Ethical relativism in Reinhold Niebuhr
Cook, Marvin Wilmoth
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Reinhold Niebuhr holds that the ultimate principle of ethics transcends every historical fact and reality. This absolute principle is perfect love. It is only through a profound Biblical faith that one can discern this love, and it can never be fully known or concretely realized in history. As a principle of comprehension beyond our comprehension it remains an "impossible possibility." In the treatment of this transcendent love ethic are centered many of the basic issues in Niebuhr's moral theory. It is the purpose of this dissertation to investigate the ethical relativism implicit and explicit in both the formal ethical theory and the practical applications of Niebuhr's conception of absolute love. In Chapter I we define ethical relativism as the view that, due to the limitations of human reason and the evidence of conflicting moral standards and frustrated ideals, man as man is incapable, apart from the intervention of supernatural aid or social pressure, of making universally normative valid distinctions concerning the nature of right and the good, and of formulating general ethical principles that can function concretely as a constructive guide to men in their personal and collective conduct. Chapter II sets forth the general ethical theory of Reinhold Niebuhr. Chapter III surveys the ethical theories of representative theists who hold to a rational approach to morality. These are: Henry Sidgwick, Thomas Hill Green, William Ritchie Sorley, Frederick Robert Tennant, Edgar Sheffield Brightman, and Walter Goodnow Everett. Our purpose here is to indicate that Niebuhr is in error in asserting that all rationalists claim to be able to know absolute truth or that they are involved in idolatry in holding that the reason of man is a divine instrument capable of ordering and redirecting the natural impulses toward an increasing perfection of personal and social life. We then analyze Niebuhr's criticism of rational morality, followed by our own defense of reason in ethics. Chapter IV carries the issues of rationalism in ethics (objectivity of moral principles) versus irrationalism (relativity of moral ideals) into the discussion of man's vocation in the universe. Chapter V surveys Niebuhr's view of God in history, followed by a critique of his position indicating his ethical relativism. Chapter VI is a search for evidence of ethical relativism in Niebuhr's concept of community. Chapter VII employs the same methodology of interpretation and criticism in the discussion of freedom. This chapter includes a statement of Brightman's concept of positive personal freedom. Chapter VIII summarizes Niebuhr's view of war and peace, followed by our criticism of his thought. At the end of each chapter we have included a summary of the specific aspects of Niebuhr's thinking illustrating ethical relativism. The following conclusions are drawn from this investigation of ethical relativism in Reinhold Niebuhr. 1. When Niebuhr denies that man has the moral capacity to make universally normative valid distinctions concerning the nature of right and the good apart from the intervention of the divine will, he destroys the concept of moral autonomy necessary to a rationally justifiable objectivity in ethics. This negates man's ethical function until God chooses to act. Since we are not told of any content in the absolute ideal upon which God allegedly bases His judgment on man's relative and sinful achievements, then we must conclude that ethical relativism exists in both the formal theory and the practical applications of Niebuhr's conception of the transcendent love ethic. 2. This construction leads to a sub-ethical and sub-Christian interpretation of human life, for it leaves out of account the actual instances when human choices, guided by rational moral laws, have made possible a concrete participation in ideal moral values in such a fashion that men rightly deserve God's support rather than His condemnation. Moreover, Niebuhr does not allow for the imperative command implicit in the Gospel Ethic to implement the universal ideal values of love and respect for personality. 3. The fallacy of Niebuhr's criticism of a rational morality is that he does not see that it is not required that one deny the proper function of reason (ordering and perfecting human life) in order to prove faith absolute. His defense of irrationalism cannot be validated, since he does not account for the empirical fact that disciplined minds can control impulse, and that new insights into truth are possible, 4. Niebuhr has not escaped the errors of Barth and Nygren in making an arbitrary separation of divine and human love. His discussion of the dialectical interpretation of the divine-human encounter does not indicate a functional relationship between God's righteous will and human aspirations. Thus God's Agape, on these terms, is not concretely operational in history, and man has no basis for believing that love will be effective even at the edge of history, Niebuhr allows no rational grounds for either individual or social redemption. 5. Niebuhr makes God a great deceiver in placing before man an ideal and a task that he cannot hope to understand or achieve. Logically, this divests all human moral activity of any ideal import or eternal significance. 6. In his interpretation of history, Niebuhr is in error in holding that God is inevitably defeated in history, and also in his assertion that human corruption makes moral progress a Utopian dream. This view is invalidated by a consideration of the fact that a concept of historical meliorism (a progressive achievement of good over evil) is possible and practical when willed by man and aided by rational methodologies. Since he tends to deny that God's will is qualified by reasonable love, Niebuhr's thought indicates a reversion to irrational patterns of argumentation, rather than forward to the moral and spiritual insights of high religion. 7. His theory of community reveals a lack of positive appreciation of the normative studies of community that can furnish needed scientific aids in the achievement of the Christian community of love on ever increasing levels of human interaction. Niebuhr fails to prove his case that communities are not appreciably affected by religious ideals or rational moral programs. He is individualistic in his basic oritentation approaching social problems, for he fails to see that mutuality and human solidarity are normal forms of self-transcendence. He is involved in the error of simple enumeration in appealing to historical data, for certain communitarian movements in medieval and modern history do not conform to the arbitrary rules of community he sets down. 8. Niebuhr's idea of freedom is negative and morally nihilistic. He gives inadequate recognition to the empirical fact of positive personal freedom with its power to achieve as well as aspire. In this connection, he has not validated his concept of sin as spiritual. A rational analysis of human freedom will reveal that no moral accountability can be assessed to actions not willed in self-conscious freedom. Thus to objectify moral guilt is to make a fiction of freedom. His view does not make possible a rational account of largescale human catastrophes, such as global wars; and it eventually severs the nerve of constructive activity in the moral life. 9. Niebuhr's view of war and peace is ethically relativistic at the point of his insistence that wars cannot be considered to be intrinsic evils. He bases his claim that wars may be morally justifiable on the fact that there are times when some values in society must be sacrificed to preserve other values. But he presents no valid basis for judging which values are to be sacrificed and which are to be defended. In his pragmatic defense of coercive violence he tends to emphasize survival values over and above personal values and other ideal values, and thus logically abandons human society to moral chaos and the war of all against all. Moreover, he overlooks the constructive possibilities for peace revealed by the psychological and social sciences, 10. Niebuhr comes out in his moral theory very near the pragmatic ethics of John Dewey and the naturalists. His social and political theory, as opposed to the idealism-realism of the main stream of Christianity, would appear to condemn men to apply their major energies to the purely pragmatic problems that arise because they do not attempt to to apply universal moral principles, rather than supporting them in their attempts to solve the problems of strategy that arise when they do attempt concrete applications of the moral principles.
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