Niebuhr No.1: Moral Man and Immoral Society

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society is an important but difficult book to review. [1] During my undergraduate and graduate years, this book was required reading. On both occasions, the book made an impact. I have since read it again and again over the years. Together with his monumental work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the best example of an attempt to articulate a “realistic Christian political philosophy for the 20th Century” and the high point of what is sometimes called, “Christian Realism,” an attempt to articulate a political philosophy that is both Christian and realistic in its view of human nature and human institutions.

A short biography may be helpful. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was born in Wright City Missouri, the son of German immigrants. His father was a German Reformed Evangelical pastor. Niebuhr attended Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, and then Yale Divinity School. He was eventually sent by the German Evangelical Alliance to pastor a small church in Detroit, Michigan. The church grew dramatically under his leadership.

In this pastorate Niebuhr was exposed to the poverty of the American industrial working class, which impacted his thought in profound ways. In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He spent the rest of his career at Union.

His experiences in Detroit and sympathy for the working man resulted in his initially embracing a strictly socialist philosophy, a view he eventually abandoned as he developed his mature Christian realism. Moral Man and Immoral Society represents the early Niebuhr and not his mature thought as worked out in, among other works, The Nature and Destiny of Man.

As his neo-orthodox theological view of the human person and God developed, Niebuhr was an important voice in emphasizing the fallenness of the human race and the moral frailty of human institutions. Niebuhr supported the Second World War and in opposed some of the more fanciful proposals of radicals before, during, and after the war. He influenced and supported such figures as the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the 1930’s until his work fell out of favor around the crisis of the Viet Nam War, Moral Man and Immoral Society was recognized as a work of religious, philosophical and practical insight into the way in which Christian faith interacts with secular politics.

In the end, his work stands as the supreme achievement of American political theology.

As Francis Fukyama put it:

…. Niebuhr played an invaluable role during the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s by bringing Christians to terms with participation in the Second World War and later the Cold War. The Christian doctrine of sinfulness and the Fall meant, according to Niebuhr, the ever-present possibility of evil, which was all too evident in spreading fascist and communist doctrines. Moral action did not imply passivity in the face of sin, nor were leaders of communities bound by the same moral constraints as individuals. Though now primarily remembered for its tough-mindedness, Niebuhr’s book bears rereading to remind us that a realistic morality is not the same thing as amoral realism, that power, even in the service of justice, must recognize its own limitations, and that democracies were capable of their own kind of hubris. [2]

In recent years, his work has gained a new hearing among scholars and practical people alike, and there seems to be a bit of resurgence in interest in this ideas.


Niehbur’s book begins with a thesis that contains the genius and the limitations of his book:

The thesis to be elaborated in these pages is that a sharp distinction must be drawn between the moral and social behavior of individuals and of social groups, national, racial, and economic; and that this distinction justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing.


Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge of egoistic elements until they are able to view a social situation, in which their own interests are involved, with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. [3]

He goes on to say again:

As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves. Whatever their power can command. [4]

For the early Niebuhr, as individuals, human beings are capable of acting from Christian love and morality. However, in groups, human beings act according to baser motives of social, class and national advantage. It is my view that the fundamental error the early Niebuhr makes is right at the beginning: his division between “moral man” and “immoral society.”

Distinction Between Moral Humanity and Immoral Social Institutions

I question whether this distinction was accurate in Niebuhr’s time, and it is clearly not true in the post-Christian America today. Niebuhr himself recognized the false impression his title gave (it was the idea of his publisher), and even quipped that he should have titled the book, “Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society.” The fact is that the tendency to ignore moral motives is a part of human nature and a constant threat to personal as well as social morality.

In my view, the better view is that finite and self-centered human beings create limited, selfish and often unjust societies, which in turn create finite and self-centered people. This is why humility, a sense of social solidarity, wisdom, and the ability to show restraint are important to both individuals and societies.

Niebuhr was correct, however, in seeing that the reason societies can create a different level of injustice is because of the magnifying impact of collective activity. For example, it is unlikely that Adolf Hitler could have instituted anything like the death camps alone. But, if you combine a demonic leader with compliant architects, engineers, chemists, soldiers, police, and judges, death camps become a possibility. In other words, the difference in social and personal evil is not qualitative but quantitative. The old saying, “two hands are better than one” is true whether the deed be for the good or for evil.

This insight is important today, when we can easily see the multiplicative power of social evil. Niebuhr wrote at a kind of peak of the power of Western, Christian, Protestant civilization. He assumes that the majority of European and Americans believe that they ought to love and serve each other and in their personal lives do so to one degree or another. A bit of experience in the world shows this to be untrue. Individual people tell lies, seek their own advantage, serve their own interests and disregard morality just as often as do social units. The problem today is that both personal and social morality are compromised, and the Christian consensus that existed in the America of his day is largely absent.

Humanity and Human Society

Niebuhr begins by observing that human beings have had trouble from the beginning with their “aggregate existence”. Throughout human history, human beings have had difficulty living together without violence and social inequality. The advancement in science and technology that changed human economic and industrial capacity created little in the way of “social progress” to overcome human selfishness and the inequality it breeds.

