Whitehead No. 1: Impact of the “New Physics” on Political Philosophy.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) made important contributions in Mathematics, Logic, Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics and in other areas of thought. He was instrumental in developing a philosophical outlook known as “Process Philosophy” of which he is regarded as the founder, though he follows, among others, C. S. Peirce in this regard. Although he began his academic life at Cambridge (as a mathematician), and then taught in London (as a mathematical physicist and philosopher of education), it was in America at Harvard that he became known as a philosopher and wrote his most famous works.

In 1925, he published his Science and the Modern World (1926), a reworking of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard. [1] In 1929, he published his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh as a metaphysical work, Process and Reality. [2] In 1933 he published Adventures of Ideas, his most accessible work and the source of much of what we would call his “political philosophy”. [3] In 1938, he published Modes of Thought, perhaps the clearest summary of his idea. [4]

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Science and the Modern World  and began to read it again after many years. During those years, I had become a bit more familiar with the meaning and emergence of both relativity theory and quantum theory and the immense difference it made. I was struck by the brilliance of the book. Only fifteen or so years earlier, in 1905 (sometimes called his “miracle year”), Albert Einstein published a series of papers that introduced his theory of relativity and made important contributions to the emergence of quantum physics. This is a short time in the history of science. Yet, Whitehead, himself a mathematical physicist, had internalized the new physics of his day and was able to give a philosophical account of its meaning. It is an account that has continuing relevance today.

End of Materialism

From the time of Newton until the early 20th Century, a fundamentally materialistic world view dominated science and philosophy. In this world view what is “real” is matter and material forces acting upon matter. The picture of the universe that emerged with quantum physics was much different. Matter, atoms and subatomic particles of whatever kind, were not matter. Rather, they appeared to be what Whitehead calls “patterns” or “vibrations” in a universal electromagnetic field, an emerging disturbance in an underlying field of potentiality. [5]

Influenced by developments in physics, Whitehead developed a “process” or “organic” view of reality in which events or what he called “actual occasions” are the fundamental realities. Thus, “Whitehead marks an important turning-point in the history of philosophy because he affirms that, in fact, everything is an event. What we perceive as permanent objects are events; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events” that have taken up a stable form. [6] Therefore, the actual world is “built up of actual occasions”. [7] Those things that we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls, “Enduring Objects”) are simply events that have an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [8] The vision of the world that Whitehead develops is decidedly not materialistic, for fundamental events are much like the waves that constitute fundamental particles—vibrations or patterns which are capable are not material entities but are capable of becoming so.

A Social World

Early in the development of quantum physics it was realized that one of its implications was a degree of interconnectedness among the fields of activity that make it up. As previously noted, Einstein’s Relativity Theory describes a universe that is deeply relational, in which time and space, ultimate attributes of reality in Newtonian physics, are known to be related to one another and make up a “Space/Time Continuum.” At a quantum level of reality, there is a deep interconnectedness that is revealed and symbolized by so-called, “spooky action at a distance,” or what physicists call, “entanglement.” Reality is deeply connected at a subatomic level. Even at the level of everyday reality, there is a deep interconnectedness that is evident in so-called open systems and their tendency toward self-organizing activity—the so-called “butterfly effect.” [9]

One recurrent emphasis of process thought is on relationships as constituting reality. Actual occasions combine to form societies, and these societies are fundamental aspects of reality. The fundamental character of a society is determined by the relationships in which it is located, past, present, and future. [10] A “society” of whatever character exists within a web of relationships from which it emerged and in a process which is leading to a future state of the process. The relatedness of the universe and the societies that make up the physical realities we experience, according to Whitehead, is not merely external but also internal to the society itself. [11] This not only is physical matter secondary, but also physical power.

A World of Mysterious Interconnectedness

Newtonian physics posited the existence of an observer outside the events being observed. In addition, all connections between particles was external. Quantum physics has revealed that the observer is an irreducible part of the reality being observed. Perhaps more importantly, quantum physics and relativity theory imply a universe of deep interconnection.

The relationship of the observer and the observed is illustrated by the so-called “double slit experiment.” If a researcher shines light through two slits a pattern comes out the other side, which should reveal whether light is a wave or a particle. However, the result is, in some sense determined by the observation we make. It is as if human conscious involvement creates the result and determines the character of the photon and the photon somehow “feels” or senses the observer’s presence.

Process thought shares this view. Human beings are not outside of reality but a part of the “World Process” and even our attempts at abstracting ourselves from that which we observe are at best only partially successful. We are inevitably and inextricably connected to and sense at a deep level the social world of which we are a part. This of true of electrons, but also of our families, neighborhoods, communities, nation, and world. What we say and do has an impact, however important or unimportant on the world we inhabit. These connections are not just external but also intertermal.

