Moral Clarity: The Real-World Legitimacy of Idealism

Vidushi SharmaJanuary 30, 2017Ethics and MoralityFeatures

For most people my age, philosophy is something tantalizing, but always out of reach; referenced enough that we feel we should understand it, but so dense and abstract that we are convinced that we never will.

Peel away the terminology and historical schools of thought, and what remains is a cloud of questions that are usually uncomfortable enough to make us dismiss them.

In her book Moral Clarity, Susan Neiman underlines the concrete worth of such questions. The book examines the importance of abstract ideas (with chapters on happiness, reason, reverence, and hope) and how to use them to understand and form opinions on social issues. In it, Dr. Neiman addresses diverse concepts — from where morality originates to why the left experienced a decline in influence after the Cold War — all connected by one problem: how to defend the legitimacy of idealism. This winter, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Neiman about some of her own philosophical views and about Moral Clarity for this KidSpirit issue on ethics and morality. (Our exchange directly follows this article.) But before I corresponded with Dr. Neiman, I had to “chew and digest” her book in small parts with lots of thinking in between readings. In fact, I came to stuff my book full of Post-Its and notes; this attracted questions from friends and teachers and led to some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve ever had.

The experience I had while reading and discussing Moral Clarity validates the power of thought and idealism. Somehow, walking around with a book called “Moral Clarity” sticking out of your backpack is at times enough to start a dialogue. Twice, I asked my tennis coach, a history and Socratic Seminar teacher at our high school, for help understanding parts of Moral Clarity involving the Cold War. Whether on the back of a bus, in classes, or in a teacher’s office, the experiences left me with much to think about.

“This is the kind of stuff I really care about,” said a friend in my Latin class, “I wish I had more time to think about morals and things that matter that way.”

We wondered what it would be like to approach virtues and their social applications in the context of normal school classes. In school, discussion-based classes are uncommon; I spend most of my time transferring information instead of really thinking about it. The cycle becomes one of board to paper, paper to mind, and later, regurgitation on a test before restarting. Both ends of the spectrum exist; for every few classes with rehearsed discussions and dry lectures, there is one that weaves kids together and prods us to form and defend our opinions. But the school situation on morality and philosophical thought isn’t entirely hopeless. In fact, it was a school-related experience last year — my AP US History term paper, of all things — that initially inspired my interest in philosophy and belief in Dr. Neiman’s words.

It was a wintry weekend sometime near the beginning of January. Swiveling in my chocolate-colored desk chair for at least an hour, I traced zigzags of sunlight on my walls and flipped absently through papers on my desk to try to forget the reason for my self-imposed bedroom exile. Philosophy was the root of my troubles. It had always seemed to me like a lofty and abstract concept, tormentingly inaccessible — even more so now that I had started sketching out my term paper involving social Darwinism. The guidance I needed lay just one long-distance phone call away.

My late great-uncle from India, Dr. Govind Chandra Pande, was a respected author and historian of Vedic and Buddhist philosophy, somewhat of a family legend. I had never met him and was terrified to call. Would he laugh at my faulty, 15-year-old understanding of “right and wrong”? Eventually, I swallowed my ego and dialed. My great-uncle patiently walked me through some texts I might find useful and connected them to current issues. He showed me the importance of understanding the ideologies that nations are built on before confronting problems in the world. Most importantly, he defined “philosophy” for me as something real. Something as mundane as a term paper became a combination of philosophy, literature, sociology, and economics as each resource I found led me dendritically to another.

Susan Neiman’s introduction to philosophy was very different than mine, but her philosophical growth is fascinating. The words of Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir changed her life. “I immediately decided that was what I wanted to do, though I really knew very little and had no realistic picture of what that meant,” Dr. Neiman says. “But perhaps my lack of such a picture helped me to shape my own.” She transitioned from a life as a 16-year-old high-school dropout, involved in the political movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s, to a college philosophy student. After moving to New York City, completing her GED, and going to night school at the City College of New York (CCNY), Dr. Neiman transferred to Harvard to finish her education. Now, subsequent to being a professor at Yale and Tel Aviv University, Dr. Neiman is the director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin — a “non-traditional form of employment” that she finds “more exciting than most of the alternatives.”

Dr. Neiman’s Moral Clarity has helped me appreciate the spiderweb of ideas that connect the past, present, and future. Personally, her beliefs ring true; the extent to which people downgrade the importance of idealism grows more apparent every day. A few days before writing these words, I found myself using material from Moral Clarity in a discussion on the legitimacy of the war in Iraq as an instrument of national policy. Dr. Neiman writes that fundamentalists and idealists are strikingly similar in one aspect: their desire for dignity and a greater “freedom” than the material world provides. An idea that connects two groups of people who seem so different ideologically is naturally appealing. Before reading Moral Clarity, I viewed terrorist groups and fundamentalists as alien creatures — people so unlike us that there was no hope in trying to understand them. “What,” a student in my history class scoffed during our discussion, “you want us to start negotiating with terrorists?” That’s the response I might have had before reading Dr. Neiman’s words, but now I think that instead of “negotiating” with terrorist groups, at least understanding their motivations is important.

