Avishai Margalit
Avishai Margalit; drawing by David Levine

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.

It seems hard to imagine that a society could be just but not decent, partly because it is hard to see why we would mind about justice if we didn’t also mind about the self-respect of the badly-off. Still, it is by no means an impossible idea. If all the homeless persons huddled in the doorways of expensive shops on Madison Avenue had brought their misfortune upon themselves—by idleness, recklessness, addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling, say—we might have to agree that the inequality of condition between the homeless and the affluent customers of the shops was not unjust. But we might still feel strongly that these particular conditions of inequality violated our ideas about a decent society. If customers walked without flinching over the homeless on the doorstep, and when challenged replied that people were getting their just deserts, and that there was nothing to flinch at, we would surely think that they had convictions about justice but did not care about the humiliation of the outcast.

Where it is a question of criminal justice, it is all too easy to imagine a society that wished to humiliate its criminals, but was fastidious about seeing that only the guilty were humiliated. The society depicted in The Scarlet Letter is a fair approximation of this state of things—sinners were not only to be punished, but were to be cast out of society. Still, it was a society that cared very much that what we suffered was our just deserts. The Alabama legislature recently reintroduced chain gangs; and its aim was precisely to humiliate the prisoners by so doing—the modern, lightweight shackles would do none of the physical damage that old-fashioned chains had done, but they would do just as much emotional damage. Lawmakers took it for granted that nobody ought to be in an Alabama jail without having committed a crime; they did not repudiate justice, but they expressly denied that criminals had to be treated decently.

Margalit makes the point somewhat differently when he observes that if we think of justice in the way Rawls does in his Theory of Justice, it is clear that “in spirit” Rawls’s concern for justice is also a concern for decency. This is implicit in Rawls’s ideas about what it is that we are concerned to distribute for the benefit of the worst-off. It is not money, or particular physical items, but “the means of self-respect.” If the test of the justice of a society lies in the way it preserves the self-respect of the least advantaged, the test of justice is a test of a decent society. And yet, the two concerns diverge. One way in which they diverge lies in the way Rawls frames the initial problem: A Theory of Justice concerns the “the division of advantages from social cooperation.” It is an account of how the members of a cooperative enterprise are to treat each other.

The scope of decent behavior is wider. It extends to our treatment of nonmembers; it also extends to the question of whom we should count as “members” in the first place. When the German government refuses to grant citizenship to the German-born children of Turkish Gastarbeiter, it raises different questions from, say, a refusal to give them adequate education, pension rights, unemployment benefits, and the like. In fact, the German government behaves well in the latter respect; what is wrong is the standards it applies for counting “them” as “us.”

Margalit’s concern with his topic comes from an obvious source. He is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Israeli society raises difficult questions about the decent treatment of those who are not exactly full members of their society, just as it raises many questions about the extent to which religious Jews should be able to dictate to their secular fellow citizens. When Margalit looks for an example of a society that is just but not decent, he thinks of the kibbutz. “Kibbutz society in Israel is an outstanding example of a society that heroically attempted in its heyday to construct a just society for its members, but has always been insensitive to non members, such as hired workers from outside the kibbutz.”

Israeli Arabs raise another issue of the kind that Margalit treats so delicately. They do not want to be members of Israeli society in the same sense as Israeli Jews; so there is a sense in which they cannot be humiliated in the way people could be humiliated who did aspire to that membership—the children of Japanese immigrants to the United States, for instance, who thought that they were full citizens of their country until they found themselves interned during World War II. Yet, as Margalit points out,

The majority of Israeli Arabs do not perceive Israel as an encompassing group that they need for their self-definition, and for some of them belonging to it is even quite embarrassing. Nevertheless, their insistence on equal civil rights is not merely a demand for just distribution of whatever goods and services are distributed to citizens, such as government housing mortgages on easy terms; the fact that they are denied these goods, even by a society they do not identify with, is perceived not only as injustice but also as humiliation.

As this might suggest, Margalit argues from case to case, rather than by articulating an overarching theory. It is as though he is engaging in a series of thought experiments about the moral and political possibilities of modern society—asking which of the many forms of diversity with which we live amount to obnoxious forms of exclusion and belittlement and what it would be like to live without them. One of the pleasures that this offers is the way Margalit can be simultaneously self-deprecating and ambitious. “What I am offering here is not a theory,” he says, “but rather a story about the decent society—a story whose heroes are concepts. It is not a medieval-style allegory in which Honor and Humiliation are personified heroes, but a story in which the concepts remain concepts, and the picture obtained is that of a utopia through which to criticize reality.” Moreover, Margalit is well aware of the dangers of this informal approach:

There is a danger implicit in the concepts used in this book…. The arousing function of concepts such as honor and humiliation is liable to turn discussions of the decent society into a lot of hot air—that is, discussions with no concern for truth but only for the creation of a warm, uplifting atmosphere…. I believe, however, that an intelligent form of discourse is possible which is not theoretical, yet is far from sticky sermonizing or hot air.”

There is. Nor is The Decent Society quite as untheoretical as its author suggests. It has a lucid structure, and is the product of an orderly as well as an imaginative mind. The argument divides naturally and easily into four parts. The first defines humiliation—“any sort of behavior or condition that constitutes a sound reason for a person to consider his or her self-respect injured”—and takes up some famous views about the impossibility or the unimportance of achieving a decent society. Some anarchists have thought it is necessarily humiliating to take orders, so no society with a permanent system of law and government can be decent. Stoics have argued that other people cannot humiliate us; given sufficient self-control, we are always masters of ourselves and immune to the contempt of others. Against these views, Margalit does not look for knockdown arguments: rightly, in view of their sheer variety and their historical resilience. But he does insist that they have their problems: anarchists seem to be faced with a choice between grinding poverty and conceding the need for government, while Stoics, like the advocates of Christian humility, are vulnerable to some difficult questions about the frame of mind in which we are to turn the other cheek. Does Uncle Tom preserve a sort of inner dignity in the face of all his troubles, or must he have given up the very idea of self-respect?

