or is it a scion of the ethics prescribed by religious texts and institutions? These are important questions, because the answer may determine the extent to which we need to rely upon religious systems to maintain a functioning, coherent ethical system. And because Neiman relies upon a Judeo-Christian system as a default for “religion” at large, the question also becomes: to what degree do we need to retain God language in our moral discourse?

While Neiman acknowledges the fact that the world is too complex a place to be divided along the lines of “religious” and “secular,” in drawing upon two opposing portraits of Abraham, she falls into the very trap she has warned her readers about. While the distinction is a valid one, the dichotomy is oversimplified. We in the West live in a world where Enlightenment values are taken for granted, where faith and reason can be compatible, where one mode of understanding can bracket or suspend the other without denying it. But by harping upon the Abraham of Moriah as the epitome of faith, she draws upon a fundamentalist model, and in so doing she conflates the categories of belief and faith, and faith with religion at large.

In setting reason free from religious dogma, the Enlightenment set the stage for a universalist, humanist ethic predicated on free will and logical thinking.

Neiman’s intentions are understandable, and her thesis is salvageable. She hammers this dichotomy in order to demonstrate the fact that a moral system can thrive just fine without the confines of religious rhetoric, that a world where “God is dead” does not necessarily lay the ground for a Hobbesian nightmare. She reminds us that in setting reason free from religious dogma, the Enlightenment set the stage for a universalist, humanist ethic, an ethic predicated on free will and logical thinking. Neiman calls this the morality for “grownups” because it is a modality that assumes the responsibility for one’s actions, as opposed to the more childlike modality of following prescribed rules with the hope of achieving a later reward, a reward beyond the pure satisfaction of doing right in and of itself.

Though she currently lives in Berlin, Neiman is primarily concerned about the moral landscape in the United States. Like many authors, particularly those writing before the November election, she worries that in their unabashed embrace of theistic language, the political right has hijacked the privilege of moral discourse, leaving the left to flounder and stutter along. The left, she argues, is not devoid of values. Rather, the problem is that the left has been lacking a coherent framework according to which these values make sense. She believes one source of the problem is the postmodern suspicion of moral language as subterfuge for the higher stakes of power, i.e., a legitimate postwar distrust of anyone or any institution who claims to be privy to a final, “moral” solution. I find her diagnosis to be naïvely optimistic. More likely, the source of the problem is more banal. In the United States, the very term “morality” has become associated with matters pertaining to the bedroom; it is almost synonymous with sexual mores, making it difficult to leverage the term in matters such as the war in Iraq or poverty. Moreover, because the integrity of Roe v. Wade rests so much upon the idea of choice as a matter of privacy, liberals have felt their hands tied behind their backs when it comes to articulating an ethical position.

Moral Clarity book cover

Moral Clarity

It is a good thing that Neiman ends her book with concrete examples. Her conclusions might otherwise be more controversial, as when she insists that there are no “evil people,” just “evil actions,” and likewise there are no “good people,” just “good actions.” From her perspective, it is neither possible nor right to attempt to search the soul of another human being, and in maintaining that proposition, she diminishes the role of motive so integral to the categories of our criminal justice system. Citing the well-known studies of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, two social scientists who have revealed the extent of how cruel human beings can be under certain conditions, she maintains that what happened at Abu Ghraib is yet another example of how easily ordinary people can commit atrocities given a particular set of conditions.

This is not to suggest that Nieman exonerates the perpetrators of these crimes. To the contrary, by choosing four real-life examples of “Enlightenment heroes” who are not particularly famous and who operate in very different environments, she has demonstrated that we are all capable of rising above the worst of circumstances—war, hypocrisy, oppression—and of acting ethically despite pressures to do the opposite. All four figures embody Abraham’s ethic of universality and Kant’s “Kingdom of Ends.” One is an Israeli active in the nonviolent resistance movement, one is a reporter turned human rights activist in Afghanistan, one is an American civil rights activist, and one is responsible for having exposed the Pentagon Papers. All of these people are still alive, and none of them have been timid about the use of good/evil language. Fortunately, the vitality of these portraits make up for what is missing in Nieman’s own prognosis. It is one thing to suggest that benign motives are insufficient; it is another to suggest that they are irrelevant. To do so is to risk putting deeds generated by self-interest on the same level as those generated by altruism.

Neiman reminds us throughout her book that looming large on the backdrop is the specter of Enlightenment critics, voices which are centuries old and contemporary, voices that rail against the Enlightenment as a source of the deification of reason at the expense of the sacred, of privileging analytical qualities over passions and emotions. If nothing else, Neiman needs to be credited for dispelling this caricature of such an important intellectual lineage. By completing her thesis with real-life examples, she succeeds at challenging the assumptions of this false dichotomy. She shows us that clear thinking and rightful action can prevail in the midst of the most emotionally charged circumstances, that being clear thinkers can help us to be kind and compassionate citizens.

Sharon Goldman, who received a master of theological studies degree from HDS in 2005, is a public school teacher.

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