The thesis of the book is that people are more likely to sin as members of groups than as individuals. Niebuhr wrote the book in a single summer. He drew the book’s contents from his experiences as a pastor in Detroit, Michigan prior to his professorship at UTS.
The book attacks liberalism, both secular and religious, and is particularly critical of John Dewey and the Social Gospel.Moral Man and Immoral Society generated much controversy and raised Niebuhr’s public profile significantly. Initial reception of the book by liberal Christian critics was negative, but its reputation soon improved as the rise of fascism throughout the 1930s was seen as having been predicted in the book.
Soon after the book’s publication, Paul Lehmann gave a copy to 潘霍華Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who read it and was impressed by the book’s thesis but disliked the book’s critique of pacifism. The book eventually gained significant readership among American Jews because, after a period of considerable anti-theological sentiment among Jews in the United States, many Jews began to return to the study of theology and, having no Jewish works of theology to read, turned to Protestant theological works.
“Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep ordinary person on course.”
“When economic power desires to be left alone it uses the philosophy of laissez faire to discourage political restraint upon economic freedom. When it wants to make use of the police power of the state to subdue rebellions and discontent in the ranks of its helots, it justifies the use of political coercion and the resulting suppression of liberties by insisting that peace is more precious than freedom and that its only desire is social peace.”
“The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal selfdeception and hypocrisy. The unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values, which we have noted in analysing national attitudes, is equally obvious in the attitude of classes. The reason why privileged classes are more hypocritical than underprivileged ones is that special privilege can be defended in terms of the rational ideal of equal justice only, by proving that it contributes something to the good of the whole. Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.”
“Power,” said Henry Adams, “is poison”; and it is a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose. The”
“The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fullness of life which each man seeks”
“Philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.”
“It is fair, therefore, to assume that growing rationality is a guarantee of man’s growing morality.”
“The intelligent man, who exploits available resources for knowledge of the needs and wants of his fellows, will be more inclined to adjust his conduct to their needs than those who are less intelligent.”
“Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed or because they have discovered their own deceptions. Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.”
“Whatever increase in social intelligence and moral goodwill may be achieved in human history, may serve to mitigate the brutalities of social conflict, but they cannot abolish the conflict itself. That could be accomplished only if human groups, whether racial, national or economic, could achieve a degree of reason and sympathy which would permit them to see and to understand the interests of others as vividly as they understand their own, and a moral goodwill which would prompt them to affirm the rights of others as vigorously as they affirm their own. Given the inevitable limitations of human nature and the limits of the human imagination and intelligence, this is an ideal which individuals may approximate but which is beyond the capacities of human societies.”
“Teachers of morals who do not see the difference between the problem of charity within the limits of an accepted social system and the problem of justice between economic groups, holding uneven power within modern industrial society, have simply not faced the most obvious differences between the morals of groups and those of individuals.”
“All this is rather tragic. For what the individual conscience feels when it lifts itself above the world of nature and the system of collective relationships in which the human spirit remains under the power of nature, is not a luxury but a necessity of the soul. Yet there is beauty in our tragedy. We are, at least, rid of some of our illusions. We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at the expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.”
“that the failure of governments is due to the pressure of economic interest upon them rather than to the “limited capacities of human wisdom.”
“Absolutism, in both religious and political realism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate and concrete situations.”
“Privileged groups have other persistent methods of justifying their special interests in terms of general interest. The assumption that they possess unique intellectual gifts and moral excellencies which redound to the general good, is only one of them. Perhaps a more favorite method is to identify the particular organisation of society, of which they are the beneficiaries, with the peace and order of society in general and to appoint themselves the apostles of law and order.
Since every society has an instinctive desire for harmony and avoidance of strife, this is a very potent instrument of maintaining the unjust status quo. No society has ever achieved peace without incorporating injustice into its harmony. Those who would eliminate the injustice are therefore always placed at the moral disadvantage of imperiling its peace. The privileged groups will place them under that moral disadvantage even if the efforts toward justice are made in the most pacific terms. They will claim that it is dangerous to disturb a precarious equilibrium and will feign to fear anarchy as the consequence of the effort. This passion for peace need not always be consciously dishonest. Since those who hold special privileges in society are naturally inclined to regard their privileges as their rights and to be unmindful of the effects of inequality upon the underprivileged, they will have a natural complacence toward injustice.
Every effort to disturb the peace, which incorporates the injustice, will therefore seem to them to spring from unjustified malcontent. They will furthermore be only partly conscious of the violence and coercion by which their privileges are preserved and will therefore be particularly censorious of the use of force or the threat of violence by those who oppose them. The force they use is either the covert force of economic power or it is the police power of the state,seemingly sanctified by the supposedly impartial objectives of the government which wields it, but nevertheless amenable to their interests. They are thus able in perfect good faith to express abhorrence of the violence of a strike by workers and to call upon the state in the same breath to use violence in putting down the strike. The unvarying reaction of capitalist newspapers to outbreaks of violence in labor disputes is to express pious abhorrence of the use of violent methods and then to call upon the state to use the militia in suppressing the exasperated workers.
Perhaps it is a little too generous to attribute good faith to such reasoning, particularly since the privileged classes are not averse to the policy of augmenting the police power of the state with their own instruments of defense and aggression. The use of company police in labor disputes has resulted in more than one scandal of cruel oppression in the United States.”