Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the Einstein Forum, having previously taught at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. The Wall Street Journal called her 2008 Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists “an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country.” Her 2002 work, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, explains philosophy’s quest, touching on Kant, among others, as one perpetually in search of a perfect understanding of evil. Born in Atlanta, Neiman received her doctorate degree from Harvard University.
Neiman: Religion is important and it isn’t important. I think we’ve been misled by the idea that the central cultural divide is between religious and secular people. I think once again the divide is between people who are committed to using reason and people who are not and all three Western religion- religious traditions have one line which says, “God gave us the faculty of reason and he meant us to use it.” You have that in all three religious traditions and you similarly of course have a fundamentalist tradition in all three religions which says, “No, no. Whatever the word of God is is the word that we have to take. God tells us directly what to do and we have to follow.” I start the book off with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a story that everybody thinks they know. The Sodomites sinned and God destroyed them. The question is what the sin was. People are sure that it’s fornication or at least homosexuality and people can get outraged about this and the fundamentalist right of course will use it for that reason. As a matter of fact, the Sodomites’ sins were much more complicated than that. It wasn’t fornication and it wasn’t homosexuality. It was gang raping someone to death, which is pretty much beyond the pale on anybody’s list, and according to the legends actually the Sodomites turned morality upside down. It was prescribed by law that if a stranger came in to the gates they should be gang raped to death. It’s pretty bad stuff, okay, and one could go on about that, but what’s most important about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is what happens right before it. God tells Abraham that he’s about to destroy the cities and Abraham speaks up and says, “Wait a sec. What if there are 50 righteous men inside the cities? Surely the God of justice is not going to destroy the just and the unjust alike,” and God says, “Well, actually-- Okay. If there are 50 men I’ll save the city,” and then Abraham says, “Well, what about 45? Certainly, you’re not going to be pedantic about this.” It’s an extraordinary passage because it shows three things. One is universalism. Abraham doesn’t know the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is not his tribe. This is not his kin. These are just innocent people everywhere that he’s willing to take a stand for and he’s willing to stand up to God who can after all blast him in an instant. The other thing that I find important about this story is what it shows about moral clarity, which is that it’s not a matter of general principles. It’s a matter of fine distinctions and gradations and looking at particular cases, and what it shows in the end is that even if you have a direct line to God, which Abraham did, that’s not where you get your sense of ethics from. You get your sense of ethics from human reason. There is one take on the story by the way which says that Abraham wasn’t giving God lessons in ethics, God was testing Abraham, but that’s fine either way. Abraham passed the test by showing that if God proposed to do something unjust he was able to stand up to God, and I think that’s the kind of thing that shows even if you accept a religious framework you have to accept that reason, reasoning about morality in particular, plays a role.