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Concept of Pacifism In Moral Man and Immoral Society: Analytical Essay

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In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr discusses the conflict between individual morality and social justice and acknowledges the difficulty in resolving the conflict. Despite the difficulty, he argues that in order to change the world for good, a person needs to simultaneously pursue individual morality and justice for society, and have the illusion that perfect justice is attainable. I argue that Niebuhr’s argument is very convincing since it takes into account human nature and the reality of our world. This paper will first explain the conflict between individual morality and social justice, and then discuss Niebuhr’s argument.

First, it is important to understand what individual morality and social justice are. According to Niebuhr, individual morality, epitomized by altruism, refers to the ethical standards that individuals adhere to (257). In contrast, social justice can be understood as the morality of the public sphere, and its central goal is equality. It is not rare that society can only achieve justice through immoral methods such as coercion and resistance, and they can undermine one’s individual moral standards. A conflict thus arises, and there is no obvious way to resolve it (258). Niebuhr illustrates this point using the example of Italian fascists and Italian socialists. The fascists in Italy threatened equality and justice in the country, but to repress their power required aggression, which was contrary to individual morality. However, the socialists maintained group moral standards through pacifism, which was ineffective and eventually led to fascists’ prominence (268-269). This example shows that conflicts can indeed arise in the pursuit of individual morality and social justice.

Given this conflict, some may wonder why we cannot pursue just one form of morality. Niebuhr points out that it is futile to only strive for individual morality. When social justice is at risk due to some people, the others’ refusal to resist based on a belief of non-aggression does not change the behavior of those bringing injustice (268). In other words, people undermining justice simply do not care about others’ behavior or attitude. Any effort to bring back justice without active resistance or counter-coercion is thus futile. This can be seen in the Italian fascism example, as well as in the American Civil War. African Americans did not resist the discrimination and oppression by others and instead remained loyal to the oppressors. African Americans at that time might have expected that their choice of not rising against the oppressors could move them, but in reality, the latter was not influenced at all (268). Therefore, based on Niebuhr’s analysis of the relationship between African Americans and their oppressors, it is clear that individual ethics adhering to pacifism without resistance is unlikely to change the status quo.

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Niebuhr also shows why one should not pursue justice without maintaining high individual ethical standards. If justice is attained through means that are antithetical to individual morality, such as violence, our life will actually not be enjoyable (265). Even though a certain level of equality is achieved (258), we feel that we have betrayed our basic moral guidelines, and thus we do not take pleasure in the justice stemming from violence. Justice in this case is void of meaning; it does not contribute to the overall well-being of people.

Therefore, Niebuhr thinks that in order to improve the world, one should pursue both individual and social morality (265, 268). On the one hand, one should maintain the highest moral standards for herself and the group that she is in; even though doing so may be seen as an escape from responsibility, it can nonetheless have a positive impact on society. For example, if there is a large number of people adhering to strict individual moral standards during a conflict, these people can influence people in the opponent nation, prompting them to maintain high moral standards as well. This can potentially alleviate the tension between nations (273). On the other hand, one should also aim to achieve social justice through tangible actions, and sometimes they entail coercion and aggression. As explained above, pacifism without active resistance is unlikely to improve the world (268). Therefore, one should both maintain the highest moral standards and strive for social justice.

Moreover, Niebuhr emphasizes the importance of an illusion of absolute justice. He thinks that this illusion is indispensable since it motivates us to strive for justice (277). It is very unlikely that perfect justice can ever be achieved due to the inherent greed of human societies (272). Communities compete against each other to pursue their respective agendas, resulting in conflicts. However, being too realistic would inevitably lead one to despair, and thus, inaction. Subsequently, we would be further away from the ultimate goal of perfect justice, becoming essentially worse off. Ultimately, it is the process of striving for perfect justice that leads to the betterment of the world (277). Therefore, it is important to possess the illusion that perfect justice is achievable so that we are motivated enough to take action to improve the world.

I think Niebuhr’s argument is very convincing since it takes into account the reality of the world. He acknowledges that pacifism without resistance is futile in many cases since one’s adversaries are unlikely to change their actions in the face of pacifism. Instead, coercion and resistance should be adopted to achieve justice. However, he also emphasizes the importance of high moral standards, so he is in fact arguing that resistance should be moderated by strict individual and group morality. Since it is very difficult to harmonize the two moral goals, his aim is more to offer us an ideal that should be pursued. For people who want to make the world better, they should strive for this ideal, and through the process, they can bring the world closer to perfect justice and complete individual benevolence.

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Concept of Pacifism In Moral Man and Immoral Society: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
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