Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Unavoidable Dilemmas

Reinhold Niebuhr ( 1892-1971), as a young man, was a Protestant minister in the reform tradition. He served a parish in an industrial area of Detroit, where his concern for social justice deepened. This experience influenced his long career as a writer and teacher of social ethics at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City ( 1928-1960). Niebuhr was a force in progressive politics in New York and a cofounder of the Americans for Democratic Action. His most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932, was an important contribution to social theory because of its then-stunning critique of the moralistic idea that good individuals filled with love for others could change the world. Nations, he argued, are concerned with power and thus with selfish interests; in politics, one strives for justice, not love. Niebuhr's thinking in 1932 was thus in line with Keynes's insistence that the era of the autonomous individual ended with the more complex political and economic crises that developed with and after World War I. Niebuhr's writings were an important influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., during his student days. King's strategy of forceful nonviolence could be said to be one part Gandhi, another Niebuhr. King certainly shared Niebuhr's idea that in the social realm, love could force justice, if not love.


Moral Man and Immoral Society

Reinhold Niebuhr ( 1932)

The difference between the attitudes of individuals and those of groups has been frequently alluded to, the thesis being that group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterise individual relations. In dealing with the problem of social justice, it may be found that the relation of economic classes within a state is more important than international relations. But from the standpoint of analysing the ethics of group behavior, it is feasible to study the ethical attitudes of nations first; because the modern nation is the human group of strongest social cohesion, of most undisputed central authority and of most clearly defined membership. The church may have challenged its pre-eminence in the Middle Ages, and the economic class may compete with it for the loyalty of men in our own day; yet it remains, as it has been since the seventeenth century, the most absolute of all human associations.

Nations are territorial societies, the cohesive power of which is supplied by the sentiment of nationality and the authority of the state. The fact that state and nation are not synonymous and that states frequently incorporate several nationalities, indicates that the authority of government is the ultimate force of national cohesion. The fact

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Excerpt from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Niebuhr Reinhold, © 1932. Reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.

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