Susan Neiman on Moral Clarity
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.
Question: What is moral clarity?
Neiman: I don’t except to say that it’s distinct from moral simplicity. Moral clarity is inspiration, it’s conviction, it’s the ability to reasonably persuade other people of moral positions, but it’s something that can’t be defined in absolutely general terms because what’s important about moral clarity is you only get it case by case. Most of us are willing to agree on general principles. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness is a set of them. I can give you some other ones. Most of us also will disagree on certain extreme cases. Moral clarity, however, is about looking at each particular case, looking at all the facts, looking at all the contexts and working out your answers, and the call for moral clarity which the right has overtaken is a very important one because I think people have moral needs. We deeply want to be moral people. We want to see ourselves as moral people. I think the right often confuses moral clarity with moral simplicity and thinks that a couple of straightforward rules will give it to us. That’s a mistake so moral clarity is something that you have to get piece by piece.
Question: What words should we reexamine?
Neiman: Well, they’re not new words at all. They’re words like “good,” “evil,” “hero,” “noble.” They’re very old-fashioned words. I’m giving them a different set of content and I’ll give you one example: The word “hero,” which I think we’re all quite nervous about using because most of us think Rambo or blood and guts or Superman when we think about heroes. There is room for a notion of enlightenment hero and I have taken that notion all the way back to the Odyssey where- and as a matter of fact the disagreement about what a hero is goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. You have in Homer, who wrote our very first novels, you have the idea of Achilles, right, the warrior hero who rushes in to battle and is overtaken by rage and dies a glorious death and Odysseus who’s wise, perhaps wily, crafty. People are always a little bit suspicious of him because he comes out alive and I find that extremely interesting because I think we’re suspicious of heroes who aren’t tragic heroes. We think that nobody can be a hero if they don’t die in a blaze of glory, that they must have done something wrong. I think our suspiciousness is also a way of reassuring ourselves that we don’t really need to do anything heroic. We focus on the heroes who died tragically. We tend to ignore the ones who lived successfully, fully human with faults. We’re not talking about God’s hero icons. Remember the word “icon” comes from a piece of religious art which is two dimensional, okay, and two dimensional not because the Byzantines didn’t know how to paint in three dimensions. They did. It was a prohibition that they actually took on themselves because they didn’t want images to be too lifelike. Heroes are different from icons in that they have flaws, they have weaknesses ranging from major to minor ones, but if we accept that we also have to accept the challenge that all of us can be heroic.
Philosopher Susan Neiman on morality and politics.
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