Original Sin: Part 3, Immoral Society in a Malthusian World

In my last post I made the case that human acquisitiveness isn't driven by an innate and sinful selfishness. Rather, human acquisitiveness is a logical and predictable adaptation to living in a Malthusian world. In this post I want to move away from individuals and consider human society in a Malthusian world.

To make my point I'm going to borrow the sociological and anthropological analysis offered by Reinhold Niebuhr in his classic book Moral Man and Immoral Society.

First, we should acknowledge that the reactions to Niebuhr's "political realism," as articulated in Moral Man and Immoral Society, have been diverse, contradictory, and controversial. Most of the controversial bits in Moral Man and Immoral Society come in the second half of the book. What I'd like to do is focus on the first half of Moral Man and Immoral Society, the sociological analysis.

In the first half of Moral Man and Immoral Society Niebuhr makes the argument that informs his title. That is, individual persons have a chance at behaving morally while societies, inherently, cannot. As Niebuhr writes:

Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breath of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy...But all these achievements are more difficult, in not impossible, for human societies and social groups.

Why are these moral achievements impossible for social groups? To provide his answer Niebuhr describes the psychological prerequisites necessary for moral behavior. These are empathy and perspective. Humans, as individual moral agents, can, at various times and places, pull these moral levers. They can experience compassion and envision life from the other person's perspective. By contrast, Niebuhr argues that social groups are too large and heterogeneous to get everyone's sympathies and viewpoints in line. As Niebuhr writes:

[Nations] know the problems of other people only indirectly and at second hand. Since both sympathy and justice depend to a large degree upon the perception of need, which makes sympathy flow, and upon the understanding of competing interests, which must be resolved, it is obvious that human communities have greater difficulty than individuals in achieving ethical relationship. While rapid means of communication have increased the breath of knowledge about world affairs among citizens of various nations, and the general advance of education has ostensibly promoted the capacity to think rationally and justly upon the inevitable conflicts of interests between nations, there is nevertheless little hope of arriving at a perceptible increase of international morality through the growth of intelligence and the perfection of means of communication.

In short, social groups are moral idiots, in the the old meaning of the term: Lacking skill. Morality involves accurate information to weigh various goods, fellow-feeling, and the ability for self-transencence. Although individuals can, and often do, accomplish these things it is impossible to get a whole group of people to behave, collectively and spontaneously, in a moral manner.

This doesn't make social groups inherently evil. It does, rather, suggest that social groups tend to be rather deaf and sluggish when it comes to doing "the right thing." Take, for example, America's response to Rwanda or Darfur.

But here is Niebuhr's point: This isn't going to change. It's impossible to change it. As Niebuhr notes, better education and a flatter world may improve the moral capabilities of social groups and nations but any improvement will be modest. Someone, somewhere is just not going to be on the same page. They will have been affected by skewed information or are just plain out of the loop. Darfur? Where is Darfur? By the time you get the national conscience informed and sensitized it is often too late.

My point isn't that nations can't be evil. It is, rather, that nations can't be good. And this moral idiocy isn't due to Original Sin. It's simply a sociological dynamic.

Just to be clear, this isn't to say that any of this is okay. It's horrible the way nations behave. It's abominable how slow nations react to world catastrophes and needs. Thus, we should do everything we can to spread the word, rouse the passions, and rally our fellows. But even if much of what we are fighting against is demonic or the product primal human depravity I'm suggesting that, even if you subtract those things out, societies will still be immoral due to the fact that social aggregates, per Niebuhr's analysis, cannot move cohesively and nimbly in the face of moral challenges.

In short, you don't need to posit human depravity to get a pretty crappy world. The world is going to be fundamentally immoral because groups are, through no intrinsic fault of their own, moral idiots. And this brings me back to my Malthusian theme that we are finite creatures in a finite world. We don't need to go into the souls of men to look for a twisted worm at the core. We might, rather, take note of extrinsic factors, like impersonal sociological dynamics, that make morality difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Next Post: Part 4

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12 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 3, Immoral Society in a Malthusian World”

  1. I keep meaning to ask: Have you read With the Grain of the Universe by Stanley Hauerwas? As you seem to be an avid reader/fan of both Niebuhr and William James, it seems right up your alley. The book is Hauerwas's Gifford Lectures, and he spends two chapters each in critique of James then Niebuhr, before arriving at his "great natural theologian" Karl Barth. (Cue irony.)

