Since the earliest civilizations, social injustices have prevailed. Primitive tribal organizations had basic justice internally but recognized only minimal rights to outsiders. Opponents not killed during warfare were placed into slavery. The ancient Egyptian kingdoms divided the land amongst the leadership, soldiers, and priests. The remaining majority were landless. In China before communism, the emperor had eminent domain and ruled as a dictator. Ancient Rome, which heralded in the Pax Romana, had a class-based social pyramid which granted absolute property rights to the patrician. Power eroded level-by-level with the powerless slaves residing at the bottom. Through Roman military conquests, slaves became the majority population, and their labors enriched the empire’s elites. The Roman historian Plutarch (45–120) stated it best: “The poor folk go to war, to fight and to die for the delights, riches and superfluities of others.”
Ancient civilizations were not the only examples of social injustices. Russian communist leaders, claiming equality for all, enjoyed their national wealth derived from the majority, and denied basic human freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion to their citizens. During my own short lifetime, I have witnessed racial injustices placed upon black people who were transported to my country against their will, placed into bondage, and suffered grave abuses. Once freed through a bloody civil war, blacks then lived under racial restraints as second-class citizens. Even after the legal restraints were removed, racism still lingers. (pages 16–18)
Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 publication, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Must Have Books, Victoria, BC, 2021), discusses in Chapter 1 “Man and Society: The Art of Living Together” and in Chapter 2, “The Rational Resources of the Individual for Social Living.” Niebuhr (1892–1971) was an American theologian and Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He opens with a truth: “The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fullness of life which each man seeks.” (page 12) Humans are made for community, but society has harmed individuals and societal benefits are not evenly distributed. This is not due to the unequal distribution of human talents. Until my lifetime, black athletes were not permitted to play in professional sports, something today we find absurd given the preponderance of black athletes. Injustices prevail regardless of individual talents.
Niebuhr stated that organizations, to preserve their power, create the ability for a dominant group to impose their will on the minority. This applies to both secular and religious groups. “The same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice.” (page 15) The powerful first try to hide their injustices, but when revealed, do not remove them. This is one of the great human tragedies, “its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. 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.” (page 16) Even if political power becomes responsible to individuals, economic power can be irresponsible.
Societal injustices are a constant frustration to the average individual who desires the ideals of equality, yet never fully experience it. “The will-to-power of competing national groups is the cause of the international anarchy,” an even more frustrating issue. We witness this tragedy in the current Ukraine-Russia war. Thus, “society is in a perpetual state of war. … New tyrants usurp the places of eminence from which more traditional monarchs are cast down.” (page 21)
Since the Age of Enlightenment, humans have viewed these social conflicts as rooted in human ignorance and selfishness. A common belief that still exists today is that to solve the injustices, it is only necessary to raise the level of education; injustices will then ebb away. However, “reason is not the sole basis of moral virtue in man. His social impulses are more deeply rooted than his rational life. Reason may extend and stabilize, but it does not create, the capacity to affirm other life than his own.” (page 24) Highly intelligent people who understand goodness, justice, kindness and unselfishness still exploit others who are less intelligent and less powerful. More education and rational instruction, secular or religious, has not and will not ultimately eliminate societal injustices.
The first step in removing injustice is to unmask and recognize it. For some Americans, the death of George Floyd caused a reexamination of racism. “When power is robbed of the shining armor of political, moral, and philosophical theories, by which it defends itself, it will fight on without armor; but it will be more vulnerable.” (page 28) Even when it has been proven that wealthy individuals and corporation have obvious tax advantages not granted to lower income individuals, the wealthy use their political and economic power to retain these unequal advantages. Reason alone will not change societal injustices.
“In man the impulses of self-preservation are transmuted very easily into desires for aggrandizement.” (pages 32–33) With power, security becomes paramount and is usually retained through power. The rational creators of the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution stated that all men are created equal. But, it was only white landholding men who were legally equal, less than half of the US population. “So civilization has become a device for delegating the vices of individuals to larger and larger communities. The device gives men the illusion that they are moral; but the illusion is not lasting.” (page 36)
In my next blog, I will discuss Niebuhr’s next chapter on religious resources.