Years ago, in his book The Ethics of Memory (2002), Avishai Margalit described two different kinds of philosophers: “i.e. philosophers,” who are committed to definitions and distinctions, and “e.g. philosophers,” who are committed to examples and illustrations. This is a more fruitful distinction than the standard one between Anglo-American and Continental philosophy: i.e. philosophers are indeed likely to be Anglo-American, but e.g. crosses all geographical boundaries.

Dominique Nabokov

Avishai Margalit, Berlin, 2012

Margalit is very good at i.e.-ing (as this distinction, and many others, demonstrate), but he is fundamentally an e.g. philosopher. For one thing, he doesn’t use “stylized” hypotheticals (the trolley problem, the fat man on the bridge) to advance his arguments; instead, he argues through stories taken from history, literature, and his own life. But the e.g. preference doesn’t have to do only with method; it also shapes the content of Margalit’s books. He is immensely learned and analytically skillful, but he writes about what I think of as down-home topics. He is a philosopher indeed, though none of his subjects are common in the literature of academic philosophy.

His last book before On Betrayal was On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (2010), which focused on examples like the compromise on slavery that made the ratification of the US Constitution possible, the Munich Agreement, and the return of Russian prisoners of war to Stalin’s Soviet Union after World War II. The book before that was The Ethics of Memory. Based on lectures first delivered in Germany, it included a discussion of how Germans should and should not remember the Holocaust. Before that, The Decent Society (1996) described the indecency of humiliation and cruelty and provided a radical alternative to standard philosophical descriptions of the just society.

Justice is a highly abstract concept in philosophical treatises. Humiliation and cruelty in Margalit’s hands are the very opposite: read his examples and feel the indecency. His first book, Idolatry (1992), written with Moshe Halbertal, is about forms of idol worship from theology to politics. The first chapter, “Idolatry and Betrayal,” anticipates his newest book, which is about the experience of betraying and being betrayed: he writes about adultery, apostasy, and treason.

The range of Margalit’s examples is astonishing, and since it is central to his overall philosophy, I want to illustrate it. Here is a list of the events, people, and books that he mentions (some of them briefly, some discussed at length) between pages 85 and 141 of On Betrayal: the Donatists in North Africa in the time of Augustine, Dona Flor in Jorge Amado’s novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Oedipus Rex, Napoleon on his way to Moscow, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, S.Y. Agnon’s The Doctor’s Divorce, the Stasi files, the Anglican marriage rite, Mormon marriage, spy novels, Nelson Mandela, Pride and Prejudice, the book of Deuteronomy, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, an Israeli children’s song, Dante’s Beatrice, Julius Caesar, Anna Karenina, the Mossad, Bernard Madoff, and Carlo Ponzi. He’s not showing off; each example, however improbably, moves the argument along.

Two strong distinctions are central to all of Margalit’s arguments: first, between thick and thin human relations, and second, between ethics (which deals with the thick) and morality (which deals with the thin). Thick relations begin with family and friends but can be extended in various directions. In Idolatry, Margalit and Halbertal write about the extension of such relations to the religious community and particularly to biblical Israel. In the three books on memory, compromise, and now betrayal, the political extension of family relations is probably the most important—to the nation conceived as a fellowship of unknown fellows and also to sects, parties, and movements. Members of groups like these have a common life shaped by geography, ethnicity, religion, or ideology. Because of one or more of these commonalities, the members also share a history and a collective memory facilitated, in the case of the nation, by public holidays, commemorative rituals, monuments, and museums. Ethics, according to Margalit, governs our thick relations, our lives with lovers, friends, fellow believers, and fellow citizens. This is where betrayal occurs.

Thin relations are our relations to strangers outside any fellowship, to humanity in general. Nothing is shared except our common humanity: not history, memory, belief, or political commitment—not even the routines of everyday life. There is no local space; the world is humanity’s space. Morality rules our human relations, all our dealings with strangers. In The Ethics of Memory Margalit sums up the difference: “Morality is long on geography and short on memory. Ethics is typically short on geography and long on memory.” Philosophers generally prefer morality because of its universal scope; ethics matters a lot to the rest of us.

Margalit is a connoisseur of thick relations. That doesn’t mean that he loves or admires every community. He isn’t, in fact, a communitarian, but he is much more knowledgeable about and comfortable with communities (and in communities) than most philosophers are, and so he is very good at recognizing when they go wrong. They go wrong when the ethical community is unconstrained by morality—when a tightly knit family protects a murderer, say, or when a nation-state refuses asylum to desperate foreigners. Margalit’s example is the officer corps of the French army during the Dreyfus Affair: “bonded together by the high ideal of defending the nation’s honor” and radically unwilling to accept any moral constraint.