    Which leads me to a question, which you may be coming to in due time: Where does the church, as a potentially equivalent moral idiot, play into the immoral societies of the Malthusian world? Is the church in the same predicament, and if so, how does that affect the ethical witness of Christians/the church?

  2. Hi Brad,
    I've not read With the Grain but I've read other books of Hauerwas and his critique of Niebuhr. I tried to anticipated the Hauerwas/Niebuhr debate in my post by mentioning controversies surrounding Niebuhr's thought. For what it is worth here's my take on that score: I think both Hauerwas and Niebuhr make important and cogent points. I like them both and keep them in a kind of dialectic in my head.

    I am going to do a post on "salvation" in the Malthusian world which should hit on the topic/role of the church. Before that post I'm adding one on the biblical readings that support my position and set up the final post of salvation.

  3. Brad,
    I want to add to my comment about the immorality of churches.

    Basically, I find Niebuhr's analysis very applicable to churches. We should note, however, that Niebuhr's analysis is contingent upon the size of the group. He admits that a small group can behave sacrificially and morally. I tend to agree. A Yoderian community, to be Yoderian, will need to be very small and intimate. But a church of any significant size will struggle mightily to be consistently moral. The best you can aim for is small, close-knit contingents (small groups, bible classes) acting morally within the larger church

  4. Hi Richard, following up on the comments from the last post, I can see that your themes (soteriology as theodicy and downplaying free will) continue in this post. I certainly agree with your perspective... to a point. But I think the question many of us have stems from a response to this statement: "you don't need to posit human depravity to get a pretty crappy world."

    Agreed. But the next question most of us ask is, then where did the crappy world come from? Your answer, in downplaying free will and arguing for sociological dynamics that result from human finitude essentially seems to have the underlying answer: It's God fault. That seems very problematic to me. I don't want to go to the other extreme and say that everything is OUR fault either. But I am much less comfortable driving those "theological stakes" into the ground that you are, I think.

    The complex truth appears to be that God (and the rest of the spiritual realm, which I assume we all agree exists, whatever it is) and humanity BOTH share some responsibility for the world. Perhaps all of reality is interwoven in ways we can't comprehend. But I wonder if your sociological approach ends up swinging the pendulum too far in one direction (as far as you can get from original sin! :-D)?



  5. Hi Geoff,
    You are right, I tend to swing too far that way. It is probably due to the fact that I've got issues with God and tend to let my personal spiritual journey influence my theology. I'm an emotional (lay) theologian. But in my defense I'm not doing theology for anyone else but myself. As a way of coping, I guess. Thus, I think the people who read my posts will be the kind of people who, for their own reasons, "get" what I'm up to. As such, my blog might be a form of coping for them as well.

    But I'd also to say that there are "problems" any way we go here. In the end, I think I'm just trading in some of the classical problems for some newer ones.

  6. It would be interesting to see how you put this aspect of Niebuhr in conversation with the prophets, who repeatedly scold the Israelites and Judeans - nations, both - for their immoralities of various kinds. In fact, not just them, but the Edomites, the Babylonians, the Assyrians...

    I've long thought that lambasting institutions for being immoral per se is a fool's errand. But I might be persuaded to say that yielding to the impulse to grow institutions (i. e., beyond the size at which they can be thought to act morally) is ITSELF immoral because it ultimately gives rise to the moral idiocy that you and Niebuhr describe here.

    The implications for megachurches, no less than for nations, are obvious; and the institutional realities that emerge at larger and larger scales are, in some sense, doomed to this kind of moral pathology. Leaders of high character and deep humility might be able to stem the tide for a little while, but they are all mortal, and then we have to deal with succession...

    How deep does that rabbit hole go?


  7. qb,
    I think the rabbit hole goes deep. I generally follow my theological musing to the point where I start scaring myself. I go to bed at that point.

    More seriously, I would like to say that I do think nations can become, formally, evil. The point of the post isn't to deny that or explain it away. It's just to say that nations can't ever get to be good. That there is a kind of upper limit and that even that upper limit is "immoral."

  8. I have suggested on other blog entries for people to read "Becoming Evil"(James Waller) which describes organizational, institutionsal and national "group think" structureing that beomes evil. This book is written by a social psychologist who studied many nations, in regards to genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc...

