Whose Values Are They, Anyway?

The peculiar politics of moral passion.

If you’re a philosopher, the easiest way to introduce yourself is not by elaborating a doctrine, but by telling a story. That’s because philosophical views are always arguments with previous views, and so they arise within a historical narrative. Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller; her new book Moral Clarity offers retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job that are themselves worth the price of admission. But she also has stories about the origins of her own position that place her in both larger intellectual narratives and more local political ones.

Neiman, an American philosopher who runs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, worries that American progressives have drifted away from the values and intellectual traditions of the West, stretching from classical antiquity to the Enlightenment (this is the larger narrative). She is vexed that contemporary conservatism has staked an uncontested claim to these traditions. When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 (this is the more local narrative), she recalls, “I was stunned by the claim that voters chose George Bush because they cared about moral values. Either they had been bamboozled or the left had dramatically failed.”

Why have moral values become the property of the right? Her diagnosis, in part, is that “Western secular culture has no clear place for moral language, and its use makes many profoundly uncomfortable.” She also connects the “rightward turn in American culture” to the reshaping of American conservatism as an intellectual rather than an anti-intellectual movement. As the principle-driven progressive politics of the ‘60s petered out, the American right discovered the power of ideas.

“Through organizations like the Olin Foundation, Midwestern businessmen who made their fortunes producing chemicals and telephones were sponsoring seminars in the mountains of Hungary on the nature of evil, or flying scholars to Chicago to discuss law and virtue,” she writes. “As the right was completing its study of the classics, the left was facing conceptual collapse.” The political successes of the right, she argues, were against a left that had abandoned high principle for identity politics—a bad idea in a world in which “everyone, everywhere, was running on moral passion.” The Bush era, for her, is the culmination of a trend. In 2004, “whether voters were moved by their views about terrorism, or the war in Iraq, or abortion, what did not decide the most significant election in decades was the bottom line.” Accordingly, she urges progressives to reclaim “concepts that have been abandoned to the right: good and evil, hero and dignity and nobility.”

Reclamation, for Neiman, starts with rereading. She draws her first lessons from the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham’s response when Yahweh tells him that He plans to destroy the cities of the plain. “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?” the patriarch protests. “Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When the Lord agrees to spare Sodom if 50 righteous men can be found there, Abraham presses his case: ” ‘Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ ”

And so the bargaining starts. Neiman’s heart is stirred by Abraham’s universalism (these are not his people); by his resoluteness (this is God he is challenging); and by his insistence that the details matter (exactly how many just men are there in Sodom?). And because God seems to acknowledge the force of Abraham’s moral reasons, the story allows her to assert, on the basis of the Old Testament itself, that we do not “need religious authority to maintain morality.” It is an elegant rhetorical move to take a favorite story of the Christian right and extract a progressive lesson: the obligation of human reason to evaluate religion’s demands. If you acknowledge with Abraham, she writes, “that serious religion and serious ethics are thus separate matters, you must believe things are good or evil independent of divine authority.”

Liberals who grasp this shouldn’t be abashed, Neiman thinks, about exploring religious texts as sources of moral insight. She thinks there’s plenty that liberals can learn from the ancient Greeks, too. It has been conventional at least since Plato’s time to contrast brash, fearless, confident Achilles—hero of the Iliad—with the wily, careful, uncertain Odysseus. For Neiman, Odysseus teaches us something about the possibilities of heroism in our own age. If, like him, “heroes can tremble and cry and falter, you could also become one,” she writes.

Yet Neiman may be a cannier reader of the canonical texts than she is of the contemporary political situation. Are progressives truly reluctant to heroize people? A million T-shirts say otherwise. Nor is it clear just how her detailed exploration of Odysseus’ journey actually connects with the modern heroes she commends to us, who are distinctly in the fearless, self-sacrificing mold: Daniel Ellsberg, the Harvard-educated Marine with a Ph.D., a defense department insider whose conscience led him to leak the Pentagon Papers; David Shulman, an Israeli professor of Sanskrit and army veteran who risks injury to work with a group of Israeli and Palestinian peaceniks devoted to nonviolent resistance; Robert Moses, fearless leader of SNCC’s voting rights work in the ‘60s, who went on to teach algebra in the inner city; and her cousin, Sarah Chayes, a former NPR correspondent who is helping Afghan women make soap in a collective in Kandahar. (A fellow as crafty and pragmatic as Odysseus would definitely have high-tailed it out of there.) Do we really need Homer’s wily wanderer to inspire the relevant virtues?

When it comes to using the language of good and evil, too, it’s unclear to me who really needs persuading. The treatment of prisoners by American soldiers and operatives at Abu Ghraib, which she offers as one of her paradigms of evil, is not an event that progressives (or most others) have been inclined to discuss in value-neutral terms. Neiman can leave you unconvinced that the things that horrify her in the Bush administration are really connected with a loss of moral clarity on the left.

If you are a humanist, there is something gratifying about the idea of claiming a rhetoric that resonates with the grandest of our texts and thereby moving our country in progressive directions. (It is also an idea congenial to the creators of the Einstein Forum, which describes itself as “an institutional context for intellectual innovation outside the university.”) But I found myself wondering, as I read, whether Neiman had granted a little too much to the self-promotional claims of the Olin Foundation and its ilk. And I wondered, too, whether she might not be overly credulous toward conservative depictions of how liberals think. Though she doesn’t discuss Allan Bloom, her project can be seen as a progressive alternative to his Closing of the American Mind. But she may be too quick to accept something like his vision of a liberal culture overtaken by mindless relativism.

It’s true that the academy has been host to plenty of radical skepticism, not to mention postmodern posturing. And because the wilder ideas of academics have always attracted disproportionate attention—at least since Aristophanes mocked Socrates in The Clouds—it may have appeared to some that this was all there was. But even in the academy, not to mention the world rumored to be outside it, the ideal of moral clarity seems to be faring rather well. Consider just the field of ethics in our philosophy departments. There are more “virtue ethicists”—devoted to elaborating Aristotle’s ideas of the virtuous and the vicious—than you can shake a stick at. (Not that a virtuous person would do such a thing.) Many other ethicists insist on Kant’s stern regard for duty and oppose those who claim that the true morality is a matter of a subtle attention to the multiple values at stake in particular cases. Along with the Aristotelian virtue ethicists and Kantian deontologists, there are a slew of Thomists, Realists, and contractualists, all of whom believe in something like the universality of moral values. And that’s before we have even come to discussing a single actual moral issue.

So far as applied ethics goes, there are large debates about the morality of abortion or physician-assisted suicide or stem-cell research, polemics about what we owe to the poor at home or abroad, arguments over whether corporations have moral obligations and about which rights, if any, are universal. Neiman suggests that “those whose business is to think about morality have been remiss” in various respects, but a great many ethicists are working on the very tasks she says have been ignored.

Not that any of this much matters on the hustings. Elections aren’t final exams, and they aren’t referendums on moral theory, either. Neiman’s readings of the canon are inventive and illuminating in their own right, but, for better or worse, they don’t amount to a political strategy. Maybe the real lesson that Democrats at the advent of the Bush era should have taken from Abraham’s argument with God was simply this: Demand a recount.