Thursday, August 20, 2020


Page 130 of 130 - The blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas ...
                         Judith Shklar

- You've been spending your afternoons in this heat wave at the shopping center.
- Yes.
- Do you know what I've noticed?
- What?
- You'll hardly believe it. The older and more wealthy of L.A. are not deceived about what is happening in our great country.
- You've been talking with them?
- They're the only people who talk any more.
- Talk to a stranger in a public place.
- Yes.
- They're not afraid. They're rich. They've not been trapped behind their screens, isolated from each other in self absorption.
- Have you changed your mind? Usually you're telling me Americans are obsessed by money and success.
- They are.
- They sold out.
- Sure they did.
- Why do you have any interest in them then?
- I'm interested in why our great American people don't seem to care about what's happening to them. Their country robbed by the rich. Locked in their houses. Kids in cages. 30 million unemployed. The ten richest men adding in a few months more than ten billion dollars to their already accumulated tens and hundreds of billions. Pedophilia is the favorite hobby of our leaders. Etc., etc.
- You have something to say now?
- You know how that place, Harvard, is so good at demonstrating how money corrupts your thinking? Something interesting came out of there not long ago. At the end of the 20th century they had a professor in their department of government, a German speaking Latvian Jew, an escapee from Hitler's Europe. Her name was Judith Shklar. She came up with a theory. Government is dangerous. It must be restrained from any attempt to justify its predations by any definition of human nature, whether that definition was freedom and creativity or human rights or subservience to the group. Any principle of human nature could be adopted by a government and used as a basis of, an excuse for oppression. The solution she found was a rule of government that would be self correcting: stop any fear of the cruelty of the more powerful inflicting pain on the less powerful. This rule, she thought, would limit government oppression, and restrain any effort to build up a state on the basis of a particular claim of human nature.
- Other than a general fear of the cruel actions the powerful take against the weak.
- Yes. Fear being communicable spreads into a 'climate' of fear and a sort of democratic unanimity.
- Are individual acts of injustice subject to this principle? Breach of contract, theft, assault, murder forbidden?
- They are acts it would be cruel of government, allowing them to go unchecked, to be complicit with. But in many cases of this kind remedying the fear of cruelty that one person or class of person feels would cause fear of cruelty to the persons or classes being accused. For example, I claim the way you, a more powerful person than I am, speak of Jews makes me afraid, and I demand the government remedy my fear. But the government, more powerful than you, doing so, regulating your speech, would cause you fear and pain. Cruelty balanced out by cruelty, no government action could be taken. Even in these days of the epidemic the rich having their money taken away is still felt to be an act of cruelty not to be permitted to the government.
- It isn't clear. Or am I wrong?
- No, you're not wrong. Almost anything can be considered cruel. And almost nothing. The poor feel the pain of the rich having their money and property threatened, but the rich don't give a damn about the poor. The poor are a class apart, live a different sort of life; they sell themselves as slaves by the hour to their masters in corporate offices and factories.
- Why do the poor fear cruelty to the rich but the rich don't fear cruelty to the poor?
- The rich have lives in which freedom can still be practiced, and the poor do not. The rich do not feel the pain of the poor. But being deprived of money and property is something the poor have experienced and so they do fear the pain the rich would experience if deprived of their money and property. The majority of the people of this country, enslaved and impoverished, unused to freedom, don't fear, literally don't notice the cruelty inflicted on them by the government, by the rich monopolizing markets and buying politicians.* Shklar's theory doesn't work because class relations develop without being considered cruel, and once they've been created, indifference of the rich to the poor (and the poor to themselves) follows, rendering protection of the people from their government, authorized exclusively by fear of cruelty, impossible.

Further Reading:
Indifference Revisited
What A Billionaire Deserves
What Is Capitalism?
* Judith Shklar: 'If citizens are to act individually and in associations, especially in a democracy, to protest and block any sign of governmental illegality and abuse, they must have a fair share of moral courage, self-reliance, and stubbornness to assert themselves effectively. To foster well informed and self-directed adults must be the aim of every effort to educate the citizens of a liberal society. There is a very clear account of what a perfect liberal would look like more or less. It is to be found in Kant's Doctrine of Virtue, which gives us a very detailed account of the disposition of a person who respects other people without condescension, arrogance, humility, or fear. He or she does not insult others with lies or cruelty, both of which mar one's own character no less than they injure one's victims. Liberal politics depend for their success on the efforts of such people, but it is not the task of liberal politics to foster them simply as models of human perfection. All it can claim is that if we want to promote political freedom, then this is appropriate behavior.'