A World of Experience “All the Way Down”

Back to the “double slot experiment, it was mentioned earlier the very act of observing — of asking the question, “through which slit will each electron pass?” changes the outcome of the experiment. In other words, the results of the experiment seem to indicate that in some way subatomic particles “know” or “sense” or feel the presence of the observer which determines the outcome of the experiment. In writing his system, Whitehead was well aware of this outcome.

According to Whitehead, every actual occasion has a mental as well as a physical pole. That is to say, that experience and intelligibility are present in everything from subatomic particles to human beings. In Whitehead’s view every level of existence possesses mental and physical poles, including quanta, atoms, cells, organisms, the Earth, the solar system, our galaxy, the universe all the way up to God.  For God, the whole physical universe is the physical pole and all of the ideas, the forms, are the mental pole. [12] In other words, there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter. Mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The potential for the kind of consciousness that human beings possess is, thus, an evolutionary possibility within the structure of the kind of universe we inhabit.

There is also no ultimate distinction those societies of actual occasions that are in some sense alive and those (like rocks) that are not, such as between the human race and animals. This can be hard to understand., but refers to the fact that experience and intelligibility go all the way down, and therefore, mind, matter, organic and inorganic matter, humans and animals, for all their differences are also in some sense fundamentally related. This fundamental relatedness and worth has ecological and political implications.


Applied to political philosophy and social theory generally, Whitehead’s process view encourages learners to look at the patterns of relationships that make up the society and polity in which one has an interest—and to look at them as constantly changing events not as an object frozen in time. What we sometimes call the American Experiment in Constitutional democracy is a good example. Our political system is not an object to be dissected and understood solely as the power applied to individuals. Rather, it is an event made up of a complex of constantly changing and evolving relationships. To the extent that our society embraces fundamental values, those values must be continually applied to new and changing realities.

As far as political philosophy is concerned, fundamental “connectedness” implies that our tendency to divide our political world into “us” and “them” is ultimately a false abstraction. We are all part of our families, communities, nation and world, connected in deep ways to those with whom we share all levels of human society. This includes those who disagree with us as well as those who agree, our political allies and our opponents.

Once again, when one combines the process or “event” focus of Whitehead’s thought with its social character, one is led away from any notion of the universe as fundamentally a constituted of matter and force and away from the notion embedded in our culture through Hobbes of society as fundamentally constituted as conglomerations of individuals related to one another by force. Force does exist but it is itself grounded in a deeper reality, which we shall examine next week as we talk about God, Love, and the gradual movement of human societies from force to persuasion.

The existence of a mental pole of reality can be important for political philosophy, as will become more obvious next week. The evolution of the universe and the evolution of human society reflect the propensity of the universe and human society to seek the kind of satisfaction that we call, “Peace” or “Harmony”. Human civilization is the story of the emergence of ideas in the adventure of human knowledge, or the “Adventure of Ideas,” as they impact human knowledge and human society.

Whitehead believed that his metaphysics has practical implications, implications which he outlines in his book, Adventure of Ideas. Next week, we will focus on one idea from Adventure of Ideas—the slow progress of human society from force to persuasion, for from force to love.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), hereinafter “SMM”.

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[3] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), hereinafter “AI”.

[4] A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York, NY: Free Press, 1938, 1968).

[5] SMM, at 132.

[6] Steven Shaviro, “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead” http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/DeleuzeWhitehead.pdf (Downloaded July 18, 2022).

[7] PR, at 96-98.

[8] SMM, 132-133.

[9] This is not the place for a discussion of these phenomena. For those who would like a deeper discussion, see John Polkinghorne, ed, “The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). I have examined this phenomena before in a blog entitled, “Politics and the Order of the World” at www.gchristopherscruggs.com (July 8, 2020).

[10] SM, 152.

[11] AI, at 230.

[12] PR, at 128.

Niebuhr No. 4: Force, Revolution, and Social Change

As we close this series on Reinhold Niebuhr’s early work, it important to position him again within the context of American Christian political thinking, which helps to understand both his early work and why his later work became noticeably more Christian in its outlook. The early members of the Social Gospel movement were deeply influenced by German Enlightenment theological thinking. They were optimistic about the human race’s potential to create a better world, perhaps even a perfect world by the implementation of Enlightenment ideas.