The second part of The Decent Society asks whether the idea that we should take self-respect seriously has any rational basis. If the thought is that everyone is entitled to respect simply in virtue of being human, there is a puzzle: in virtue of what are they all entitled to respect? Is there anything that human beings have in common that demands respect? In view of the differences among us, what could it be? It is a drastic, but not a wholly inaccurate, abridgement of some very neat arguments to say that Margalit argues an essentially negative case: we do not have to find some common quality of human beings beyond the fact that they suffer not only physical pain but mental and spiritual pain. The decent society is one that aims to avoid institutional arrangements that humiliate the people it has power over.

The negative, indirect justification for human dignity, which justifies nonhumiliation, is based on the idea that any sort of cruelty toward man or beast is wrong. But only people suffer from the sort of cruelty that is humiliation—for example, having one’s stammer mimicked—and a decent society is one that eradicates abuse, where humiliation is a particular form of abuse. The requirement of eradicating all cruelty, including humiliation, does not require any moral justification in its turn, since the paradigm example of moral behavior is behavior that prevents cruelty. This is where justification comes to an end.

It is not quite true that Margalit stops exactly there; the aims of decency expand a bit as he goes along. He finally settles for the idea that the evils against which we are guarding center on dehumanization—taking away people’s control over their lives, treating them like animals or machines, and excluding them either from particular societies, or in the ultimate humiliation, from the human race as such. It is mostly in the context of a functioning welfare state that The Decent Society explores these ideas. Even where there is no desire to humiliate people who are the intended beneficiaries of our welfare institutions, it can be hard to do them good without doing them harm as well. It is, for instance, quite difficult to devise ways of ensuring that people on welfare are not cheating without subjecting them to humiliating investigations. But Margalit is clear that having an inspector check on whether a woman has a man in the house is not the worst of humiliations. As to what that might be, we have the example of the Nazi extermination camps.

Margalit has analyzed the Holocaust elsewhere as a demonstration of what a decent society is not, and therefore as something that illuminates in the glare of an absolute contrast what we are looking for in a decent society.2 The Germans did not propose to exterminate only the Jews; they seriously contemplated destroying all Slavic peoples, and even before the war they had begun to kill off their own mentally handicapped. They did their best to exterminate Gypsies, and they treated them abominably before they murdered them; but they did not humiliate them as they humiliated the Jews. What made the German treatment of the Jews unique was that it was essential to their killers that they died a humiliating death. They did not merely die—arithmetically speaking, the Germans brought about the deaths of many more Aryans than Jews—but were killed in ways intended to emphasize that in German eyes they were not members of the same species as their killers.

The greater part of The Decent Society applies these thoughts to social life, first considering at a relatively high level of abstraction their implications for our treatment of cultural and other minorities, and finally discussing the institutional details. Admirers of the British sociologist T.H. Marshall (the author of Citizenship and Social Class, still one of the best defenses of the welfare state fifty years after it was published) will not be surprised to find him quoted approvingly. Marshall held that citizenship in the modern state had to include not only access to legal justice and the right to vote but access to decently paid employment, health care, and security in old age. Margalit endorses that view, and adds that part of what a decent society will secure to its least advantaged members is what he terms “symbolic citizenship,” or access to its culture.

It is in this way that Margalit returns by his own different route to the anxieties of other postwar political theorists. Like them, he is concerned with social and economic inequality, and with the plight of the poorest and least powerful. For it is obvious enough that the poorer and politically weaker you are, the more likely it is that you will suffer humiliation—both retail and wholesale. The hard-up possessor of a Harvard Ph.D. perhaps has resources for holding his own against the snobbery of the rich or the contempt of the politically powerful. But most poor people are also poorly educated, and badly equipped to meet snobbery with a snobbery of their own. They are likely to be dependent on government programs, and while that in itself may not be humiliating but a matter of right, they are vulnerable to slighting and contemptuous treatment by officials. The horror of Nazi policies of extermination is that the exclusion they envisaged was exclusion from the human race as such; but even societies that are generally decent may find it difficult to make sure that the poor, the weak, and the incompetent are not excluded from everything valuable, short of life itself.

Avishai Margalit’s position is one that defies classification in current American politics. He has none of the American liberal’s obsession with constitutional rights, even though he has his own reasons for objecting to state religions, and is as emphatic as anyone else in insisting that we can’t have a decent society without curbing arbitrary power. Conversely, he has what may look at first sight something like the American conservative’s appreciation of the extent to which we are all the products of particular cultures, and not the free-floating individuals of the liberal imagination; but he has none of the American conservative’s hatred of the welfare state.

He readily admits that the sort of bureaucracy that a welfare state inevitably brings with it may exact its own humiliations even as it fends off others—but he also takes it for granted that politics is an untidy activity in which we can at most make better rather than worse compromises. All of which is to say that Margalit’s conception of a decent society is close to the sort of European, social-democratic conception that has been under pressure for the past fifteen years. It has been beset by fiscal crisis, by tensions caused by mass immigration, by the schemes of wild-eyed enthusiasts for laissez-faire, and not least by a general forgetfulness about why it mattered so much to build such a society after World War II. Not much of this troubled recent history appears in these pages, but only someone with an acute sense of that history and of the achievements of the last forty years could have written a book like The Decent Society.

This Issue

July 11, 1996