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2018-07-07 12:18:18

Resisting the avalanche

Bernard Williams

  • Ordinary Vices by Judith Shklar Harvard, 168pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN0674641752
  • Immorality by Ronald Milo Princeton, 273pp, £24.70, September 1984, ISBN0691066140

Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices is a wise, clever, thoughtful book about the danger and the value of various personal vices – cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery and others. Professor Shklar asks how important they are; which are worse than others; what they can positively do for society, and how their meanings differ from one society to another. She uses a wide range of writers, but her book gives far more than a well-writt

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Resisting the avalanche

Bernard Williams

  • Ordinary Vices by Judith Shklar Harvard, 168pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN0674641752
  • Immorality by Ronald Milo Princeton, 273pp, £24.70, September 1984, ISBN0691066140

Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices is a wise, clever, thoughtful book about the danger and the value of various personal vices – cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery and others. Professor Shklar asks how important they are; which are worse than others; what they can positively do for society, and how their meanings differ from one society to another. She uses a wide range of writers, but her book gives far more than a well-written set of reflections on what has been thought about these bad characteristics. It also explains and (in a fairly unassertive style) defends a certain view of society and politics, a liberal view, in terms of which these vices can be ordered and understood. The connection works in the other direction, too: if you think that cruelty, for instance, is more important than other vices, that will already lead you in certain political directions. Judith Shklar, like her heroes Montaigne and Montesquieu, thinks that cruelty is more important than anything – that it comes first, as she puts it.

She is good at detecting cruelty. She finds it, for instance, in the heart of some philanthropy, but unlike others who have made that discovery, she does not give up hating it. Moreover, unlike some others who hate cruelty, she is alert to the dangers of that hatred: in particular, its ready decline into a desolating misanthropy which can itself be a source of cruelty. It is essential to hold back misanthropy, which can destroy almost any virtue. What holds it back is not merely benevolence, or any other virtue; for Montaigne, it was uniquely friendship that ‘resists that avalanche of disgust which can at any moment overwhelm anyone’.

Because she puts cruelty first and fears misanthropy, she distrusts the special hatred that much modern feeling reserves for hypocrisy. She quotes a long passage from the ‘stunning scene’ in which Uriah Heep – ‘looking flabby and lead-coloured in the moonlight’ – explains to David Copperfield the experiences that showed him the value of being ’umble. ‘Dickens was a great connoisseur of hypocrisy,’ she writes, ‘yet he was not obsessive about it ... Why has his sense of humanity been so rare? Why are people so overwhelmed by loathing for hypocrisy?’ In answering her question, she explores, as Hegel did, the modern virtue of sincerity: in particular, a sincerity which, in the absence of agreed ethical standards, may dangerously take on the role of providing the ethical standard all by itself. She points out that those who denounced the insincerities of Victorian capitalism probably did less, in doing that, to alleviate its horrors than the liberal reformers who had their own styles of insincerity. She reasonably reminds us that in many circumstances, especially extreme ones, it may not matter very much what people’s motivations are, and a nice concern that they should match what people say can wait for less demanding times.

All this is finely done, but she gives most of her attention to self-conscious hypocrites, or at least to those who do not have to look very far to detect their own dishonesty. One of her favourite authors, Moliére, provides a gross instance, Tartuffe, and an example also of the destructive hatred of hypocrisy, in Alceste, the misanthrope, with his fear of being deceived. But that fear, which is indeed a powerful political and ethical force, is not directed only against self-conscious deceivers. Those who have been called the three great unmaskers in modern thought, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, all alert us to forms of deceit that do not merely overlay personal or social motivations, but help to constitute those motivations. In the spirit that these writers helped to create, those nowadays who are concerned with truth at all are often worried that they may be living a false life or in a false world. The impulse to uncover these falsehoods may very often leave us only in a state of unfocused, debilitating and resentful suspicion, but the impulse itself, and the desire to live truthfully, are not merely superficial features of the modern world – least of all as that world is conceived by liberalism – nor are they merely the legacy of a self-destructive Protestant Christianity (though, as Nietzsche said, they are certainly that as well).

Judith Shklar encourages us to accept a fair measure of evasion and bogusness, and so far as personal relations are concerned, she gives some good reasons for adding this to the platform of the campaign against misanthropy. But I doubt that it will be enough to stop her liberals being nagged by the need for truthfulness, or even being overcome, on a bad day, by disgust at the complacent, evasive and self-serving rubbish that piles up in our channels of communication. The aspiration for a society and a life that understand themselves, or at any rate can reasonably think that they are not based on deceit, goes deep with us: indeed, the appeal of her own text has a lot to do with that aspiration. Her book must be read in the tradition of those who force us to become undeceived about the humbug which has helped to make people too keen on killing one another.