Niebuhr marks the beginning of a new phase in which, like Karl Barth and other of the “Neo-Orthodox” thinkers, attempts were made to find a place for a more Biblical and historically orthodox view of the human situation without abandoning higher criticism of the Bible and important insights of modern theology. In particular, like Barth and others in the movement, Niebuhr led in the recovery of the importance of the Doctrine of the Fall and of the inevitable sinfulness of the human race in understanding the human condition. This, of course, led Niebuhr and others in his “Political Realist” movement towards a sober view of human perfectibility and secular schemes, such as Marxism and Naziism, that purported to have found a secular way to establish a better society.

This view is only partially evident in Moral Man and Immoral Society which is Niebuhr’s earliest work and does not evidence his mature thinking  [1] In MMIS, Niebuhr is still beguiled with the Russian experiment with Communism and a Marxist interpretation of political reality. It is a view he would considerably modify over the years as the full extent of the horrors of Soviet Communism were exposed. His more mature thinking is evidenced in his Gifford Lectures published as, The Nature and Destiny of Man, a work we will look at later. [2]

Force and Social Change

Given Niebuhr’s Marxist analysis of society, he is led to the view that social change inevitably requires the use of force, that is physical, political, and legal power. For the early Marxists, only some kind of “revolutionary struggle” would end injustice. The early Niebuhr follows this analysis with qualification. [3] Once again, it is important to question this foundation for his analysis. While it is true in human history that the elimination of injustice has involved violence, this is not always the case. For example, in the United States, elimination of slavery required the American Civil War. However, in England elimination of the Slave Trade was accomplished without violence, largely because of the efforts of William Wilberforce and his comrades, most of whom were Christian. The elimination of injustice in Russia and China arguably required a violent upheaval, but India received her independence from Great Britain, as did Ghana and other nations, without a violent, revolutionary struggle of the kind that Russia experienced.

Justice through Revolution

Niebuhr begins his chapter on revolution with a discussion of whether revolutionary violence is justified in order to establish a more just society. His basic view is that “the end justifies the means.” In his early view, the Marxist objective of a classless and economically fair society is “identical with the most rational possible social goal, that of equal justice.” [4] This being the case, violence cannot automatically excluded from the possibilities if it is not “intrinsically immoral” to engage in violent behavior.

According to Niebuhr, revolutionary violence is not intrinsically immoral for two reasons.

  1. First, although non-violence is always an expression of good will, it is not true that violence is always an expression of ill-will. All societies use some measure of coercion, to maintain or create a social order. [5]
  2. Second, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about violence, despite traditional moral thought regarding the issue. [6]

In my view, Niebuhr’s analysis stems from his division between public and personal morality. For Niebuhr in this stage, respect for life, the opinions of others and the like are matters of personal but not necessarily public morality. [7]However, according to MMIS, there is still a significant question about the actual possibility of establishing justice through violence. [8]

Notwithstanding this analysis, Niebuhr does not think that the prospects for establishing a just society on revolutionary ideals for two reasons:

  1. First, there are too many different classes in a complex modern society, each with its own distinct interests, at least some of which would resist a proletarian revolution. [9]
  2. Second, there is division within the proletarian class itself regarding the morality of violent social revolution. [10]

An additional question concerns the possibility of maintaining such an ideal society, were it to be established by violence. There are a number of reasons to suspect that it would not.

  1. First, the abolition of economic privileges requires the assertion of strong centralized political force.
  2. Second, while selfish egotism may be curbed, it is unrealistic to believe that it can completely abolished. Thus, according to Niebuhr, the maintenance of the social ideal of the proletarian as a reality also does not seem realistic enough to justify the violence of revolutionary action. [11]

Use of Political Force

As mentioned above, Marx believed that the biggest obstacle to revolution is that proletarian class is divided. This division involves two major groups within the proletariat:

  1. Unskilled workers and those at the bottom of the society tend to support revolutionary action.
  2. Skilled workers who are more favored by the capitalistic system are less likely to seek violent change.

The goal of the second group is not revolution but the acquisition of political power. [12] Niebuhr recognizes that this method for the achievement of greater social equality has been partially successful in Western democracies. However, according to Niebuhr, there are problems with trying to achieve social justice through democratic political means.

