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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 of justice he sets out. This egalitarian conception of social justice and its associated argumentative devices is now so entrenched in at least the academic imagination that it has become identified for many supporters and opponents with “liberalism” as such.1

It is this idea of social justice that our most distinguished political thinkers, left and right, have either tried to demolish or to defend. Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and F.A. Hayek’s The Mirage of Social Justice argued that egalitarian ideas of social justice had no intellectual basis in theory, and meant the death of liberty in practice. On the other side of the aisle, Thomas Nagel’s Equality and Partiality and many of Ronald Dworkin’s essays on a modern, egalitarian liberalism have defended something very like Rawls’s views. Unsurprisingly, then, it is Rawls’s view of justice that Avishai Margalit has in mind when he contrasts his own account of a “decent” society with recent discussions of the “just” society. But it is also Rawls’s ambition to construct a theory of justice that Margalit calls into question.

For there has for the past fifty years been another current of political reflection, represented by writers such as Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, and Michael Walzer, among others, one that has offered a distinctly different vision, both of how we might think fruitfully about political matters and of what matters we might usefully think about. Professor Margalit is a distinguished analytical philosopher, and The Decent Society is unmistakably a philosopher’s book; but there is something to be said for following Michael Walzer in describing Margalit’s style of political thinking as “political criticism.” The concerns of political critics have been more concrete and perhaps more local than those of most philosophers; or at any rate the political critics have been constrained by a vivid sense of the difference that local cultural traditions and allegiances make to our political ambitions. Professor Margalit suggests that in a society like ours, the ability to make our own living is so fundamental to our sense of self-respect that a government that fails to secure full employment is guilty of allowing some of its citizens to suffer needless humiliation. But he is quick to point out that the Greeks and the Romans thought that paid labor was only slightly less degrading than slavery. What follows is that what are and what are not humiliating conditions cannot be understood without an appreciation of the cultural setting in which they occur.

While Rawls and his critics have drawn on the resources, not only of moral philosophy, but of economic theory and cognate disciplines such as game theory, practitioners in this second tradition have been readier to refer to history, sociology, and literature. Unsurprisingly, they have written as much about people and places as about concepts—Professor Shklar in American Citizenship and Professor Walzer in What It Means to be an American, for instance—and when they write about the concepts of honor and humiliation as Avishai Margalit does here, it is as they are embodied in social and economic relations in Israel, Germany or the United States. The vividness of Isaiah Berlin’s encounters with such thinkers as Herzen and Sorel and the cultures that sustained them needs no celebration here. But it is worth emphasizing how far it gives Berlin a distinctive way of thinking about political and social possibilities: not so much by ascending to first principles in order to return at length to our own hearths, as by reminding us of the possibilities realized in other lives and other cultures that sharpen our sense of what we half-know but fail fully to understand.

Avishai Margalit’s book is very much in this second tradition. Indeed, Margalit takes off from a thought of Judith Shklar’s. In a memorable phrase, she once described what she called “the liberalism of fear,” the concern to control and limit all forms of power, since the worst of human vices is cruelty and mankind is all too readily tempted to be cruel. Professor Margalit agrees with Shklar that the greatest of evils is physical suffering, especially physical suffering at the hands of other human beings. The Decent Society elaborates his conviction that the next greatest evil is humiliation. But he shares Shklar’s sense of priorities. Thus, when he asks whether punishment can be effective without being humiliating, too, Margalit looks back to the combination of humiliation by physical torture and humiliation by psychological means that other societies have employed and reminds his readers that

The role of symbols in punishment is an important one, but it should not be mistaken for the main role, which was played by physical cruelty. Mutilating the criminal’s body, such as by cutting off a hand, is undoubtedly a humiliating act, but it is first of all physically painful and injurious. When King David cut off the hands and feet of Rechab and Baanah (II Samuel 4:12), and when Adoni-bezek cut off the thumbs and big toes of the seventy kings who picked up scraps under his table (Judges 1:7), they intended to humiliate their enemies into the ground. But we must remember that physical cruelty takes precedence over humiliation. Torturing the body causes more acute pain than torturing the soul. The decent society is based on the principle of eliminating humiliation, but it presupposes that physical cruelty has already been eradicated.

The question which Margalit tackles directly only at the end of his book, but which lurks at the back of the discussion throughout, is whether trying to create a decent society is not subsumed by the goal of creating a just society. Could a society be just but not decent; would a decent society not have to be a just one? These are surprisingly difficult questions to answer, but they are of the first importance. If it turns out to be very hard to get any sort of social consensus on what justice demands in, say, such matters as the compensation of CEOs, or the proper safeguards for people who lose their jobs, it may be more fruitful to seek agreement on what constitutes a decent society, even if it is not in all respects a just society.

But does that suggestion really make sense? Is not a decent society the same thing as a just society? It’s not clear that it is. As Margalit characteristically phrases it, “although it seems obvious that a just society must also be a decent one, it is not as obvious as it seems.” It has certainly seemed obvious to many writers. If you are one of the less fortunate members of society, do you not have every reason to feel humiliated if your misfortunes are also unjust? And is it not true that you have no reason to feel humiliated if those misfortunes are justly deserved?

The most plausible answer is, Not always. I may lose out in the competition for a job, and my belief that the winner is actually less competent than I am may be right. Still, I have no reason to feel I have been humiliated unless I suppose that he was appointed in order to make me miserable, that the message his appointment was supposed to convey to me was “you’re a Jew and don’t count,” or “we’ll see the company founder before we hire someone like you.” When Rousseau insisted that we could put up with misfortune but injustice maddens us, we may suspect that he thought so because he was so convinced that injustice is always directed at us and intended to convey the message that we are worthless. When universities apply a numerus clausus against Jews, or British authorities put up notices in a Shanghai public park saying “No Dogs or Chinese,” it is just that sort of message that they are conveying. No doubt there is an injustice involved in keeping people out of universities for no good reason; but the offense against the idea of a decent society is not the injustice but the exclusion.

  1. 1

    For instance, Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

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