The Recovery of Liberalism: Moral Man and Immoral Society Sixty Years Later [Abstract]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 7 (1993)

December 3, 1993

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.


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