  1. Transfer of wealth through taxation is affected by the law of diminishing returns. You cannot tax the rich forever without consequences. [13]
  2. The proletarian class must rely on the cooperation of the middle classes in order to achieve a parliamentary majority. However, the middle class, because of its own comfortable position in the current system, is ill-equipped to really appreciate the plight of the proletarian classes. Education cannot full rectify this situation. [14]
  3. Experts, who are needed to produce change, cannot be counted to identify social inequalities and rectify them due to their own class bias and the power of interest groups. [15]
  4. Peasants and the farmer can be counted on to join with the proletariat to form a parliamentary majority. [16]

These factors militate against achievement of the ideals of the proletarian classes and suggest to some that what is needed is collaboration in order to achieve some of the goals of the proletariat. In the end, there is simply no modern industrial state in which the situation where a revolution is likely to be successful exists, and there is abundant evidence that such a revolution, if it did not fail, would not create an ideal state, which Niebuhr did not believe possible within the limitations of history. Thus Niebuhr finally concludes, “The hope that there will ever be an ideal society, in which everyone cand take without restraint from the common social process ‘according to his need’ completely disregards the limitations of human nature.” [17]

Moral Values in Politics

Finally, Niebuhr returns to consider a problematic feature of his political realism. There are two issues to be considered, first there is the problem of a kind of absolute political realism that dooms humanity to eternal conflict:

A too consistent political realism would seem to consign society perpetual warfare. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is not possible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?” [18]

On the other hand, there is a kind of political moralism that too easily values the status quo and social peace over progress: “A too uncritical glorification of co-operation and mutuality therefore results in the acceptance of traditional injustices and the preference for more subtle types of coercion to the more overt types.” [19] . An adequate political morality must do justice to both the practical realities of a society and the moral underpinnings of society. Moralism cannot totally eliminate coercion and injustice, but can help in trying to strike the balance. [20]

In the end, Niebuhr argues for a kind of practical accommodation in which a wise society minimizes the element of coercion and maximizes the element of cooperation reducing to a minimum the element of coercion only in the furtherance of certain important social aims. Where issues of justice and social equality are concerned, it may be that violence and coercion are morally justifiable. [21] The limitations of this approach are encapsulated in the title of Alister MacIntyre’s book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [22] What seems obviously rational and justifiable to a professor at a theological seminary may not seem either relational or justifiable to a lawyer in San Diego.

In a long and important section of MMIS, Niebuhr analyzes the specific views of Ghandi with his version of non-violent resistance and understanding of its limits, and concludes that, while non-violence may not always be an available tactic, it is the best way forward in the quest for lasting social change. [23] According to Niebuhr, there is no other area of political life two which religion plays a larger role than in developing habits of non-violent resistance: [24]

The discovery of elements of common human frailty in the foe and, concomitantly, the appreciation of all human life as possessing transcendent worth, creates attitudes which transcend social conflict and thus mitigate its cruelties. It binds human beings together by reminding them of the common roots and similar character of both their vices and their virtues. [25]

There is probably no sentence of MMIS that we Americans are more in need of internalizing in the entire of Niebuhr’s work.

The Conflict between Individual and Social Morality

Niebuhr’s view of humanity and of human society results in the view that human society inevitably involves some degree of conflict—a view shared by the author of this blog. There is no possibility of the achievement of a perfect society within human history, and as long as we human beings live together some will discover inequities and injustice that need to be eliminated. The question is not “How do we eliminate conflict” but rather “How do we minimize conflict?” Niebuhr therefore believes that there is an irreconcilable conflict between “the needs of society and the imperatives of a sensitive conscience” between politics and political life and personal morality ethics. [26]

Morality is part of the inner life of individual human persons, whereas political life involves the “necessities of social life”. [27] The highest ideal of society is justice, while the highest ideal of the individual is unselfishness. [28]Once again, we see the implicit acceptance by Niebuhr of the modern distinction between the freedom of the human spirit and the determinism of material reality—a distinction that automatically regulates human moral and ethical concerns to the subjective. What is left for the religious and moral imagination is the perfection of subjective human interiors. “Moral imagination” makes individuals aware of and sympathetic to the needs of others. It may also render more moderate the use of force in a society where many individuals hold common moral views against such behavior. It cannot, however, eliminate the reality of conflict.

According to Niebuhr, religious idealism fails to adequately appreciate the tension between personal ethics and political life. Love is a personal virtue and is effective in smaller social units, but love as a social ideal is inevitably diminished in larger social groups. [29] We are left where the study began—with an inevitable difference between personal morality and the public life of societies where struggle and conflict reign. The selfishness of groups must be regarded as inevitable and can be checked only by an assertion of political, social or physical power. Moral goodwill can reduce the severity of the inevitable conflict, but not eliminate it.

In closing, Niebuhr stresses the importance of social issues for our age. It is no longer feasible for individuals to think that they can focus on their own perfection and cultivation. At the same time it is important not to get carried away into social idealism. Idealism must be tempered by a realism that moderates, but does not destroy its vision.


