Niebuhr and Aristotle and Jay Smooth

President Obama’s recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, followed by his remarks at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, have produced yet another round of discussion of Obama’s Niebuhrian philosophy.

Some of that discussion has been interesting, while much of it has also been ponderous and pretentious.

Let’s cut past all of that ponderousness and pretension here and check out the latest Illipsis video from YouTube philosopher Jay Smooth, “The Oscars and learning the craft of being good.”

Smooth doesn’t cite Niebuhr, but if you want a nutshell summary of the theologian’s ideas about ethics and human nature, he provides it for you right here:

That mindset right there is what does as much as anything to perpetuate injustice all over our society. That assumption that only a “cretin” or a monster or a bad person would ever be racist or sexist or harbor any sort of bias or prejudice.

ReinholdJayThat right there is the Big Lie. There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people. That’s just not how being good works. And that’s not how being a human being works.

The truth … is that all of us, as good people, are still naturally prone to doing bad things. We all have natural tendencies toward implicit bias and prejudice and bad habits. …

This is something I’ve learned the hard way in my 25 years in hip hop. I’ve worked on lots of projects over the years and I have never once said to myself, “I would like to have a roomful of dudes on this project.” But if I didn’t make a conscious commitment to prioritize breaking that Roomful of Dudes cycle, if I just took for granted that I’m a fair person and therefore I’ll make fair decisions, I usually wound up with a room full of dudes. Because that’s how everything just naturally flows in the hip hop industry, and it took me a long time to learn — and I’m still learning, every day — that if I just believe that I’m a just person, and therefore my choices are just, I’m going to be part of the problem.

“All of us, as good people, are still naturally prone to doing bad things.” And “There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people.”

There you go. Two sentences from a five-minute video and you just saved yourself all the time it would’ve taken you to read Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness and The Irony of American History and The Nature and Destiny of Man. (You should still read them, I think. Niebuhr does have a bit more to say than only that. But that little snippet from Jay Smooth gives you all you’ll need to bluff your way through a conversation at a seminary faculty luncheon.)

But wait … there’s more. In addition to a crash-course in Niebuhrian human nature and the way injustice gets structured into human institutions and human society, Jay Smooth also offers us a pithy, fast-paced introduction to virtue ethics a la Aristotle and Co.

… it took me a long time to learn — and I’m still learning, every day — that if I just believe that I’m a just person, and therefore my choices are just, I’m going to be part of the problem. And I can only really be just, I can only really be good, if I commit every day to learning the craft of being good, to practicing the craft of being good.

Every actor that we saw on that Oscar stage last night is an artist who is committed to the craft of acting. And I guarantee that not one of them just wakes up every day assuming that they’re a good actor. They all work and practice every day to be the best actor they can be, because they are committed to this as a craft. … We are imperfect humans who constantly generate imperfections, and that means no matter how good you think you are, you can’t just wake up every day assuming that you’re a good, fair, well-rounded person. Being a good person has to be a craft that you practice every day.

And when you see these broader patterns of exclusion reflected on the Oscar stage, we’ve got to recognize that not as the product of monsters or cretins, but as a status quo perpetuated by people just like me and you making hundreds of decisions every day where we assume that we’re good and that’s good enough instead of committing to the practice, to learning the craft of being good.

That’s more than enough to let you bluff your way through any discussion of virtue ethics. (If cornered, you can pretend you read this in Stanley Hauerwas or Alasdair MacIntyre rather than admitting it came from a Jay Smooth video on YouTube.)

At the risk of reintroducing some of that ponderousness and pretension I’m trying to avoid here, let me also point out that Smooth’s argument seamlessly blends that Niebuhrian stuff and the crafty stuff from virtue ethics. These two things aren’t always seen as complementary — some have even argued that they’re contradictory. Part of what I like about this video is that Smooth shows how they can — maybe even must — go together.

 

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