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Vol. LXIII, No. 40
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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Author of “Moral Clarity” Recognizes Obama’s Leadership in Library Talk

Ellen Gilbert

Susan Neiman, author of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (Harcourt 2008), roundly rejects the notion that the more you know about life, the less you should expect of it. Speaking at a Princeton Public Library talk sponsored by the Sentience Foundation, she observed that this preparation “to expect and demand very little in life is not maturity. It’s resignation.”

In her well-attended talk entitled “Against Resignation: The Seduction of Pessimism,” the Atlanta-born philosopher, who is currently Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, spoke about the Enlightenment as “a great movement which has, these days, far too few defenders.” Asking why it “feels so familiar for everyone to say we’re going to hell in a hand basket,” she suggested that the far-preferable stance of defending modernity is a reflection of one’s ability “to transform oneself and grow.”

Myths about the Enlightenment, Ms. Neiman said, include the belief “that humankind is fundamentally good and progress is inevitable.” This “all or nothing dichotomy,” she observed, is “too silly to maintain.” Citing Immanuel Kant, her “favorite” philosopher, she said that progress is “possible, but not necessary,” and that it “needs humans to make it happen.”

Another “unspoken myth” Ms. Neiman added, is that “anyone defending the Enlightenment is not only naive, but wimpy.” She quoted her second-favorite philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, for guidance in dispelling this misperception by saying “Let us begin by setting aside the facts.”

Since we can’t know the future, the mother of three teen-agers observed, “we must choose the view most likely to improve it. This is not a matter of wishful thinking,” she added; rather it is “a moral obligation to believe that things can be better.” Even Kant, who has been described as “melancholic,” she said, “argues for the necessity of hope.”

For Kant, the French Revolution was a “signpost engendering hope,” said Ms. Neiman. For us, she believes, the election of Barack Obama was such a marker, and while it “seems to be good form here to say he has disappointed us,” outside of the U.S. he is recognized as having “achieved more than was imaginable.” Listing Mr. Obama’s accomplishments, Ms. Neiman noted that “in less than a year, American leadership has gone from most feared to most envied.”

Rather than believing there’s nothing one can do to change the world, the President “has one eye on the way the world is, and the other on the way it ought to be,” said Ms. Neiman. The “importance of asking questions to support a moral question,” she noted, “does not need to be grounded in religion,” nor is it Pollyana-like or Panglossian. Telling people “don’t be judgmental,” she noted, “stifles conscience altogether.”

Along with pessimists, evolutionary biologists also came in for a drubbing by Ms. Neiman, who said that she is “tired” of explanations for traits like generosity as having to do with “adaptive advantage.” Morality, on the other hand, reflects the “dignity of freely choosing to do right.” She mourned the fact that “Western secular culture has no clear place for moral language, and its use makes many people profoundly uncomfortable.”

Founded in 1993, the Einstein Forum provides “an institutional context for intellectual innovation outside the university,” promoting “the exchange of ideas across disciplinary as well as national borders.” The Sentience Foundation “seeks out and funds organizations, institutions and talented people to research the capabilities of the brain,” and also sponsors the Sentience Foundation Distinguished Speakers’ Series. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a small nonprofit “devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.”

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