In my young adulthood Niebuhr was both a hero and strong influence. About two years ago, I picked up MMIS and reread it. It was in that rereading that I saw clearly the flaws in his approach, flaws which to some degree he overcame in later works. Frankly, his work was too often used to justify immoral behavior from the War in Viet Nam to the unethical and probably illegal antics of James Comey, to the deceitfulness and lies that regularly emanate from our political elite in Washington. Finally, the world view in which he lived and tacitly accepted was already, but the time he wrote, undermined by advances in science and especially physics. We will turn to that new world view and its implications in the next blog on Alfred North Whitehead.

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] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Volumes I & II (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 1941, 1996).

[3] Once again, I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at  http://strongreading.blogspot.com/2010/06/niebuhr-reinhold-moral-man-and-immoral.html (downloaded June 27, 2022. The entirety of what follows is deeply impacted by and follows this analysis. I gave up counting how many times that Niebuhr uses the word revolution in MMIS.

[4] MMIS, at 170-171

[5] Id, at 171-172.

[6] Id, at 172-173. I think this is one point at which Niebuhr clearly leaves a connection with the Christian tradition in MMIS. From the beginning, Christians have regarded violence, even necessary violence as intrinsically suspect, which is why, for example, in the area of war “Just War Theory” evolved.

[7] Id, at 173. I disagree with this aspect of Niebuhr’s analysis.

[8] Id, at 179. Once again, the experience of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutionary movements do not render obvious that this is possible.

[9] Id, at 184.

[10] Id, at 184-185 and ff.

[11] Id, at 191ff.

[12] Id, at 200

[13] Id, at 209.

[14] Id, at 211.

[15] Id, at 212.

[16] Id, at 217.

[17] Id, at 196; see also 191.

[18] Id, at 231.

[19] Id. At 233.

[20] Id.

[21] Id, at 234.

[22] Alister MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). It is my intention to review this important work when we reach that point in this series of blogs.

[23] Id, at 242-248. In the early stages of working on this blog, I read a Ghandi’s autobiography. At some point in the future we will investigate his important example and thought.

[24] Id, at 254.

[25] Id, at 254-255.

[26] Id, at 257.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id, at 262.

Niebuhr No. 3: Classes and Social Revolution

Moral Man and Immoral Society is such a rich and dense book that a series of blogs on its contents could go on for weeks and weeks. [1] The book is complex and defies a short summary. The style of the writer is such that it can be difficult to discern the side of many important issues upon which the author comes down. As mentioned earlier, the book is also early and takes positions from which the later Niebuhr distances himself. It was in rereading this book several years ago that I decided to begin studying and thinking about political theology/philosophy once again. While I do not find myself in sympathy with many of Niebuhr’s positions, the book forces one to think clearly about his ideas whether right or wrong.

Ethical Attitudes of the Social Classes

It goes without saying that the economic location of human beings influences their views on social and political issues. For the Marxist, however. economics is determinative of the social, economic, and political views of members of society. The early Niebuhr more or less accepted the Marxist position concerning the definitive role of economics and class conflict in human society. As a result, he holds that social conflict cannot be avoided.

Just as nations act hypocritically under the influence of self-interest, so do social classes, and especially the privileged classes’ ethical attitudes are colored by self-deception and hypocrisy, in which they elevate their particular class’s interests to the status of general interests and universal ideals. All classes mobilize their intelligence in order to defend the social inequalities that favor them, when in fact the inequality is too great to have any justification. [2]

Before going further, it is important to unpack and analyze Marx and his views of society and social change. In its most generic definition, the word “class” simply means group. A class of numbers is a group of numbers. A class of fish is a group of fish having in common certain characteristics. A class of people is a group of people that are identifiable because of distinguishing characteristics. In the Middle Ages, society was divided by rank and an order developed that we call “feudalism”. In that system, wealth and power flowed with the ownership of land and military achievement. With the industrial revolution, the feudal order deteriorated. In its place, a new kind of social order developed—a social order in which economic achievement was much more important and status was determined by the control of a much larger range of economic assets than merely land. In addition, the role of the military was changed from the province of the nobility to a service profession within the bourgeoisie.

A Problem with Class Distinctions

Marx saw society as divided into two basic groups: the bourgeoisie, which is in control of the elements of production, and the proletariat which owns no property and which is at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. Within the bourgeoise, there are the owners themselves and those, such as lawyers, etc. in the professional classes of bourgeoisie society. Within the proletariat, Marx distinguishes between the working person and those who might be called the “lower middle class” who have positions of responsibility but remain proletarian. This would include, for example, foremen in an industrial plant. According to Niebuhr, one problem with achieving the social revolution that the Marxist desired is the inability to gain traction among that second group of people. This was true in the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries.

