Moral Clarity: The Book
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.
Susan Neiman discusses her new book, Moral Clarity.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
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Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>