Moral clarity or breezy philosophy?

There’s something that makes me wary of Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. The basic theory is, in a way, unexceptional. The left needs ideals, to bridge the gap between what is the case in the world and what ought to be. She argues that in the modern world, such idealists must draw their metaphysical succour from the Enlightenment, and the book is mostly a presentation of her version of Enlightenment philosophy. And that’s what made me uneasy.

Her style is breezy and common sensical. That works well in some chapters. So, it’s pretty clear that much thinking in evolutionary pyschology is circular. Or, it’s also the case that many Enlightenment thinkers were theologically inspired; it’s the church they loathed. But I felt it comes unstuck when she misses the mark. Did Aristotle think it demeaning to receive and so argued it’s better to give? That traduces the ancient Greek, who argues that giving is better because it demands more of the giver. Or is it the case that materialists ‘are showing how mind changes matter, and they need no immaterial substances to explain it’? If only philosophy of mind were so easy.

And what of her central figure, Kant? I’m sure Kant scholars endlessly debate what the great man meant by this or that. However, her discussion reflects little of it, and so seems skewed to support her case. Take one of the major claims of the book, namely that morality is prior to religion, for all that morality may be embedded in religion for believers. Neiman uses Kant to support the claim.

However, my understanding is that Kant thought that God is not an optional extra in moral philosophy, but is necessary for morality to be considered rational. For one thing, ‘ought implies can,’ meaning that it is only rational to be moral if there is a place where the ideal is actually realised. That can only be guaranteed by God, since this world is clearly persistently flawed. Similarly, Kant argued that it is rational to obey the categorical imperative not because it is a flawless piece of reason but ultimately because of what God promises. In short, God underpins the logic of leading a moral life. (As I remember, this is roughly what JB Schneewind argues in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Philosophy.)

Only on that basis can individuals claim to be rational as they work out how they might behave, free of the tutelage of priests and other authorities: that’s where reason in morality comes into play – reasoning that any moral person can and must employ. But reason does not remove the need for God in Kant’s moral philosophy, as Neiman wants to have it. Whatever you make of the links between morality and religion, Kant believes that there must be one.

A related theme is her interpretation of the story of Abraham arguing against God, when God was about to destroy Sodom. She celebrates this as the moment in which rational morality transcends divine will. Again, there are no doubt endless ways of interpreting this text. However, it seems unlikely that the Hebrew Bible would mean for Man to put himself in the place of God, as Neiman suggests we should. That, surely, is to risk making Man divine. Instead, it seems more sensible, if you are looking at the story of Abraham, to take the whole story, and remember that this is also the man who would sacrifice his son against all reason. That story is objectionable for all the obvious reasons, and Neiman rejects it for those reasons. But it does stress Abraham’s (or Man’s) need to recognise the limits of his understanding, reflected in his faith in God – which very interestingly does not mean he cannot argue with God too.