Tag Archives: Public vs. private morality

Public vs. private morality

At a time when public policy appears to be in deep crisis, it is perhaps the moment again to return for help to the thinking and writing of Reinhold Niebhur, one of the 20th century’s most illustrious intellectuals and theologians.

Niebhur studied and wrote for more than 30 years about the intersection of religion, politics, and public policy. Like so many of his generation, although he started as a minister with working-class sympathies in the 1920s and shared with many of his fellow theologians a commitment to pacifism and socialism, his thinking evolved during the 1930s to neo-orthodoxy. Niebuhr battled with religious liberals over what he called their naïve views of the contradictions of human nature and the optimism of the Social Gospel, what he viewed as their naïve view of scripture and their narrow definition of “true religion”.

In an article over the issue over what is a just war — given the Western/Christian opposition to violence, a central theme in public discussion on the eve of World War II — Niebhur stresses “that in the final analysis, the individual conscience is the arbiter of ‘the just war’.” This pragmatic overall approach has the huge merit of simplicity in the face of changing crises. It accepts that individual criteria for argument are constantly in dispute and, perhaps more important, cannot be stated in the precise language that “legalism” would demand.

A good example is Adam Smith who called himself a “moral philosopher”. The separate field of “economics” didn’t exist in the eighteenth century. And the book he was proudest of wasn’t “The Wealth of Nations”, the work we know him by generally, but his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” — about the ties that bind people together into societies.

Applying his pragmatism, “Progressives” like Niebhur saved capitalism twice from its own excesses by appealing to public morality and common sense. In the early 1900s, when the captains for American industry had monopolized the economy into giant trusts, U.S. politics had sunk into patronage and corruption, and many factory jobs were unsafe — entailing long hours at meager pay and often exploiting children. In response, we enacted antitrust, civil service reforms, and labor protections.

And then again after the stock market collapsed in the 1930s and a large portion of the American workforce was unemployed, we set up regulations for banks and insured private banking deposits, cleaned up the stock market, and provided social insurance to the destitute.

Today when we are disputing the meanings of such words as “moral” and “immoral”, “practical” and “impractical”, “meaningful” and “insignificant”, it may be a time again to take stock of where we are. The project would be much more difficult since we are dealing with intangibles instead of the relatively hard concepts of those earlier successes.

Reforming, or indeed, organizing a vocabulary in any language would be extremely difficult. It is further complicated for some of us — Britishers and Americans — since our language, English, has become the universal instrument for communication between non-native, non-Anglo-American speakers who have often added words from their own native languages. We are thinking of [East] Indian English with its additions of words from the lingua francas in the Subcontinent, Urdu-Hindustani and Tamil, both of which have histories that predate English, the language of their 18th century conquerors.

But it seems to us that it may be time for scholars with the powers-that-be to put together some new authoritative body with semi-state status that will seek to sort out a new vocabulary for English, the international language, both as a vehicle for native English-speakers and the world at large using it as the most common intercommunication denominator.