Marx’s simplistic distinction is not without its problems. For example, the bourgeoisie is complex. It includes those who actually own the means of production, the professional classes such as doctors and lawyers, the intellectual classes such as college professors and government officials. Among the free nations today, there service industries exist of the size and scope of which would have been unthinkable to Marx. The industries that are the largest source of jobs and growth in the Western free market economies, and include huge companies in the computer and related service industries did not even exist when Marx wrote.

In today’s post-industrial economy, the class system is infinitely more complex than anything that Marx anticipated. While there exists an economic class that owns the means of production, and a large percentage of the ownership of economic units is lodged in a small percentage of people, a large percentage of people through investments, retirement plans, ESOP’s and other vehicles have an ownership stake in our society. In many companies, long time employees can definitely reach the status of upper middle class based upon some of these programs. I have an acquaintance who is a multi-millionaire based upon stock in a high-tech company he received as a relatively low-level salesman. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of small businesses owned by entrepreneurs that make up the single biggest source of employment within the economy. Finally, in addition to the traditional professional classes of doctors, lawyers and teachers, there are hundreds of small consulting firms that give advice on anything from accounting, to management, to marketing and public relations, and on to various leadership practices and beyond.

Within the boundaries of any economic class definition, there exist multiple levels of economic achievement. Some people have achieved great wealth. Others have achieved the kind of wealth that one attains through building a small business. Others have invested wisely and achieved a degree of economic security. In addition, there is a huge difference between people who have billions of dollars, millions of dollars, and thousands of dollars in savings and income from that source. While it is true that there are huge concentrations of wealth and power in modern Free Market economies (a fact that needs constant address by anti-trust and other laws), there are also many people with fortunes that would have been deemed huge in prior eras but are now small by comparison to the wealthiest individuals.

Economics, is not, however, the only source of class distinction. For example, there exists in our society class of people who have technical skills in law, engineering, medicine, computer sciences, and other areas that form a distinct social class giving them a distinct view of society and social institutions. Having spent a number of years in graduate school, I can assure the reader that there exists a considerable class distinction between a tenured professor and the professor hired to teach one or two courses without benefits. Within our academic elite, there exists multiple classes.

There is a distinguishable class of persons who have managerial and bureaucratic skills that allow them to function in federal, state, and local governments. These people often have some degree of educational achievement that qualifies them for their positions in a level of experience gained by years of work in a bureaucratic organization. Once again, these people form a distinct group with its own distinct characteristics, and within these classes of people, there exists multiple subgroups.

There is also a group of people that work for the extremely large nonprofit sector of our economy. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, other religious groups, social welfare agencies, and the like. This group of people often does not have the economic achievement or security of others but a high level of educational and professional attainment.

The point I am making is that the analysis of Marx adopted by Niebuhr is not sophisticated enough to explain the complexities of our society. This is important because most discouraging aspects of contemporary American society, and one of the sources of its political dysfunction, is the consistent attempt by political units to create a kind of class warfare in America along the model of Marx. It may ultimately be successful, but it will not be in the best interest of the American people. In the end, Niebuhr seems to see the limitations of his analysis when he concludes that no society can do away with privilege and the “inequalities” it creates. [3] I my view, this is not because privilege is something inherently suspect but because it is simply a natural outgrowth of the inherent nature of human society.

Social Class Good and Bad

The word “social class” has gained a negative connotation in our society. In my view, any kind of social progress beyond a Marx-inspired “politics of envy” depends upon regaining the idea that it’s a good thing that there are multiple social and economic classes in our or any society. People with certain abilities that want to work long hours in demanding occupations hours may gain economic advantages that others do not. On the other hand, people that have other goals, gain what those goals provide. Particular, the attainment of moral, ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual achievement requires groups of people who seek those particular achievements to the exclusion of wealth and power. In so doing, they inevitably form a class of persons that enrich all of society.

Classes in any society represent the inevitable grouping of people around certain personal, intellectual, aesthetic, religious, social and economic goals. This past week, I spent a few days in a monastery in central Mexico. Everyone in the monastery has taken a vow of poverty, but there were still representatives of differing social classes, intellectual abilities, national histories and the like. This diversity of personhood was a part of the richness of the experience.

