At last I’ve found a philosophy book that I could finish and not only that: I could follow its main lines of argument relatively easily and immediately see their relevance to our problems today. This is the book.
Neiman’s starting point is to renege on the ‘non-interference pact’ in which philosophers agree not to meddle with the details of history as it unfolds and historians sign up not to interfere with morality. She sees it as critical that philosophical acumen is brought to bear on political realities. Once she has asserted her right to participate in the debate, she proceeds to argue that the typical understanding of the relationship between religion and morality is flawed. In her view, though deeply intertwined, they are essentially independent. Her position, though, is not simplistic (page 112):
To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil.
At the end of the 450 pages of this excellent and supremely accessible book, where does she leave us?
Other posts on this blog, for example on the nature of reflection and the limits of reason, explain in depth why I can’t accept as a complete and adequate explanation her view that reason alone is the means for our transcendence. However, much else that she derives from this argument is compelling.
For example, a key point she makes is that moral conviction and a sense of evil have been highjacked by powerful interests and thereby devalued in the public eye. They need to be reclaimed and put to proper use if we are to understand the nature of the realities that confront us and which demand appropriate and proportional responses.
We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to fear that certain actions – whether we privately feel guilty about them or not – could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.
She concludes her analysis, before moving on to considering particular examples, by stating in ringing terms (page 380):
Evil presents an unacceptable gap between ideals and reality; judging something to be evil is a way of setting limits on what we are willing to endure. The language of good and evil is vulnerable to exploitation because it’s the most powerful language we have. . . . . To abandon talk of evil is to leave that weapon in the hands of those who are least equipped to use it.
This book raises serious and important issues and reflects deeply upon them. While I do not agree with everything she says, I respect the way she says it and have to acknowledge that she has significantly deepened my understanding of these themes.
This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the direction our civilisation is taking. And it’s readable enough for me to have finished it – no mean achievement for any author writing from a philosophical perspective. For this review in full see link.