Shelves: books-seen-on-the-good-place , nonfiction "Can one of you Janets get me chalkboard and a copy of Judith Shklars Ordinary Vices? Oh, and maybe some warm pretzels! If we goin out, Im going out with a belly full of warm pretzels. Yummy yum yum! I found it lacking clearly detailed arguments, although the "ordinary vice" the author "places first" is clear.

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Princeton, pp. Professor Shklar asks how important they are; which are worse than others; what they can positively do for society, and how their meanings differ from one society to another. She uses a wide range of writers, but her book gives far more than a well-written set of reflections on what has been thought about these bad characteristics.

It also explains and in a fairly unassertive style defends a certain view of society and politics, a liberal view, in terms of which these vices can be ordered and understood. The connection works in the other direction, too: if you think that cruelty, for instance, is more important than other vices, that will already lead you in certain political directions.

Judith Shklar, like her heroes Montaigne and Montesquieu, thinks that cruelty is more important than anything — that it comes first, as she puts it. She is good at detecting cruelty. She finds it, for instance, in the heart of some philanthropy, but unlike others who have made that discovery, she does not give up hating it. Moreover, unlike some others who hate cruelty, she is alert to the dangers of that hatred: in particular, its ready decline into a desolating misanthropy which can itself be a source of cruelty.

It is essential to hold back misanthropy, which can destroy almost any virtue. Because she puts cruelty first and fears misanthropy, she distrusts the special hatred that much modern feeling reserves for hypocrisy. Why has his sense of humanity been so rare? Why are people so overwhelmed by loathing for hypocrisy? She points out that those who denounced the insincerities of Victorian capitalism probably did less, in doing that, to alleviate its horrors than the liberal reformers who had their own styles of insincerity.

All this is finely done, but she gives most of her attention to self-conscious hypocrites, or at least to those who do not have to look very far to detect their own dishonesty. But that fear, which is indeed a powerful political and ethical force, is not directed only against self-conscious deceivers. Those who have been called the three great unmaskers in modern thought, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all alert us to forms of deceit that do not merely overlay personal or social motivations, but help to constitute those motivations.

In the spirit that these writers helped to create, those nowadays who are concerned with truth at all are often worried that they may be living a false life or in a false world. The impulse to uncover these falsehoods may very often leave us only in a state of unfocused, debilitating and resentful suspicion, but the impulse itself, and the desire to live truthfully, are not merely superficial features of the modern world — least of all as that world is conceived by liberalism — nor are they merely the legacy of a self-destructive Protestant Christianity though, as Nietzsche said, they are certainly that as well.

Judith Shklar encourages us to accept a fair measure of evasion and bogusness, and so far as personal relations are concerned, she gives some good reasons for adding this to the platform of the campaign against misanthropy. But I doubt that it will be enough to stop her liberals being nagged by the need for truthfulness, or even being overcome, on a bad day, by disgust at the complacent, evasive and self-serving rubbish that piles up in our channels of communication.

The aspiration for a society and a life that understand themselves, or at any rate can reasonably think that they are not based on deceit, goes deep with us: indeed, the appeal of her own text has a lot to do with that aspiration.

Her book must be read in the tradition of those who force us to become undeceived about the humbug which has helped to make people too keen on killing one another. It seems to me that people can be great snobs who are entirely sincere and who also think that it would be either bad form or a waste of time to hurt those they see as their inferiors. But I think that the thinness of this section, the weakest in the book, comes rather from two other causes. In the first place, and very much so, she is American, and while, as she makes very clear, there is a great deal of American snobbery, it tends to be rather simple: uncomplicatedly unpalatable, like some kinds of American food.

Again, snobbery, like insomnia, is something that you really find interesting only if you suffer from it. Both reasons taken together suggest that to write well on snobbery one had better be English for instance and a snob: Harold Nicolson, whom she quotes, did better on this tiresome subject than she does.

She scores some good hits, for all that. Snobbery and racism, in fact, belong to the same family: cousins. The most recent public display of these illusory hopes was by the servile and fantasy-ridden court that gathered around President Kennedy. But it is precisely their relations to personal morality and to individual character that define the concerns of her political theory.

In one section, her excellent discussion of betrayal, her concern is directly to bring the domestic and the political together, to remind us, for one thing, how unspecial the circumstances of political treachery may be. The complaisant husband used to be such a figure; but a careless, class-bound intelligence service, such as the British, is no different. There is more connection between them, she concludes, than the founders of liberalism hoped, but less, much less, than is demanded by those who see it as the business of the state to make men good.

Many have felt, in the past, and once again now, that it is impossible to reconcile, to the extent that liberalism needs, a state seen merely as impersonal regulation, and an ethical life understood in terms of personal character and sentiment. She does not claim to tell us how to do it, and she may possibly underestimate its difficulty: but she rightly makes this question central, and she leads us in a compelling way to some of its deepest implications.

Immorality is a competently argued, and hence all the more depressing, example of Anglo-American moral philosophy at its most arid. As is often the case in this subject, it argues for something that no sane person ever denied except in philosophy: that there are many different ways in which people may come to do the wrong thing — through having the wrong moral ideas, for instance, or having the right ones but being too weak or negligent to act on them, or simply not caring what morality says.

These and other possibilities are distinguished and sensibly defended against implausible and very abstract philosophical arguments claiming that they are impossible.

But the discussion is oppressively controlled by these arguments themselves, so that most of it is very thin controversy and little of it realistic moral psychology. It suffers, too, from a standard deformation of the genre, which consists in subscribing to the unity of the philosophical profession through the ages. This has two results, which together more or less kill off the inquiry before it starts.

But this is at best a very special case. We can understand our capacity to behave badly only if we start from the obvious fact that we think most of the time in much more specific ethical terms. When we go wrong, it is often because we think, for instance, that a piece of cruelty is just, or an injustice is helpful, or that to avoid some brutal act would be cowardly.

The only question for Milo seems to be whether one is blamed or excused, as though we were dealing with some transcendental penal system. In fact, our ethical life is made of many more reactions than those, and they play a large part in the account of how we may live well or badly. That her book is about political theory means for Judith Shklar that it is in good part about history, and one of the things that she understands historically is the abstract morality system itself, and the problems that it has generated since it came into being.

This history is our history, and her book is specially rich because its psychological understanding is rooted in history; for the same reason, the historical materials she gives us are unfailingly interesting. Send Letters To:.


London Review of Books

Share on mail In her landmark work, Ordinary Vices, political theorist Judith Shklar argues that in contrast to other liberal conceptions the "liberalism of fear" refers only to one summum malum, cruelty and, in response to cruelty, how to avoid suffering. Other vices such as hypocrisy, snobbery, arrogance, betrayal or misanthropy are not only subordinate but also appear to be too multi-sided and complex to conceive them in ordinary affirmative or negative terms. Hypocrisy, for instance, may not be well regarded in the public or the private realm. However, it allows people to wear masks and play roles. It would, therefore, be highly problematic for a liberal democracy to take public measures to abolish it. A similar argument can be made in the case of snobbery, which is hardly an offence, let alone always necessarily an anti-democratic attitude.


The Canon: Ordinary Vices


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