According to Marx, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim that the special privileges of certain individuals or groups are just compensation for performing especially useful or meritorious functions. Returning to the monastery, of course the leader of the monastery had special privileges. He sat at the head of the table, he led the worship services as he was able, His quarters were slightly larger, and he has an office from which to work. Most of his special privileges were a logical and natural result of his position. Others were required as part of the duties of his position, Sill others were a result of his age and long service to the order. Finally, some, such as an office, are the result of his duties and the necessity for privacy in conducting some of them.(People that hold confidential information and have confidential conversations need offices.)

The Selfishness and Hypocrisy of Social Groups

According to Niebuhr, the most common form of hypocrisy is the claim by privileged classes that their status and privileges are the just payment for their especially useful and meritorious functions, [4] This easily becomes a claim that the underprivileged classes lack the capacity to perform these functions, either because of heredity or lack of education.[5] Niebur appears on first glance to be advocating some kind of “classless society,” at least where economic matters are concerned. Later, he makes it plain he feels that it is impossible.

What is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is an explanation as to how any society could function without giving special status and emoluments to those who in fact perform fundamental leadership roles and exact how one might go about finding a fair way to create privileges. In places he actually seems to recognize this fact. Human history gives no examples as to how a classless society can work and several examples as to why it is impossible. The “classless societies” of China, Russia, and other Marxist nations rapidly developed a high degree of social inequality and privilege. (Modern leftists often critique the social inequality in America forgetting that is was much worse the the “classless” Soviet Union.)

According to Niebuhr, dominant classes assert their moral superiority in order to buttress their claim to economic, educational and political privilege. It is hard to argue with this obvious truth. On the other hand, the real question is how to distinguish between valid and invalid claims for privilege.

An example is the belief that hard work and thriftiness (the so called “Calvinist Work Ethic”) tends to result in economic and social success. From a Marxist perspective this belief is ideological, but from any sound historical perspective it is just common sense and practical wisdom at work. It has, for example, not escaped scholars that Protestant Northern Europe, with its heritage of hard work and thrift, has been more successful and stable than the Roman Catholic southern Europe. This being the case, one is required to ask, what degree of privilege is simply the outgrowth of someone’s exemplary work?

The Ethical Attitudes of the Proletarian Class

According to Niebuhr, while social injustice has always been present, the particular conditions of the industrial age, combined with modern democratic ideology, allowed the emergence a self-conscious proletarian class. (I have the distinct feeling that, during the Middle Ages, the serfs and freeholders were self-conscious of their class and of social distinctions. It is hard to believe otherwise.) It is almost certain that Marx is not correct that industrialism created class consciousness, not even among the so-called proletariat. The social injustices of our age would not seem to me to be more severe and, in fact, probably less severe than in prior ages. [6]

According to Marx, the proletarian class is marked by conflicting moral attitudes. On the one hand, moral cynicism about the actual morality of men, along with, on the other hand, according to a Marxism analysis there is an “equalitarian deal” present in the proletariat that creates an inevitable movement for equality in society. [7] Moral cynicism is expressed in terms of a Marxist materialistic and deterministic interpretation of history. Society is viewed as solely a realm of conflict between classes; all other cultural, ethical, or religious features of society are seen as mere rationalizing ideologies meant to obscure this fact.

Having been a lawyer and pastor for many years, it is my observation that moral cynicism is as prevalent among the wealthy, the successful, and the well born as it is among the proletariat. In fact, it may even be more prevalent. I can remember many a long lunch in which a fellow lawyer, client, or business executive revealed the very same degree and type of moral cynicism that I have seen in counseling other social classes. Moral cynicism is a human not class phenomenon.


Next week, I will close this series with a look at Niebuhr’s view of the dynamics of social change, revolution, and the power of violence, concluding with a final look at the distinction he draws between personal and public morality. As mentioned in the first week’s blog, MMIS is the product of the early phase of Niebuhr’s career and contains views with which the later Niebuhr might not completely agree.

Ian reviewing this week’s blog, it is my feeling that I drifted away from the sympathetic reading style I have tried to have in this phase of my little project. For this, I apologize.

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] I would be remiss if I did not indicate the value and reliance of this blog on an Article found at Strong Reading “Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics” (June 10, 2010), at  http://strongreading.blogspot.com/2010/06/niebuhr-reinhold-moral-man-and-immoral.html (downloaded June 27, 2022.

[3] MMIS, at 128,

[4] MMIS, at 117.

[5] Id, at 118.