Growing up, and even now, to a certain extent, I’ve been “the innocent one,” someone who is delusional because she still believes in the goodness of humanity and the potential for peace. My friends and classmates, 17 or 18 years old at the most, sometimes seem like they are budding cynics. It’s cooler or at least “more realistic” to see idealists as “lost” wishful-thinkers with their heads in the clouds. In the past, this attitude had made me question whether my beliefs were pessimistic enough to be sensible. I thank Dr. Neiman for showing me that idealism is not outdated and encouraging me to form opinion of others’ moral standpoints. After all, discussion and debate, only generated when people stop assuming that everything moral is relative, are some of the most enjoyable parts of philosophy. Susan Neiman, through Moral Clarity, has underlined my belief in the power of ideas and given me fuel for great independent thought and social discourse.

The following set of questions and answers are selections from my conversation with Susan Neiman this winter about Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. The questions primarily involve the applications of an idealist morality in everyday life. In the sidebar to the interview section, you can find a list of recommended reading from Dr. Neiman.

Vidushi Sharma’s interview with Dr. Susan Neiman

Vidushi Sharma: What is “moral clarity”?

Susan Neiman: Moral clarity means the attempt to take moral questions seriously and find critical answers to them, rather than (a) dismissing moral questions ironically and saying that everything is relative, so there is no right or wrong; or (b) assuming “moral simplicity,” which is to suppose that some authority — whether religious or political — has settled moral questions once and for all and everyone else is wrong.

VS: How can people consistently apply their morals while making decisions in real life, often dealing with conflicting interests?

SN: Well that’s just the question, isn’t it? I am not sure one should worry too much about consistency, certainly not in the sense of having a system of rules which will guide you in every situation. Of course we have, and need to have, rules that guide us in general, because not every situation can (or need be) thoroughly analyzed. “Practice kindness and generosity,” for example, is a good general guide, but as you rightly point out, there will be conflicts where such a general rule will lead you nowhere, and that’s where you must stop and analyze: which interests are conflicting? In following my own interest am I hurting someone else’s?

One of my favorite suggestions is one of Kant’s. He says that most people go along by seeking their own happiness and worrying about other people’s virtue (or lack of it), but the world would be better if we just did the opposite: to think of other people’s happiness and worry about our own virtue. Of course even this is not an absolutely valid rule, but it is a good general guide!

VS: How can we avoid moral relativism while still encouraging the diversity of ideas in a society, some of which might seem to be irreconcilable?

SN: I think we have to bite the bullet and be able to declare, against current cultural assumptions, that human beings make moral progress and some ideas are just wrong. We — or most of us — have learned that it is wrong to oppress women, or minorities. There are societies who claim this is messing with their tradition — but remember that the Southerners fought a Civil War over that claim, and I know very few people today who would argue that owning slaves is just an idea or a tradition that should be respected for the sake of diversity.

VS: Are individuals obligated to help others in need? How can this be achieved while avoiding unwelcome and unnecessary interference in other countries as in the Middle East today?

SN: Another hard question but yes, I do believe that we, more and more in a globally connected world, have a responsibility to help others in need.

So many Americans, of every age, are woefully ignorant of how America is seen by other countries, although this doesn’t have to be the case given how easy it is to get information and news from other countries on the Internet. So here are a few more general pieces of advice: read at least one good U.S. newspaper every day and try very hard to get news from non-U.S. sources as well. If you don’t read a language other than English, the International Herald Tribune is pretty decent, but it still reflects an American perspective. Learning a second language is crucial — so many people in other countries speak at least three. It will allow you to get a perspective on the world that nothing else can, and will put you in a position to see the world from a less parochial perspective, which in turn will allow you to play a role in changing it from a universalist moral point of view. I learned at least as much from living and working in another country as I did from eight years of studying at Harvard and I think this is true for most people, as long as they truly live, i.e., study or work abroad. Most programs that are run by American universities that claim to allow people to study abroad don’t really do it — they permit students to have a good time in a bubble that doesn’t really get them out and testing their own cultural boundaries. Doing this is not only an important life experience, but one that is truly philosophical, because it will lead you to ask questions about your own assumptions about life and the world that nothing else can.

VS: What do you think young adults can contribute to society’s understanding of morals and ideas? Is it important for kids to have “moral clarity”?

SN: I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but my first answer to the first question here is: get an education, a really good one. Force yourself to read good, hard books and ask questions about what is true in them as you are reading them. It is so often the case that young people try to reinvent the wheel, by coming up with arguments — for example, for relativism — that have been around since Plato, at least, while thinking they are the first to discover them. Of course young people should be thinking critically, all the time, and not simply take for granted whatever their elders (be they parents, teachers, or Plato!) tell them, but critical thinking is always enriched by knowing what people have thought before and struggling to understand it. It isn’t an accident that some texts have become known as classics, and are read as such all over the world

Second, I think it is important for kids to STRIVE for moral clarity, but not to assume they will have it. In fact, I think it’s fairly dangerous for anyone, adults included, to be certain they have moral clarity. Moral clarity isn’t a moment of instant enlightenment, but something you should work for all your life. If you do, you’ll have it sometimes, but even after 56 years of thinking about these questions there are still many times when I am not sure what the morally right thing to do is. Every situation and every dilemma needs to be thought through individually. That’s what moral clarity, as opposed to moral simplicity, demands.

Vidushi Sharma is a senior at Ridgewood High School. She enjoys writing, reading, and discussing issues with other people — whether at the train station or the dinner table. She plans to chase those brief moments that seem to forge connections between different elements of life — whether academic, social, political, or philosophical — for as long as she is alive. Unfortunately, that isn’t a good answer to questions about college and career plans, of which she is largely undecided.