At the beginning of On Betrayal, Margalit writes that his real subject is fraternity, the forgotten or neglected piece of the revolutionary trinity. Fraternity would seem a strong example of thick relations, and Margalit believes that “only a society with a strong sense of fraternity has the potential to bring about justice.” (That the welfare state is strongest in relatively homogeneous societies, as in Scandinavia, is the political science equivalent of this notion.) But the idea of fraternity, he writes, “reeks…of sentimentality”; it sounds like some “premodern leftover from a medieval guild’s banquet”—and Margalit is fiercely hostile to kitsch. So he decided to approach fraternity indirectly “through its pathology, which is betrayal.” Betrayal is the breaking of thick relations, but we can’t understand its seriousness unless we understand what thickness—fraternity and solidarity—means in human life.

Human beings, all of us, need a place where we are at home, where we belong, “where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.” Only a small part of our thick relations are intimate. Familiarity, Margalit says, is more important; it is the sense of being with people who speak our language and laugh at our jokes, who share our history, who believe what we believe, or who are simply fellow citizens, something like the constitutional patriots that Jürgen Habermas first described.* It is bondedness of these kinds that makes betrayal possible.

I think that thin relations can also be betrayed (I will come back to this), but for Margalit thickness is crucial. Betrayal for him always depends on a relationship; there is always someone or some group that has been betrayed. “But self-betrayal, by my account, is neither an issue of morality nor an issue of ethics.” If I fail to live up to my own principles, I have become an inauthentic person, a man without integrity; I am acting in bad faith. But unless someone else was counting on my faithfulness, I am not a betrayer. Nor, however, is it always betrayal to walk away from a thick relation. The obligations to other people that come with thickness have great value; they also have their limits.


To end a relationship, convert to another religion, or emigrate from the country of your birth isn’t necessarily an act of betrayal. Leaving isn’t the same as breaking. In The Social Contract, Rousseau points to one critical distinction: citizens, he says, can leave the republic whenever they want to—except when the republic is in danger. Leaving at such a time is a betrayal of your fellow citizens, as is the abandonment of a lover or friend who is ill or in trouble. Breaking faith can take many forms, and how readily we recognize it and how strongly we condemn it vary with time and place. One set of examples and several crucial distinctions come in the book Margalit wrote before On Betrayal.

In On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, Margalit has a chapter on sectarianism, which is an early discussion of betrayal. Sects are driven by a “religious” view of association, which Margalit distinguishes from an “economic” view—sectarian militants don’t aim at maximizing individual well-being. They are focused, instead, on the meaning and value of their common life or on the sacred purpose of their party or movement. Hence sects are a strong example of a thick relation, and one manifestation of their thickness is a fierce devotion to the sacred purpose and a fierce aversion to compromise, which is always understood as betrayal. The sectarian “would rather split the party than split the difference.” “He finds compromise a sellout, a capitulation, a betrayal of the cause.” Margalit’s examples are mostly religious (the Khawarij in early Islam, the Donatists, the Dead Sea sectarians), but his interests are primarily political. His chief purpose is a critique of sectarianism in the name of a social democratic politics: “Sectarianism is utterly incompatible with social democracy.”

Of course, it is a standard leftist criticism of social democrats that they are much too ready to compromise. And some compromises are indeed unacceptable—though Margalit assigns the label “rotten” only to compromises with indecent regimes or with political forces that aim at indecency, that is, humiliation and cruelty. What some leftists condemn as “lesser evilism” often refers to a commendable compromise—as do many efforts to improve the lives of working people, even when they fall short of socialist rectitude. But it is precisely these efforts that are often called betrayals. The solidarity of the socialist or libertarian sect has been broken, and the men and women who make the compromises are criticized for selling out when they should have been holding out for the full ideological program.


Is this an ethical betrayal for a moral (universal) purpose? In domestic politics, it is best described as a conflict between a narrow and a broad solidarity: the compromisers have chosen the working class or their fellow citizens over their sectarian comrades—a social democratic choice. They faced an ethical dilemma and made an ethical decision.

But the case may be different in international politics. Margalit calls the Munich Agreement a rotten compromise because it strengthened the Nazi regime. Curiously, he doesn’t call it a betrayal of the Czechs—perhaps because Czechoslovakia was, as Neville Chamberlain said at the time, “a far away country” about which “we know nothing.” Relations between Czechs and Brits were thin. And yet Clement Attlee spoke the truth about Munich: “We have seen today a gallant, civilized, and democratic people betrayed and handed over to a ruthless despotism.” Perhaps Attlee believed that all democrats were in a thick relation with one another: he was an internationalist. But Munich seems better understood as a case where morality, not ethics, was betrayed.