The use of the term “aggregate existence” by Niebuhr betrays a Newtonian, mechanistic, atomistic notion of human society. Implicit in the term is the view that human society is not something that exists before, during. and after an individual life, but is “an aggregate” of individuals. In other words, human beings are social and political monads bound together by social force. [5]  This seems to me to be neither an accurate description of human society nor the individual human situation within society. Human society exists before individuals, molds individuals, and then is changed and enriched by individuals who act within that society while at the same time forming it. [6] We emerge from a social context of which we remain a part all of our lives.

Given Niebuhr’s initial views of the relationship between individual human beings and society, it is not surprising that he views individuals as capable of being driven by reason and morality, but social units as being fundamentally driven by the search for and use of power. In a society made up of individual human social units, the connective tissue is bound to be power, just as in Newtonian Mechanics, atoms are acted upon by force. Thus, Niebuhr reflects:

All social cooperation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. [7]

For the younger Niebuhr, at the root of human society is the Will to Power and the force of those in leadership exerted against a society to maintain order and social peace. Niebuhr does not deny that there are human factors involved in a healthy society, he sees those elements as in some ways finally subordinate to the application of power in society.[8]

Another interesting aspect of Niebuhr’s thought is the distinction he makes between power and justice. Instead of considering the use of power as the state’s means to create justice, he sees social power as used by dominant elements of society to maintain their privileges. Thus, in his thought love, power and justice are fundamentally different aspects of reality. Here again, I think Niebuhr makes a subtle error. There are many kinds of social power. There is the power of the military, of the legislature, the judicial power of the courts, the social power of morality, the power of teachers over students, the power of parents over children, and the religious power of religious leaders over their followers. All these “powers” are not necessarily or even customarily contrary to justice in a well-ordered society. They are in fact the means by which a just society is formed. The problem is not with power as power but with its use by human beings.

Love in all its forms is the communal relational power that binds these different powers together in a kind of social peace, and justice is the form love takes in law and society. Some of these powers are in fact aspects of love. The love of a parent for a child, of a teacher for students, of a pastor for their congregation, of judges for justice, of military leaders for their nation, sit at the center of their power. Love it seems to me sits underneath all the powers we see around us, and all of them are corrupted by its absence or limits. This notion is so important that it has been the subject of prior blogs and will be the subject of blogs to come.

This is also an area in which the Marxist influence is apparent in Niebuhr’s early years. Of all the powers in society, Niebuhr affirms that economic power is fundamental. [9] This is particularly true in an industrial civilization in which the military is subject to political leaders who themselves are servants of economic interests. It flows from this reduction of society and social power to economics that the fundamental character of society is a constant conflict over the division of wealth. According to Niebuhr societies are always in a perpetual state of conflict over the control and distribution of economic assets.


Despite his importance as a thinker, by the time of Niebuhr’s death, and even before, the limitations of his thought were widely perceived, and he himself had abandoned many of his earlier views, which is why it will be necessary to review his later works. More importantly, I think, is the fact that the world view that gave birth to Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society was even by the time he wrote passing away. Several of the limitations are evident in this thought seem to me to be as follows:

  1. Moral Man and Immoral Society largely works within a division between the spiritual and moral (areas of freedom) and the material and social (areas of determinism). This leads him to underestimate the power of the spiritual and moral in public life.
  2. Moral Man and Immoral Society is excessively influenced by Marx and by his acolytes in 20th century academia. This leads to an unwarranted belief that social instruments of overt political power can create a more just society.
  3. Moral Man and Immoral Society is afflicted with a notion of power that is largely, though not entirely, in opposition to cultural, moral, and other non-material forces instead of a notion of power that includes them.

Moral Man and Immoral Society is in many ways the most important book of political theology of the 20thCentury. No public theology can ignore the accomplishments of Niebuhr, even when critiquing him, for his thought is the dominant voice of the 20th Century and is likely to remain so. Just as Karl Barth dominated Reformed theology and impacted all other theologies, so also Niebuhr dominates American public theology in a unique way and no public theology can ignore his importance.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethic and Politics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1932, 2001), hereinafter, “MMIS”.

[2] Francis Fukyama, “Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and PoliticsForeign Affairs ( (September/October 1997 ) at, downloaded June 13, 2022.

[3] MMIS, xxv

[4] MMIS, at 9.

[5] The word “Monad comes from a Greek word meaning, “one” “singularity,’ or’ unit” In metaphysics, the term “monad” is used to refer to the smallest unity of psychophysical units or force that constitute the universe. Leibniz began to use the word “monad” to refer to his concept of a fundamental unit non-material unit of existence. In theology, it is used as a term for God, the One. In political philosophy/theology, the term reflects the view that there is a fundamental unit (the monad) from which all other aspects of political reality get their own existence.

[6] We are not yet at the impact of process theology on political philosophy. However, the view that I am outlining is that is one in which human beings are part of a social experience and the flow of human society from which they emerge and the course of which the impact by the decisions they make in the actions they take. If the monadic view is atomistic and materialistic, the process view is organic and evolutionary.

[7] MMIS, at 3.

[8] Id. I tried to count the number of times Niebuhr uses the Nietzschean term, “Will to Power” and ultimately gave up. It sits at the center of his analysis in MMIS.

[9] MMIS, at 7.