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Moral Man and Immoral Society

A Study in Ethics and Politics


Publisher writes

Arguably his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society is Reinhold Niebuhr's important early study (1932) in ethics and politics. Widely read and continually relevant, this book marked Niebuhr's decisive break from progressive religion and politics toward a more deeply tragic view of human nature and history. Forthright and realistic, Moral Man and Immoral Society argues that individual morality is intrinsically incompatible with collective life, thus making social and political conflict inevitable. Niebuhr further discusses our inability to imagine the realities of collective power; the brutal behavior of
human collectives of every sort; and, ultimately, how individual morality can mitigate the persistence of social immorality.

This new edition includes a foreword by Cornel West that explores the continued interest in Niebuhr's thought and its contemporary relevance.

Author Information

Reinhold Niebuhr, Cornel West

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an ethicist, theologian, and political philosopher who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1928 to 1960. He was the author of many books, including The Nature and Destiny of Man.

Judges' and contributors' comments

Alan Billings: I first read this as a student in 1965 and was completely stunned by it. I subsequently noted that Richard Crossman, the Labour cabinet minister and an atheist, said that Niebuhr’s writing was ‘the most exciting shock intellectually’ he had as a young man and, more recently, President Obama has spoken about Niebuhr’s influence on him.

Moral Man and Immoral Society forced me to confront two things. First, the ineffectiveness of much contemporary theology in seeking to speak to the issues people were facing in the real world at that time; it made me determined to root my own thinking firmly in what was going on beyond the Church and its often narrow concerns, bringing to bear the key doctrines of the faith – which I understood as the Fall and the Incarnation. Second, I took to heart the basic thesis of the book that while we might learn to be unselfish in our individual lives, confronting the selfishness of the groups to which we belong – from the family to the nation – was infinitely more difficult. In these cases power had to be met with power. I have been a Niebuhrian Christian realist ever since.

There is a kind of Niebuhrian spirituality which is summed up in his famous prayer: ‘Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.’

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