The Canon: Ordinary Vices

July 23, 2009

In her landmark 1984 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.

Treason and betrayal seem to be more problematic; yet again, no one-size-fits-all solution can serve as a response to the complexity of these two vices. What one person sees as treason to the fatherland, another person might see as a positive contribution or even regard as the truly sane response to cruelty (resistance to totalitarian regimes comes to mind immediately). Adultery, an example of betrayal, can occur between married or unmarried partners and often does destroy confidence. Yet a private breach of trust does not necessarily mean that a trusting relationship with other people is precluded. Even misanthropy does not always have to have negative consequences. It may merely be a personal protest against the brutal way the world sometimes works. It might even have some positive effects - for instance, in the form of radical critique as in Jonathan Swift's horrific A Modest Proposal.

The making of Shklar's political theory is best explained by her own eventual call for a paradigm change, namely that the history of political thought might be better understood if we were more attuned to, and began to listen to, exiled voices. Ordinary Vices can be seen as a first attempt to do exactly that - although what Shklar's phenomenology does in effect is nothing less than providing the reader with a moral analysis for modern times, not unlike that of Montaigne.

The echo of Ordinary Vices can hardly be measured in terms of high-impact journal articles. Yet impact there certainly was. The list of people who were taught by Shklar, or who were colleagues and/or friends she influenced, reads like a Who's Who of the transatlantic intellectual scene, including John Rawls, Michael Walzer, Stanley Hoffman, Stephen Holmes, Sheyla Benhabib, Quentin Skinner, Isaiah Berlin and John Dunn. She is, perhaps, best described as the thinking person's intellectual. Unlike today's "pop intellectuals", she never sought the limelight or the centre stage, but rather continued searching for the better argument. She never turned into a systems builder, a "hedgehog". Instead, she remained a "fox", changing positions all the time, as can be seen in the posthumously published Political Thought and Political Thinkers (1998) - a compelling collection for those who admire the insights of Ordinary Vices.

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