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: I began to write this book on November 3, 2004. I had come back to the States to give a series of lectures on my last book, which is on the subject of evil, and I had timed those lectures to coincide with what I thought would be the celebration of the end of the Bush administration. As you can imagine, on November 3, 2004, as I sat there drinking four double espressos, trying to get myself off the floor enough to talk about evil, I felt particularly disturbed about the fact that people claimed they had voted against the Democrats because the Democrats were lacking in moral clarity or they didn’t have moral values. I think particularly looked at from abroad, although most Americans now see it that way, an administration that’s re-instituted torture, lied its way in to a war for which it can’t even provide for the soldiers who are losing limbs and mental health there, is hard to define as being morally clear or having strong moral values, but it seemed to me that I had two choices. One was to say, “Okay. All the people who voted that way have simply been bamboozled by talk about values and their real interests lie elsewhere,” or I could examine what the faults on my own progressive side were and to say, “What have we been doing wrong?” And I think that it’s true that secular progressives in particular have had trouble with moral language so I decided the thing that I could best or most helpfully do really for my country as somebody with philosophical skills was to write a book reclaiming moral language for progressive purposes.
Question: How did conservatives hijack morality?
Neiman: I think they did it in a number of ways. After the ‘60s, the left was properly concerned I think that we had been too theoretical, too ideological and that it was- part of the reason why the left had failed in the United States was that we hadn’t been pragmatic enough, and all of that was true but the direction that the left turned in was I think fatal. Instead of talking about ideas they talked about interests, and what you had then was an interest-based politics which took what might have been the greatest achievement of the civil rights movement, which was to convince many people-- And I grew up in Atlanta. I was a child in the middle of the civil rights movement so it’s a big part of my background is the belief that good people of whatever background need to stand up together for universal rights because there was an old song that said all men are slaves until our brothers are free. That’s what I grew up believing, all of that, also symbolized by many of the civil rights leaders, Bob Moses, who said this is not about black versus white people; it’s about rational versus irrational people. Instead of that spirit which animated the early civil rights movement, people began to think that politics was about interest groups, it was about black rights, it was about women’s rights, it was about gay rights, it was about, as you see the mess that we are in now. And I think it was a terrible mistake because it took us back to the sort of tribal politics that are actually pre Socratic where what everybody believes is the bottom line is my group wants power over your group. This is not in the end a direction that can mobilize or inspire anyone but it’s the direction that the left went in. The right, on the other hand, went off to build think tanks and it was very interesting. You had all kinds of businessmen funding people to read Plato and Aristotle. It’s quite extraordinary that you had an anti-intellectual movement on the left and an intellectual turn on the right and they had- they were thinking in long terms and they took over. Again that’s a simplified view of what I think happened but it’s a piece of what I think went wrong when you have conservatives-- And this is an international question by the way; it’s not simply a national question. You see the same thing happening in Europe. Conservatives are using the language of universal values that the left is no longer able to use without these horrible quotation marks, scare quotes. I think another factor played a huge role, which is in 1989 even those of us who hadn’t been communists and who had been distinguishing for a long time between what we called real existing socialism, which was not socialism as one wanted it to be. I think the collapse of the Soviet Union made painfully clear to people who had been wanting to avoid that that things in real existing socialism were even worse than we had suspected so that it was easy to take the line-- Many people who shared ideals that we shared and had been willing to fight and die for them had actually wound up committing genuine crimes and, if that’s the outcome of people who are willing to live and die for ideals, maybe the world will be better off if we did nothing. I think it was an understandable conclusion, not a correct conclusion. I think we’re still reeling from that conclusion. We’re now talking about it. This is 18 years ago. It’s not very long that we’ve had to rethink things. We’re still in a process of rethinking and I’m hoping to contribute to that.