Why Happiness is a Moral Issue: Susan Neiman and Enlightenment Values

Susan Neiman is an optimist; and a progressive. Hope is at the core of her quest to take back words like ‘moral clarity’ and ‘moral values’ from conservatives.

Her book Moral Clarity (2008) is the vehicle for that quest, passionately arguing for a set of moral values that have been largely lost by both sides of politics – and coining a language in which to express them.

Susan Neiman: 'The Enlightenment conception of happiness was an active conception, not the idea of accumulating as much stuff as possible.'

Susan Neiman: 'The Enlightenment conception of happiness was an active conception, not the idea of accumulating as much stuff as possible.'

The New York Times said, ‘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’.

Why moral clarity matters

Her quest was sparked by the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, with many who’d voted for him citing his ‘moral clarity’ as their motivation. Rather than simply dismissing those voters as clearly ‘nuts’ or ‘stupid’, as many on the left did, Neiman asked, ‘What is it that progressives have been doing wrong that allows millions of people to say that we’re lacking in moral clarity?’

One of the questions she examined was where morality comes from. ‘An awful lot of people both left and right associate morality with religion, which is one reason progressives get nervous around moral language, language like good and evil.’ She says that Christian fundamentalist conservatives, who are comfortable talking about good and evil, had come to own those conversations.

Neiman believes it’s ‘crucial’ that progressives don’t demonise religion; that they realise the ‘liberating and progressive’ role it has often played throughout history. But she also believes religion is not necessary to back up morality; it’s just one way in which people choose to ground and express their moral convictions.

Reason and reverence: we need both

‘The fundamentalists in all three fundamentalist religions are right to see something profound in a culture where reverence is utterly lacking,’ Neiman says. She argues for a worldview in which reason and reverence are not at odds, but work in tandem. ‘In order to be decent, we must keep one eye on each.’

Neiman draws on the Enlightenment to build her moral framework, which centres on four key values: happiness, reason, reverence and hope.

‘The Enlightenment conception of happiness was an active conception, not the idea of accumulating as much stuff as possible, but the idea that human beings are happy when they’re active, when they’re creating, when they’re part of the world,’ she says. ‘Before the Enlightenment, the tendency was to think that whatever happened to a person was ordained by God. ‘If you were poor, you probably deserved it.’

Reason, for Neiman, means that ‘when you’re making arguments about moral and political issues, you cannot appeal to private intuition or emotion, you can’t say God told me to invade another country.’ You need to build an argument that will stand up in public.

Reverence is about recognising the limits of human beings; respect for creation – for something bigger than us. This is something, she says, that environmental movements and some religious groups are finding they have in common. Enlightenment thinkers, she says, ‘were clear about the idea that we should be grateful for the fact of creation and we should recognize that … there’s something larger than all of us, which ought to stop us from arrogance and overweening pride.’

Her final core value, hope, does not mean blind optimism, but hoping and working for a better future. Enlightenment thinkers did not believe progress was necessary or inevitable; ‘they only believed it was possible’.

Reasons for hope and noisy markets

Neiman identifies the abolition of torture as ‘one of the great Enlightenment achievements’. The abolition of slavery and the ushering in of the fundamental idea of racial and ethnic equality is another marker of real progress that has been made since the Enlightenment.

‘In the most optimistic days of the early 60s none of us could have imagined that we would live to see the day where we would be voting for a black man for president of the United States,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think I’d live to see this day.’

She admits that none of these achievements have been conclusively made; there is much work to be done. But they are major steps in the right direction, causes for hope.

The next big change in direction we need, Neiman believes, is to acknowledge the damage being wreaked by the dominance of market forces; by a culture that preaches economic self-interest as the single driving force of human action. ‘The power of the market is so strong it now drowns reason out.’

‘Obviously the world has gotten worse in all kinds of ways,’ says Neiman. But she is hopeful.

For her, hope, is about ‘believing that all of us acting together in accordance with certain ideals can make significant improvements in the world and that we’re not in fact driven by the bottom line’.

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