Niebuhr: On Middle Class Ethics

A few weeks back we were looking at H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denomination, where Niebuhr argued that your class informs your religion. If you’re a middle class person, and everything in your life is built around labour and money and work, he argues, that’s probably going to carry over into your faith. You’re probably going to be a bit weird about somehow earning or justifying your salvation. More recently, we’ve been looking at Niebuhr’s brother, Reinhold – also a 20th century American theologian. In his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr talks a bit about ethics, and the principles that inform and underpin our ethical beliefs. What’s the key principle at hand? You guessed it: we’re still talking about class.

Both of the Niebuhr brothers clearly draw inspiration from Marx and his writings about economics. They’ve both got a lot to say about how class interests shape our personal values. For my money, so far, Reinhold seems more directly steeped in Marxist language. In Chapter 7 of Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr writes about the key differences between the morality of the proletariat and of the middle class. His comments on middle class morality echo much of what we touched on in The Social Sources. As a competitive, market-driven group, the middle class emphasise values that allow them to pursue their goals: “liberty, respect for individual life, the rights of property and the moral values of mutual trust and unselfishness.” Of course, despite espousing these latter two values, Niebuhr suggests, the middle classes “do not achieve an unselfish group attitude towards a less privileged group.” The obscuring factor seems to be that the middle class think of themselves as a collection of individuals, whereas the proletariat (he suggests) “feel themselves primarily members of a social group.” That’s one of the core issues that comes up in this book – Niebuhr complains that people are too idealistic about our human capacity to do the right thing. Individuals can make moral decisions, he claims, but social groups can’t. Groups are immoral and dumb. That’s part of the problem: if the middle class all think in an individualistic way, they’re firstly going to underestimate the scope of the problem, and second they’ll fail to recognise their own culpability. That is, firstly, they’re going to try and fix a class problem with individualistic solutions: apply for jobs, get an education, pull your socks up. Second, if they don’t recognise that they’re part of the middle class, they likely aren’t going to recognise their responsibility as the middle class stomps all over the working poor.

This sort of blindness is something that we might identify in a bunch of different inter-group relationships. It’s often observed that white people don’t have a sophisticated understanding of race – because for the most part, they’re not on the receiving end of racism. The same thing is said about how men often don’t have a sophisticated understanding of gender. In each case, power is associated with the privilege of not having to understand disadvantage. And yet Niebuhr isn’t looking to throw out entirely the individualistic mindset. He suggests that the middle class attitude is in some respects aspirational: “The middle class tries to make the canons of individual morality authoritative for all social relations … insasfar as this represents an honest effort to make the ideals of personal morality norms for the conduct of human groups, it is a legitimate moral attitude which must never be completely abandoned.” The issue is the hypocrisy. It’s how an individualist attitude blinds the middle class to the nature of class conflict. That’s again a pattern you see in contemporary arguments – for instance, in the ‘I don’t see race’ crowd. Taken purely at face value, they’re trying to treat each person as an individual, as a person whole unto themselves regardless of any questions of race or ethnicity. That is, in some sense, aspirational. We can’t lose sight of that as the goal. The issue with the ‘I don’t see race’ crowd is that they’re acting as if we’re already there – as if all barriers have been overcome, as if all the structural, group-based disadvantages have simply evaporated. In that sense the ‘I don’t see race’ crowd are the problem, but they also use language that will be used once the problem is overcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s