[6] I would like to take a moment to alert the reader to a facet of Niebuhr’s thought that is common among disaffected intellectuals. He viscerally dislikes the conditions of physical labor in modern industry, and instinctively finds it demeaning in a way that many laborers do not. According to Niebuhr, the depersonalized nature of industrial labor together with its increasingly mass scale has magnified the distance between classes while modern education has given the proletariat an understanding of its plight. In my earlier years, I was a member of a union and worked in a menial job on a railroad. Interestingly, many of the folks who worked on the railroad enjoyed their jobs, which I sometimes found hard to believe given the physical labor involved.

[7] MMIS, at 160.

July 4, 2022: The Worst Form of Government Except for Every Other

This week, I decided to take a short break from Reinhold Niebuhr to talk about the Declaration of Independence, it being July 4th. I was motivated to take this on because of a news blip concerning a candidate in another state that referred to the founding of our nation as a “disaster.” I find myself unable to agree with these sentiments. I think, instead, the founding of America is and will be seen in history as one of those great moments in which the human desire for freedom and practical wisdom joined to create a new government, the first modern Republican Democracy that would end up with a Constitution that has been the model for freedom-loving people everywhere.

How Different in 1776

What a difference are the words of the critics of today from the words of John Adams to his wife concerning the event. Here is what he wrote her on the passage of the Declaration by the Continental Congress:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of Ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. [1]

Why such a difference in tone after 246 years? I think the most likely cause is the lack of balance in our public and advanced education. Since the beginning of the 20th Century intellectuals have been inclined to debunk the founders, attribute to them only economic motives, and to focus on those elements of American society that were left out of the blessings of freedom for many years. After the debacle of the Viet Nam War the process of destroying patriotism took on a new and almost religious intensity in some quarters. One of the tasks of reconstruction is to create a balance among our citizens between recognizing our failures as a society, while not forgetting to celebrate our successes and accomplishments. This is the task for wise parents, teachers, educators, and scholars.

Sanity in a Revolutionary Era

Today in America, we hear much about the need for revolutions from groups on the right and left. [2] On the left, one hears calls for revolutionary action on grounds from racism to economic inequality to the conduct of the former President. On the right, questions about the legality of the last election have been raised and potential restrictions flowing from greater regulation of personal activity in a complex society, are suggested by some as grounds for a revolution.

In the midst of a revolutionary era, we might glean from the Declaration of Independence some principles and hope for the American future:

  1. First, isolated problems with elections or other governmental failings are not grounds for a change in the fundamental character of the government. These sorts of issues fit within the definition of “light or transient causes” mentioned in the Declaration.
  2. Second, unlike the situation facing the Thirteen Colonies in 1776, the American government, in its legislature, courts, and executive branch have shown great willingness to address grievances. We may not always like the way a particular Congress or administration addresses a problem, but they are have done so in the past. One of the complaints registered by the Continental Congress was that repeated attempts to reason with the British Government had yielded no response. [3] This is simply not the case today.
  3. Third, historically, as with slavery, racial injustice, and the economic inequality created by the industrial revolution, the American government has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and make changes, some fundamental, to respond to the needs of citizens. Thus, there is no “long train of abuses and usurpations” of which the Continental Congress complained. [4] In fact, history indicates that out democracy has eventually addressed even the most imbedded social problems.

There is no reason to believe that our system of government is fundamentally unable to adapt to the conflicts and inequalities of today, just as it has reacted and adapted to challenges of the past. The history of our national willingness to confront issues, legislate and change, even our constitutional provisions by amendment should be a source of hope, not despair.


This is a short blog. My wife is out helping our little neighborhood with its child intensive 4th of July Parade and Celebration on a hot and uncomfortable day, while I recover from a bit of mild illness. It is very hot and there is a drought in South Texas, so we will have no fireworks, my favorite part of the day when I was young. We will have a few hamburgers and hot dogs and perhaps ice cream to celebrate the day. I hope that my readers, wherever they may be in this world will also feel called to celebrate, for July 4th does not belong just to Americans, but to the world.

Winston Churchill famously referred to democracy as the worst form of government, except for every other the human race has tried. [1] I have traveled a bit in this world, and I am inclined to agree and believe that our American democracy, for all of its failures, weaknesses, and corruptions remains the best foundation upon which to build a free and prosperous society.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776. The Declaration was actually approved before being signed on July 4th, which is why today is the official celebration not July 2, which was the day of passage.

[2] This portion of this week’s blog is from an earlier blog I did on the Declaration of Independence for the series on political philosophy and theology on which I am working.

[3] Thus, the Declaration of Independence says, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” In the case of our national government, there has been no such silence over the wrongs the left and right frequently cite to support the ineptitude and misguided actions of our government.

[4] Id

[5] “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” (Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947).