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Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, From Chapter 7: Justice Through Revolution

Reinhold Niebuhr is often described as one of the most influential American theologians and political commentators of the twentieth century. In this passage, from a chapter on violence and social progress in Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr explains the differences between the social morality and social goals of the working class and the middle class.

It’s interesting to explore the factionalism of loyalism and unionism, as well as the divisions between working-class Republicans and middle-class Nationalists, through the prism of Niebuhr’s analysis. Niebuhr, always paradoxical, refuses to rest comfortably within the bounds of either the values of working-class or middle-class morals. I especially find the following passage illuminating in regards to understanding armed loyalism and republicanism: “The [working class] will emphasise loyalty to the group and the need of its solidarity, they will subject the rights of property to the total social welfare, will abrogate the values of freedom for the attainment of their most cherished social goal and will believe that conflicts of interest between groups can be resolved, not by accommodation but by struggle.” 

He’s critical of the middle class whose values are often at odds with its actual behaviour: “they claim to abhor violence and yet use it both in international conflict and in the social crises in which their interests are imperiled.” Later in the chapter, he will critique the limitations of proletarian morals, saying that they have not been informed enough by individual morality. The question driving this passage is this: “what are the political possibilities of establishing justice through violence?” This region of the world seems to be wrestling with that question in nearly every facet of political life.

Here’s the passage in more detail:

“The differences between proletarian and middle-class morality are on the whole differences between men who regard themselves as primarily individuals and those who feel themselves primarily members of a social group. The latter will emphasise liberty, respect for individual life, the rights of property and the moral values of mutual trust and unselfishness. The former will emphasise loyalty to the group and the need of its solidarity, they will subject the rights of property to the total social welfare, will abrogate the values of freedom for the attainment of their most cherished social goal and will believe that conflicts of interest between groups can be resolved, not by accommodation but by struggle.

“The middle class tries to make the canons of individual morality authoritative for all social relations. It is shocked by the moral cynicism, the tendency toward violence and indifference toward individual freedom of the proletarian. Inasfar as this represents an honest effort to make the ideals of personal morality norms for the conduct of human groups, it is a legitimate moral attitude which must never be completely abandoned. Inasfar as it represents the illusions and deceptions of middle-class people, who never conform their own group conduct to their individual ideals, it deserves the cynical reaction of the proletarian. The illusory element must be admitted to be very large.

“The middle classes believe in freedom, but deny freedom when its exercise imperils their position in society; they profess a morality of love and unselfishness but do not achieve an unselfish group attitude toward a less privileged group; they claim to abhor violence and yet use it both in international conflict and in the social crises in which their interests are imperiled; they want mutuality of interest between classes rather than a class struggle but the mutuality must not be so complete as to destroy all their special privileges.”

One thought on “The differences between working-class and middle-class morality

  1. Nowhere in this article is the nasty assertion that middle class morality is essentially hypocritical shown to be anything other than the prejudice of the author. The assertions relating to the working class equally asinine. A trite and self righteous rant from an obviously left wing commentator using selective quotes from the work of another to confirm his prejudices. “The illusory element must be admitted to be very large” – risible assertion – nothing more.
    Think the worst of everyone seems to be the central message. If it had been left at the analytical stage where the author seeks to tease out the major differences in moral and philosophical attitudes between the classes – fine – but there is no permanent dividing line between social classes, they are fluid notions attempting to differentiate between people and are far from rigid and far from permanent in any given group of individuals. If your idea is to heal divisions within society you have a strange way of going about it.

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