24th Jan 2020


Why nations are egomaniacs

The work of American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr is undergoing something of a revival these days.

Suddenly many people are reading and re-reading him. This is good.

Read and decide

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  • 'Reinhold Niebuhr deserves to be widely read because he reminds us that the veneer of civilisation is very thin'

Reading Niebuhr, who lived from 1892 until 1971, is not exactly an uplifting experience - he was, after all, convinced that selfishness and self-interest are man's most important motives.

He saw man as essentially evil. He believed that this evil was the root of all the rottenness in the world. But this is also why man tends to seek peace and stability - at least, in his immediate environment. In order to get peace and stability around him, man must try to curb his own selfishness and the selfishness of others.

If he tries hard, he will be capable of moral behaviour. Then he restrains himself, listens to others, speaks politely and offers help when others are in need.

It is this latter tendency – man trying to overcome selfishness - that deserves our attention again today. Western societies, after all, are polarising. Extremist politicians are making the world a dangerous place again.

Meanwhile, political protests and even New Year's celebrations all over the world erupt in violence. On social media people trade insults and pick fights. Sometimes it seems like society is splitting up into a group of 'fascists' or 'racists' on the one hand, and a group of 'left-wing rascals' or 'communists' on the other.

They grant each other little, except swearwords and threats.

Squeezed middle

But there is a third group, formed by people in the middle. This group is larger than the other two. It sees public debate on social, economic and political themes turn into a battlefield, and increasingly feels squeezed.

Whether it's Europe, immigration, Nato, or climate change – extremists on both sides often hijack the discussion by superposing one 'truth' with another. The room for compromise seems to be shrinking. What kind of horror show is this?

The question Reinhold Niebuhr asked himself between the two World Wars was the following: are groups of people capable of moral behaviour, like individuals?

This is an important question, because when groups start fighting each other it is difficult for individuals to intervene. Can one discipline a whole group? Niebuhrs answer was a sound 'no'.

To be capable of moral behaviour, he argued, altruism is needed.

An individual can be altruistic under certain circumstances. He will try to help when he sees an old woman fall on the street. When a child falls in a pond he will rush to rescue it. He clearly feels empathy, and acts. But a group or a nation, Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Why is that? In Moral Man and Immoral Society; A Study in Ethics and Politics, a book published in 1932, Niebuhr wrote that support for patriotic and nationalist groups is an act of individual selflessness, in a way – by surrendering to the group, after all, you support a "higher" goal, in the sense that you support something greater than yourself.

Seen like this, loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism.

And this, then, becomes the vehicle of all altruistic impulses of individuals in the group. It sucks up all the altruism they are capable of.

This sometimes manifests itself so vehemently, Niebuhr wrote, that it virtually destroys the individual's critical attitude toward the nation and its behaviour. "This unconditional devotion forms the basis of the power of the nation and the freedom to use that power without any moral limitation. It is the selflessness of individuals that makes nations so selfish."

This is a depressing conclusion.

It means the "silent majority", the people in the middle, cannot save the world. The more citizens are committed to the nation, the less attention or understanding they have for the wider community outside.

Bad news for EU, UN

The nation and the wider community are "higher goals" that compete with each other. This is bad news for the EU, the UN and other international organisations.

For they will only thrive, according to Niebuhr, when there is little nationalism. As soon as popular national rallying starts, this will monopolise individuals' altruistic capabilities to the detriment of international organisations. Some will now rejoice: 'ha, that's good!' But this is exactly the point: those international organisations were set up in order to protect individuals from the excessive power of nations.

Niebuhr was vilified and admired by both the left and the right.

No wonder moderates nowadays, equally caught in the middle, recognise so much in his writings. For the umpteenth time in history, we slowly start to realise how important it is to have a just society with independent institutions.

Social equality helps to prevent groups from hating each other and getting at each other's throats. And there can only be justice for all if it does not end up in the hands of a single group.

Because that one group will immediately use, or rather abuse, the legal instruments at its disposal (see Poland, see the United States) to marginalise or eliminate other groups.

Niebuhr deserves to be widely read because he reminds us that the veneer of civilisation is very thin. By realising this is so, we hopefully learn to be a bit more careful not to break it.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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