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Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists [Hardcover]

Susan Neiman
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 Jun 2009
* Susan Neiman is one of the most distinguished scholars writing today. Her previous book, Evil in Modern Thought, has been widely hailed as a classic. She is a moral philosopher committed to making the tools of her trade relevant to real life. In Moral Clarity, she shows how the resources of the eighteenth century Enlightenment can help us to reconstruct a progressive politics that does not repeat the mistakes of Marxism or succumb to the appeal of unreason. * Against a background of books that have sought to call a halt to the very idea of the left, Neiman argues for a commitment to a more just world that is rationally grounded, implacable and insatiable. * In her commitment to reason and the facts of the world, in her brilliant readings of the Western canon, and above all in her fierce commitment to politics as a moral endeavour, Neiman makes it possible to believe that the Enlightenment is not yet exhausted and that we are free to join it if we wish.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Bodley Head (4 Jun 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847920446
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847920447
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 15.4 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 500,244 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

A New York Times Notable Book of 2008

"Deep and important. . . . Neiman's particular skill lies in expressing sensitivity, intelligence and moral seriousness without any hint of oversimplification, dogmatism or misplaced piety. She clearly and unflinchingly sees life as it is, but also sees how it might be, and could be, if we recaptured some of the hopes and ideals that currently escape us."--Simon Blackburn, New York Times

"The problem with our liberal elites, [Neiman] insists, is lame metaphysics--a lack of philosophical nerve. . . . Neiman is a subtle and energetic guide . . . [who] writes with verve and sometimes epigrammatic wit."--Gary Rosen, Wall Street Journal

"Susan Neiman is a masterly storyteller. . . . [Her] retellings of the Odyssey and the Book of Job . . . are themselves worth the price of admission."--K. Anthony Appiah, Slate

"[Moral Clarity] is concerned with the task of making philosophy timely and accessible again. . . . [A] lucid and impassioned study."--Richard Wolin, Dissent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

‘fresh and exhilarating, inspiring optimism rather than recrimination…a rallying cry to return to Enlightenment values – not as heritage kitsch but as a process we are still undergoing, a demand we have yet to answer.’ - The Guardian, Jane O’Grady

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reclaiming the moral high ground... 12 Jun 2008
Format:Hardcover
"I was stunned by the claim that voters chose George Bush because they cared about moral values. Either they had been bamboozled or the left had dramatically failed,"

Neiman analyses how the Right has seemingly managed to lay claim to traditional moral values. "Western secular culture has no clear place for moral language, and its use makes many profoundly uncomfortable." In the process "...concepts have been abandoned to the right: good and evil, hero and dignity and nobility."

While the post-60s Left abandoned high ideals and became preoccupied with identity politics they lost ground to an increasingly impassioned and intellectual Right that has gained the moral high ground: "Through organizations like the Olin Foundation, Midwestern businessmen who made their fortunes producing chemicals and telephones were sponsoring seminars in the mountains of Hungary on the nature of evil, or flying scholars to Chicago to discuss law and virtue... As the right was completing its study of the classics, the left was facing conceptual collapse."

Neiman offers a way forward - or at least a part - by calling upon Liberals to reread the classic texts. She gives retellings of the The Book of Job and The Odyssey (which are worth buying the book for in themselves - certainly for someone like me who never read them in the first place!) and shows how these classic moral tales demonstrate that alongside the Left's virtues of tolerance, ecumenism, universalism, justice as equality, and the rights of individuals we should include resoluteness, stoicism, loyalty, dignity, nobility and heroism, and not just yield these to the Right (and to the increasingly worrying NeoCons).
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Susan Neiman delivers as promised an accessible text and a great read in which she vigorously defends the Enlightenment against all comers including counter-Enlightenment's Isaiah Berlin, post modernism's Michel Foucault (the most amoral man Noam Chomsky ever met!) and evangelical Anglicanism's bishop Tom Wright. According to Neiman, the Enlightenment was holistic in preserving emotion and metaphysics as well as establishing reason. It never claimed human progress was inevitable. Kant is her main Enlightenment hero. Neiman's Enlightenment stood against superstition, torture and inherited privilege, and offered a metaphysic of happiness, reason, reverence and hope. She indulges her passion for Bush-bashing extensively which is OK but sometimes a distraction to her more positive themes.

She succeeds in her mission if measured in terms of conviction writing. Her chapter 9 on Hope is particularly inspiring and deserves selective reading for those who want to cherry pick. Here she trounces the negative view of humanity shared by religion's original sin and evolution's selfish gene and follows primatologist Frans de Waal in claiming altruism as a fundamental human characteristic feeding distributive justice in human society, and neurologist V S Ramachandran in observing `mirror neurons' in the human brain which means we are `wired up for empathy and compassion'.

Two weaknesses are i) that she often states what the Enlightenment said and thought without any specific quotation as though it were a single source rather than an expression spread widely over contributors, ideas and time and ii) that she follows the common assumption that reason establishes virtue which it sadly doesn't - ethics are in fact arbitrary. Reason does not necessarily lead to reasonableness.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars very enlightening 8 Sep 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book. It was very sprightly written (more like a newspaper columnist than an academic) and is a very easy introduction to Enlightenment thought. It has surprising angles on a whole host of the usual suspects - Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau etc - but particularly Kant, who is a bit of a hero to her (and, now, to me). It sets out to give heart to "liberals" by showing that their concerns - or indignations - are based on the very idea of reason, which in turn depends on seeing the difference between how things are and how they might be. She uses Kant to look at the difference between how things are and how the should be, and indicates this is a liberating, essentially human capacity. It was great. My only criticisms are (a) she too obviously follows an American "party line" (all the usual check boxes - Iraq, climate, healthcare) - there are surely many public moral issues that do not concern Americans (b) her reading of the Enlightenment is basically that it was what America was all about (c)she sometimes continues chirping along when the point is already well made. Good fun, though.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book challenged me to think differently. 8 Dec 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If we believe in God then we must love morality, and most importantly - moral clarity. This is how the book starts. The central idea being that morality matters, and how we deal with morality affects our whole worldview.

The book itself is divided into 13 chapters.

1. This chapter assesses the typical political ideologies of the left and the right. Most noticeably it is an assessment of Hobbes' and Hegel's political theories.
2. This chapter looks at Hobbes' and Thrasymachus' worldviews. The central theme being: is the world is getting better or worst. Most noticeably it is an assessment of pre and post millennial theory.
3. This chapter considers Kant's Moral Law. I found this chapter most enlightening specifically with regards the argument that the current culture wars are actually a war between fundamentalism (in all forms) versus freedoms, human dignity and self-accepted traditional values.
4. This chapter considers what the Enlightenment actually was. Anyone who has read the unjust polemics of people like Hitchens should specifically read this chapter. The central thesis is that the enlightenment far from trying to eliminate God was actually trying to safeguard his "otherness" by exposing unwarranted superstitions. It also aimed to tackle torture and privilege whilst promoting promotion through merit as well as reverence for the universe.
5. This chapter considers the different moral approaches proposed by Kant and Hume. Specifically this chapter considers the differences between is and ought, or the metaphysical conflicts of empiricism and idealism.
6. This chapter simply asks: is happiness a goal of life? The central argument is considered alongside the book of Job.
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