What is an idealistic morality

The progressive center


Simon Vaut, one of the initiators of the Progressive Center, reviews the new work of the philosopher Susan Neiman in the “Berliner Republik”. The mainspring of the book, as Neiman writes, is anger against those who wrongly hijacked the concept of morality and the hope of regaining the lost territory. Its model is the Enlightenment, its ally is Immanuel Kant, who revolutionized the concept of morality in the 18th century.


In the United States, conservatives and religious rights like to base their political demands on morals and values. “Ideals”, “good and bad”, “heroes” - the George W. Bush administration in particular used such terms successfully for a long time to portray itself. On the other hand, such a language seems outdated to many Europeans. Progressives in particular are extremely reluctant to use them. If Susan Neiman has his way, that's a big mistake. In her bookMoral Clarity: A Guide for Adult Idealistsshe argues that the values ​​of the Enlightenment should not be left to those who alienate, twist and reverse them. Enlighteners like Rousseau, Voltaire or Kant were guided in their rejection of the orthodox and authoritarian by a moral compass and clear values ​​that are urgently needed in the 21st century.

Leftists like to mumble around

Susan Neiman is an American philosophy professor with stations in Yale and Tel Aviv and has headed the renowned Einstein Forum in Potsdam for ten years. After she first dropped out of school to get involved in the protest movement against the Vietnam War, she finally received her doctorate from Harvard under the justice theorist John Rawls. The focus of her research is on the Enlightenment and Immanuel Kant. Moral Clarity is the third work by Susan Neiman to appear in German, after the widely acclaimed one Thinking Evil: Another History of Philosophy (2002) and their external viewStrangers see differently: the situation in the Federal Republic(2005).

TheNew York Times named Moral Clarity 2008 one of the most important books of the year. At the British GuardianA year later it was on the list of the most important non-fiction books of the year. So why does this book appear in German only with a two-year delay? The reason was given by Ulla Berkéwicz, Publishing Director at Neiman's previous publishing house, Suhrkamp in der Welt: The present book of philosophy is "too American". Fortunately, the publisher Hamburger Edition saw things differently and released the volume this fall. Ulla Berkéwicz's assessment may stem from the fact that the starting point of the book is the search for the reasons for Bush's re-election in 2004 - at a time that many Europeans have long ousted. The mere settlement with a regime that is completely disavowed in this country might actually not be of widespread interest. Neiman's conclusions and thoughts, which grow out of her criticism, go far beyond that. Leftists like to mumble around when it comes to progress and ideals, writes Neiman. Fear of abuse, progressives leave the strongest terms to those who abuse them. Even if this problem is more obvious in the USA, it has long been present in Europe as well.

The author goes into hostile territory: At the height of the Bush era, his advisor William J. Bennett published the bookWhy We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorismto give moral justification to American foreign policy. “Moral clarity” was the recipe for success of the American right from Reagan to Bush. After September 11th, this strategy culminated with Bush's infamous speech on the "Axis of Evil". As in Orwell's “Newspeak”, the facts were boldly inverted: a phase of moral decline in American politics, in which reasons for war were fabricated, civil rights curtailed and torture methods legalized, was dressed in a language of moral purity. It was only in 2008 that Barack Obama attempted the with successmoral high ground to claim again for progressives. In the foreword of the German editions, the author writes that it is clear to her that the title of her book will initially meet with incomprehension, especially in Germany: “How else could it be in a country where the word hero evokes dusty images of dead relatives in Wehrmacht uniforms and the wordmorally more suitable as a swear word than as an award. "

The mainspring of the book, as Neiman writes, is anger against those who wrongly hijacked the concept of morality and the hope of regaining the lost territory. Its model is the Enlightenment, its ally is Immanuel Kant, who revolutionized the concept of morality in the 18th century. Kant was one of the founders of the same mindset according to which progress is not inevitable, but possible. Neiman thinks the Enlightenment thoughts could save us from premodern nostalgia and postmodern distrust. Anyone who feels obliged to enlightenment is also always obliged to understand the world and improve it. The 21st century Enlightenment must expand the work of the 18th century by pointing out new dangers to freedom of thought and advocating social justice.

Scouts use embarrassing terms

In the course of this reflection on the Enlightenment, Neiman focuses on four central values.First there is the idea that all human beings have an equal right to happiness. In earlier times sickness and poverty were interpreted as signs of divine displeasure. Enlightenment thinking strengthened the awareness that these evils can be overcome. ThesecondThe central value is reason, which was opposed to the previously prevailing blind belief in authority and superstition. Thethird From today's perspective, value may be misleading: humility before creation. The Enlightenment do not equate this humility with belief in a God. The fourth core value of the Enlightenment is hope, which drives all other values ​​and is a foundation for action. Because if you think the world is getting worse and worse, you won't have to do much more than just shake your head. The subtitle “Guide” suggests a call to action. This is exactly what the author wants to achieve: “The book doesn't just want to analyze; readers are also encouraged to have the courage to use terms that previously appeared embarrassing to them. Because without the language of morals we are not even able to describe the world - let alone change it. "

It is no coincidence that Susan Neiman was involved in Obama's election campaign. In her book she refers to him several times. A central sentence of the American President is “The world as it is, is not the world as it should be”. It is precisely this attitude that corresponds to Neiman's central demand for a mature and true idealism based on moral values. In Kant's words, she describes this idealism as the ability to distinguish between what is and what should be - without ever losing sight of either of the two. «


Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: Guide for Adult Idealists, Hamburg: Verlag Hamburger Edition, 480 pages, 32 euros

This review first appeared in issue 5/2010 of the debate magazine Berliner Republik.