The Economist has a great essay about history, morality and progress called “Onwards and upwards“.
But Ms Neiman thinks that people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. In a world preoccupied with consumerism and petty self-interest, that gives life dignity. People want to determine how the world works, not always to be determined by it. It means that people’s behavior should be shaped not by who is most powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right despite the costs. Moral sensibility is why people will suffer for their beliefs, and why acts of principled self-sacrifice are so powerful.
The moral argument is a very interesting one. Originally Einstein didn’t want his theory to be called “relativity”, he was concerned that people would use it as an argument for moral relativism. I liked the movie Fight Club precisely because it was dealing with the lack of moral sensibility in modern consumer culture.
There are no guarantees that the gap between is and ought can be closed. Every time someone tells you to “be realistic” they are asking you to compromise your ideals. Ms Neiman acknowledges that your ideals will never be met completely. But sometimes, however imperfectly, you can make progress. It is as if you are moving towards an unattainable horizon. “Human dignity”, she writes, “requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited.”
Living in Shanghai, “be realistic” is one of the favorite phrases for local people. Right up there with “but there are too many people”, “but this is China”, and “but our 5,000 years of history”.