So Margalit is probably wrong when he writes that “where there is no thick relation there is no betrayal.” The Czechs were betrayed. But he is right to insist that it is through our thick relations that we learn what betrayal is and why it is (almost always) wrong. In thick relations like love and friendship betrayal is a kind of “epistemic shock”: I thought that I was special to this other person, that we belonged to each other, that we could rely on each other even in desperate times. But I’m not special; I don’t belong; I’ve been replaced; I can’t rely on him/her at any time. The effect of betrayal is disorientation; the world is suddenly less comprehensible and less secure.

Political betrayal, treason, is obviously not the same kind of personal shock, but it can produce a somewhat similar loss of security. In a national crisis, and especially in wartime, we need to be able to trust our fellow citizens—and this need extends to the organizations that are intended to defend us all. The intelligence agencies of the state, Margalit writes, retain their hold on notions like loyalty and betrayal because they are perceived as protecting the vital interests of the community. That’s why stories of traitors in the CIA or, better, in MI5 are so gripping. “The organization may be cold, but it is in the service of something hot.”

Collaboration with an occupying enemy is another betrayal of one’s fellow citizens—Norway’s Vidkun Quisling is the standard case. Margalit chooses Marshal Pétain for his own case study; his argument takes many pages and is an impressive example of an analytic philosopher deeply engaged in a history infinitely more engaging than any hypothetical construct. (There is an equally remarkable discussion of the first-century Jewish traitor Josephus, who wrote a classic defense of Judaism.)

Was Pétain a traitor? He claimed to have saved France from “Polonization,” that is, from a far more brutal Nazi occupation. It may well be that the claim was justified, and if that is true, wasn’t Pétain’s collaboration an act of loyalty to his fellow citizens—or to most of them? Some 77,000 French Jews were killed by the Nazis, but Pétain’s defenders can argue that some 270,000 survived, a far higher proportion than in countries that resisted more forcefully the Nazi occupation. Margalit is interestingly hesitant here, but he finally comes down against the marshal: Pétain, he says, betrayed the “general will” of the French people—even if he did not betray “the will of all,” which Rousseau famously contrasted with the “general will.” We learn the “will of all” by reading the opinion polls.

How do we learn the “general will”? Margalit’s appeal is to the history of France, to the community of memory, to the Revolution and the Republic. Thick relations have a Burkean quality; they “can be relations with the dead as much as with the living.” We are bound together by the values that previous generations created and sustained. So Pétain made the wrong moral choice by siding with a regime “set on destroying the idea of a shared humanity.” He made the wrong ethical choice because he betrayed “the people with whom he felt he shared strong thick relations by debasing the values of their shared past.” He betrayed revolutionary liberty and equality as well as fraternity.

Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, Florence

Valentin de Boulogne, Denial of Saint Peter, circa 1615–1617; the painter is discussed by Ingrid D. Rowland in this issue


One special feature of Margalit’s work is his interest in religion and his sensitivity to its part in shaping both thick (particularist) and thin (universalist) relations. He is himself a secular Jew, but religion has an important place in all his books; Idolatry, his first, is a prime illustration. Written with Moshe Halbertal, a religious Jew who is also, like Margalit, one of Israel’s leading leftist intellectuals, Idolatry describes what we might think of as the first documented betrayal: the repeated abandonment of Israel’s God by the children of Israel.

The covenant between God and Israel is often portrayed in familial terms, sometimes as a marriage, so that idolatry is a kind of adultery; it is also sometimes portrayed as a parent–child relation, so that idolatry is an example of ingratitude. Imagine God’s reproach: After all I did for you! In On Betrayal, Margalit suggests that Christianity replaced the family and its covenant with God with the band of friends—which is open to universal extension. Jesus’s disciples break with their own families in order to join the band. “Judas’s betrayal is the betrayal of the ultimate friend.”

But I am less interested here in Margalit’s illuminating discussion of Judaism and Christianity than in his more general take on religion. In the preface to On Betrayal, he writes, “Religion is particularly attuned to human vulnerabilities, which are related to betrayal.” The sentence is puzzling and never explained. What are these vulnerabilities? I have tried to track Margalit’s possible meaning, without any assurance that I’ve gotten it right. Perhaps the simplest answer is that religion produces especially thick “thick relations,” as in the religious view of association that makes for sectarian fierceness. “It is not necessary,” Margalit writes, “to be religious in order to be sectarian, but it helps.”