    In regards to this post, I find that the individual must discern where his convictions lie, and where his commitment will be...there cannot be a "universally appropriate response", because situations differ. For instance, what would have happend if Rosa Parks had given up her seat? Or Fannie Mae Hamer didn't get the African American a voting right? Or any other figure, whose "causes" are many...some would disagree with Margeret Sanger, or Gloria Steinam, etc. but they did bring about a change in what was an injustice to a people or kind...and yet, it was not sacrificially, in the sense that they also benefitted from their "commitment" to change society, other's views, and bear the consequences...so it is not just passivity that one must consider...in moral development or engagement..no, it is discerning what is best in the situation. And this issues are never easy to assess..usually, especially if the issues are complex in regards to "conflicts of interests", etc...

    Some may think that educating another in regards to "moral behavior" is an easy endeavor, but I disagree, because the assumption is that there should be one "ideal" or "outcome" or "response" that is appropriate. As individuals, we individually must make that judgment, another cannot make that decision for us. Otherwise it is forced "charitble service", which is what? Can forced "charitable service" "come from the heart", or is it a mandated "moral duty" to do what another assesses that you must do? And for what reason? Because they think it is a necessary response?

    Moral development cannot be taught, as it is a developmental task that takes years, according to Kohlburg, as it is only in mid-life ussually when one comes to understand that life is contingent and that means varitable in its duties, commitments, etc...
    Earlier stages see things in black and white ways...

  9. Hi Richard, I really appreciate your answer... thanks for your honesty. I think we all let our personal experience influence our theology, and I'm not sure we can or should do otherwise.

  10. I'm so used to hearing "evil nature" paired together that hearing "good nature" to describe the human condition sounds like an oxymoron. I'm thinking after reading this post, that the church has a lot of work to do to be relevant today in light of what we are learning about ourselves via methodological naturalism. Richard, I do not think you are swinging "too far" in this direction; I see your efforts here directed towards the aim of adopting theology flexible enough to deal with what science is revealing to us. As I read you, you have an epistemological bias towards naturalism, for good reason IMHO.

    Our good nature, i.e., our tendency and capacity for empathy, can be explained via evolutionary mechanisms (as you have done here on occasion), and one sees a continuum of development of these behaviors as species get more intelligent and more social. The traditional answers the church gives in response the difficult questions like: why all the evil in the world (free will), or what separates us from beasts (moral character), or how humanity arose (miraculously) are all contradictory to what we are learning via methodological naturalism. Theology has got to be flexible enough to accommodate these things, and I for one, appreciate your efforts here.

  11. richard—

    this is a fascinating series. i love to watch you think, and i appreciate you letting others be a part of it.

    in my world view, intentional communities are communities that form, either deliberately or by circumstance, with a specific purpose or dogma as the glue for the individuals involved. think church. it can be a single parish, or a denomination. i think it is possible for intentional communities to willfully act, at least to some degree, as an entity that can behave morally. sometimes the large size of an intentional community can facilitate this moral behavior, if the institutional structure is appropriate and the moral principle is clear and agreed to by all the individuals of the intentional community. more often, though, i think smaller intentional communities are more effective as instruments of community moral behavior.

    in my world view, in america in ideal settings, american society acts as an open society, a cauldron in which intentional communities ‘live and breathe and have their being,’ as it were. open societies fit your understanding of ‘immoral’ societies, i think; and they should be ‘immoral.’ i guess i would say they are ‘amoral’ more than ‘immoral.’ i don’t want open society to become ‘moral,’ at least not in any large, purposeful, systemic fashion. i want it to remain a messy, diverse soup in which intentional communities can function morally, as they see fit.

    i’ve also been reading a bit of francisco varela, a biologist who focuses on emergent networks. he says on a cellular level, that cellular development is about the generation and maintenance of borders, of membranes, and how these membranes allow passage in and out of the system, and how they allow the components of the system to do whatever it is those components are prone to do. i’m still deciding if, by analogy, intentional communities ‘behave’ the same way, and if so, what constitutes ‘moral behavior’ on the part of an intentional community, how are borders developed and maintained, and what constitutes ‘salvation.’

    is ‘salvation’ for an intentional community about growth? about optimal function? about replication?



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