Niebuhr: The Awful Society

Here’s a question. What’s the arc of society? Are things getting better, or worse? Not even just in this specific moment – let’s zoom out a little more than that – what range of possible futures is open to us? Regardless of whether things might be relatively up or down this decade, or even in our lifetime, what’s the possible scope of futures that humanity is able to achieve? What’s our potential? The idealistic view might be that we have a bright future: even if we’re not immediately on track right now, it’s possible to get our carbon emissions on track, end poverty, create a bunch of AI and robots to do all the boring jobs, and then kinda just hang out in some post-work utopia. I think for many of us, even if we don’t put it in exactly those terms, we harbour this secret belief that humanity will be able to right itself. We believe that as a collective we have the potential and the capability to overcome society’s inertia and create a better world. Well, Reinhold Niebuhr says, that belief is stupid. Any social group is inherently immoral and awful, and there’s just simply no way to change the status quo. It’s just fucked. Can’t fix it. That’s just humans.

We’ve been talking over the past few months about H. Richard Niebuhr, a Christian theologian working in America in the 20th century. We’ve looked at a couple of his books – Christ and Culture, The Responsible Self, and The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Today we’re meeting his brother: Reinhold Niebuhr. Where Richard Niebuhr worked in religion and ethics, Reinhold worked in religion and politics. And just off the bat, he seems like the grumpier of the two. In his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr posited a basic division. Individual people can be moral – they can think reasonably and be induced to consider the needs of people other than themselves – but societies can’t. Niebuhr is basically K from Men in Black. The goodwill in human society, he argues, is far less than the sum of its parts: “In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.” Any collective group is inherently self-involved, Niebuhr suggests, to a point that can’t be fixed by conscience or reason. There’s no utopia coming, he says. We just don’t have it in us.

So – I mean, in the first instance, this line of argument is obviously very funny. It’s aggressively dour. Some cynics seem like they can’t really see past the end of their nose – like they just don’t have the capacity to imagine a future where things are better. But Niebuhr comes at this problem from a very clear-eyed, principled perspective. It’s not that he can’t imagine things getting better – it’s that in his assessment of human nature, it’s just not possible. It’s outside the limits of our form. We might contextualise Niebuhr’s argument next to that of Calvin, who argued that people are shit; the difference is that Niebuhr is happy attributing some sort of rational nature to the individual person. Niebuhr’s issue is the imbalance of power between groups. In the face of power, rationality just doesn’t do that much.

In the introduction to his work, Niebuhr writes that his argument is “directed against the moralists both religious and secular, who imagine that the egoism of individuals is being progressively checked by the development of rationality or the growth of a religiously inspired goodwill.” As an exemplar of this sort of problem, Niebuhr cites John Dewey. Dewey argued that progress is only blocked by “a lot of outworn traditions, moth-eaten slogans and catchwords that do substitute duty for thought, as well as our entrenched predatory self-interest.” Niebuhr agrees in principle, but says – you know – predatory self-interest is sort of the problem. There’s a gap between identifying the problem and resolving it – it’s one thing to say that predatory self-interest is an issue, but that’s not a plan to deal with it. Dewey seems to imagine that the powerful will simply give up their power as soon as the injustice is pointed out to them – as if they didn’t have any interest in actively preserving their social privilege. “Most of the social scientists are such unqualified rationalists that they seem to imagine that men of power will immediately check their exactions and pretensions in society, as soon as they have been appraised by the social scientists that their actions and attitudes are anti-social.” It’s not as if powerful people are just accidentally maintaining a system of inequality to their own benefit, in the way that you might accidentally tread on someone’s foot – you know, as if all you have to do is just point it out and they’ll apologise profusely and redistribute their wealth. You can’t educate or reason your way out of a power imbalance, Niebuhr says. There is no beneficent human nature. Nobody’s going to give up their privilege just because you ask nicely. Power must be met with power.

As the book proceeds, Niebuhr does go on to offer some suggestions as to how we ought to conduct ourselves at the level of society – we’ll get to that in a later article. Let’s stay for a moment with just the basic idea. I sometimes get frustrated at books about politics. They can sometimes seem like a lot of talk and not all that much action – that is, if they were all that smart, why isn’t the issue fixed? Why are we reading a call to action and not a retrospective on how the problem was solved? Niebuhr articulates some of that missing gap. There’s a difference between assessing a problem and being able to fix it. And it can be good to raise awareness – arguably for many of these problems, awareness is the first step – but Niebuhr’s point is that knowing the answer still isn’t enough. We can’t just appeal to reason or the better side of human nature. We can’t distribute copies of our favourite text and hope the problem will shrivel away. People, as a collective, suck. They will work to preserve the power of their class. Reason will not lift us out of this place.

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