Similarly, the vulnerability in behavior that is most often at issue in On Betrayal is an overextended commitment, more than frail human beings can sustain. The 613 commandments delivered at Sinai are a nice example (not Margalit’s). There is an old story that the Israelites woke the morning after the revelation and hurried away from the mountain: they didn’t want any more laws. They probably knew that they would not obey the laws they had already been given.

Peter’s three denials of Jesus derived, perhaps, from a relationship too encompassing or too fraught for ordinary men and women. Margalit says simply, “The flesh is weak: even the truest of the disciples…was incapable of being loyal enough.” But the flesh of patriots and political partisans is equally weak. Does religion produce unusual extremes of commitment and then radical breaks with those commitments?

The breaks happen in politics too, though perhaps with greater intensity in religion. But religion also provides remedies for human frailty. In his book on memory, Margalit has a complicated but generally sympathetic account of religion’s central part in shaping our ideas about forgiveness—and forgiveness would seem to be a way of minimizing the consequences of our vulnerability. Its political version is amnesty. The contrast between these two may suggest what is special about religion. Religious men and women, despite the depth of their commitment, may be more ready to recognize and make their peace with the weakness of their fellows. But there is no evidence of such readiness among today’s zealots who see treason against God everywhere and are eager to punish it.

Greed is one reason for betrayal: think of Judas’s thirty pieces of silver. But it would have been worse, Margalit argues, if Judas had betrayed Jesus out of conviction. “Betraying a faith, a creed, out of conviction is…worse than doing it for money.” Betrayal driven by belief confers moral worth on the new creed and denies the value of the old. For example, the people who spied for the Soviet Union because they were committed Communists seem worse than those who spied for money—though the first group would claim that their commitment made treason a moral act. Perhaps this is the vulnerability that religion is specially attuned to: our openness to a kind of moral fervor that overrides all other attachments. When politics produces the same fervor, we call it religious.

But does moral fervor really make betrayal worse than greed (or lust or any other nonideological or irreligious motive)? What about someone who betrays Stalin’s Soviet Union out of a love of freedom or a sense of decency? Margalit’s response poses problems and is certain to be controversial, but I think it is right. A regime like Stalin’s does not deserve anyone’s loyalty, and so it can’t be betrayed.

But one’s fellow Soviet citizens can be betrayed. If their lives are threatened by a murderous enemy, one owes them loyalty—and betrayal motivated by ideological or religious fervor denies the value of their lives in an especially radical way. This is how Margalit deals with the famous example of Albert Camus and his mother. Given the complicity of the Pied Noir community in the oppression of the Algerians, it would not have been a betrayal of Camus’s mother or of his “people” to support the FLN—until the fln launched a terrorist campaign against the Pied Noir and endangered his mother.

At the beginning of On Betrayal, Margalit poses a question that we are meant to keep in mind throughout our reading of his book: Is betrayal losing its hold? Have we become casual or tolerant or indifferent when we think about adultery, apostasy, and treason? Margalit addresses this question at many points without ever offering a definitive answer. But the book as a whole is an answer: betrayal still matters, still moves us in critical ways, whenever relations are thick.

One might think differently. Consider the three prime examples of betrayal. Given contemporary ideas about sexual life, adultery doesn’t inspire the condemnation that (we believe) it once did. Renouncing one religion and joining another, the definition of apostasy, is pretty routine in America today (though definitely not in other parts of the world); it is simply an exercise of our freedom of conscience. Treason is harder, but before the revival of populist nationalism, when many people thought they were living in a post-Westphalian age, even treason seemed less horrific than it once did.

None of this is wrong, but it doesn’t match up with our everyday experience. We still need and seek thick relations. From Margalit’s account of those relations, the trust they involve, and the part they play in our sense of ourselves and our place in the world, readers might regain, if it was ever lost, a belief in the seriousness of betrayal. Again, betrayal isn’t leaving a relation but breaking it—and breaking it in a way that hurts, that leaves the other or others vulnerable, frightened, alone, at a loss. It is a simple truth of our thick relations that we don’t expect betrayal—and that is what makes it so devastating.

Margalit writes about acts of betrayal in what he calls a “plebeian conversational style [that] expresses a yearning for concreteness. Betrayal calls for concreteness.” Indeed it does, but it isn’t unique in this respect. All the subjects of Margalit’s books call for concreteness. That is the promise, and here the achievement, of an e.g. philosopher.