The Politics of Dignity

The Decent Society

by Avishai Margalit, translated by Naomi Goldblum
Harvard University Press, 304 pp., $35.00

The Decent Society is a splendid book. It is serious without being ponderous, it is unassuming but ambitious, and it is engagingly unorthodox, both in its concerns and in the way it pursues them. At a time when the idea of decency appears in politics only in the mouths of politicians eager to keep sex off the Internet, it is a pleasure to come across an intelligent discussion of a much more serious subject, one that has had little attention from philosophers—how to build a society that doesn’t humiliate its weaker members. How novel Margalit’s book is can best be appreciated against the background of the kind of political philosophy practiced in our best graduate schools, and familiar to readers of these pages. The Decent Society is both a commentary on, and an alternative to, our prevailing orthodoxies—not an argument against them, let alone a denunciation of them, but a useful, imaginative provocation to our sensibilities.

For the past fifty years, political philosophers in the United States have been obsessed by political and economic inequality. More particularly, they have been obsessed by the problem of deciding which of the inequalities so visible around us are just, and which are unjust. On the whole, philosophers have tried not to engage with this question in concrete institutional terms—rightly believing that philosophers have no reason to expect a hearing if they try to lay down the law about the precise level at which the minimum wage should be set, or what combination of food stamps and cash benefits should make up the standard welfare package. They have generally set their sights on providing a theory of justice whose relationship to institutional arrangements must in the nature of the case be complicated and contentious. The exemplary work in this style, John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, is a quarter of a century old this year, but it and the work it has inspired dominate the imaginative landscape of American political theorists—and to a lesser extent of British political theorists, too. Rawls asks a simple question: What are the just terms on which people should cooperate with one another in society? He returns a rather complicated answer, but the gist of it is that our politics must maximize each person’s equal liberty, and that our economics should tolerate inequality only to the extent that inequality benefits the worst-off members of society.

The device upon which Rawls’s argument rests is that of the social contract—not the discredited piece of mythical history on which seventeenth-and eighteenth-century thinkers supposedly relied, but a “hypothetical” contract. “What,” we are meant to ask, “would rational persons sign up for as fair terms of social cooperation?”—it being taken for granted that nobody ever has started a society from scratch in this sort of fashion. On the basis of some plausible views about human nature, Rawls concludes that we could rationally contract into only one sort of society—one governed by the principles …

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