Snobbery comes next in her catalogue after hypocrisy, and she thinks that they are connected: ‘the link,’ she writes, ‘is obvious enough: both are false claims to merit; both are expressions of utter insincerity.’ I cannot understand this, any more than her definition of snobbery as ‘the habit of making inequality hurt’. It seems to me that people can be great snobs who are entirely sincere and who also think that it would be either bad form or a waste of time to hurt those they see as their inferiors. At one point I wondered whether Judith Shklar’s account suffered from the archetypal snobbish error about snobbery – that it can afflict only those who are not actually in a superior position. But I think that the thinness of this section, the weakest in the book, comes rather from two other causes. In the first place, and very much so, she is American, and while, as she makes very clear, there is a great deal of American snobbery, it tends to be rather simple: uncomplicatedly unpalatable, like some kinds of American food. Again, snobbery, like insomnia, is something that you really find interesting only if you suffer from it. Both reasons taken together suggest that to write well on snobbery one had better be English (for instance) and a snob: Harold Nicolson, whom she quotes, did better on this tiresome subject than she does.

She scores some good hits, for all that. She points out that ‘two of Europe’s main racist theorists, Gobineau and Lapouge, were bogus counts. Snobbery and racism, in fact, belong to the same family: cousins.’ She ruthlessly nails the dangers of the radical snobbery that can lead to dazzling political ambitions in academics. She is rather too kind about this phenomenon in Britain, but she thinks that it creates ‘political expectations and daily manners that are useless and indeed self-defeating in America. The most recent public display of these illusory hopes was by the servile and fantasy-ridden court that gathered around President Kennedy.’ There is a remark about university snobbery itself, as seen in her own institution, that leaves it wonderfully unclear whether her characteristic irony is or is not in play: ‘it is a snobbery that does not follow from the recognised fact that Harvard is indeed a very great university, perhaps the greatest, but from the fancy that it is the only one that matters.’

Judith Shklar sees her book as belonging to political theory, and that is an important fact about it, particularly because some of it does not seem like that, looking rather as if its reflections lay in the ethics of individual life. But it is precisely their relations to personal morality and to individual character that define the concerns of her political theory. In one section, her excellent discussion of betrayal, her concern is directly to bring the domestic and the political together, to remind us, for one thing, how unspecial the circumstances of political treachery may be. ‘Some people are so passive and so unaware of the character and activities of their friends that they virtually collaborate in their own betrayals. The complaisant husband used to be such a figure; but a careless, class-bound intelligence service, such as the British, is no different.’ She has an outstanding section on ‘My Country or My Friends’, which is the best thing I have ever read about E.M. Forster’s famous remark to the effect that if it came to it, he hoped that he would have the courage to betray the first rather than the second. ‘Even without its heroics,’ she starts, ‘this is not an intelligent statement,’ and it is hard to see how anyone, two pages later, could disagree.

In her last chapter, Judith Shklar describes her book as ‘a tour of perplexities, not a guide for the perplexed’. In that chapter she delicately nudges our perplexities about the relations in a modern liberal state between personal character, both of citizens and rulers, and the state’s impersonal system of law and administration. There is more connection between them, she concludes, than the founders of liberalism hoped, but less, much less, than is demanded by those who see it as the business of the state to make men good. She embraces in this what she calls a ‘liberalism of fear’, and agrees with Montesquieu that ‘the real point ... is not to paint the free citizen as a virtuous person, but to insist that without freedom everyone is intolerably paralysed or demeaned.’ To put cruelty first is to acknowledge that ‘one fears nothing more than fear,’ and the political consequences of acknowledging it, she rightly claims, are enormous. Many have felt, in the past, and once again now, that it is impossible to reconcile, to the extent that liberalism needs, a state seen merely as impersonal regulation, and an ethical life understood in terms of personal character and sentiment. She does not claim to tell us how to do it, and she may possibly underestimate its difficulty: but she rightly makes this question central, and she leads us in a compelling way to some of its deepest implications.

In allocating her work to ‘political theory’, Judith Shklar implies that it is not, or not simply, philosophy. Ronald Milo’s book illustrates in this respect, as in others, her wisdom. Immorality is a competently argued, and hence all the more depressing, example of Anglo-American moral philosophy at its most arid. As is often the case in this subject, it argues for something that no sane person ever denied except in philosophy: that there are many different ways in which people may come to do the wrong thing – through having the wrong moral ideas, for instance, or having the right ones but being too weak or negligent to act on them, or simply not caring what morality says. These and other possibilities are distinguished and sensibly defended against implausible and very abstract philosophical arguments claiming that they are impossible. But the discussion is oppressively controlled by these arguments themselves, so that most of it is very thin controversy and little of it realistic moral psychology. It suffers, too, from a standard deformation of the genre, which consists in subscribing to the unity of the philosophical profession through the ages. The people referred to are those who turn up in philosophy courses: this practice excludes all great writers with three or four exceptions, and also unblinkingly brackets together geniuses of philosophy, authors of half-forgotten textbooks, and the author’s colleagues, so there is a good deal of, as it were, ‘this view is held by Aristotle, Trubshaw and, in his earlier article, Birnbacher.’

The most important weakness of Milo’s discussion, however, comes from its exclusive attachment to the notion of morality. This has two results, which together more or less kill off the inquiry before it starts. The agent who is considering what to do is represented as thinking that a certain action is ‘morally wrong’ or ‘morally right’, and the question of how his actions are related to that thought is then discussed. But this is at best a very special case. We can understand our capacity to behave badly only if we start from the obvious fact that we think most of the time in much more specific ethical terms. When we go wrong, it is often because we think, for instance, that a piece of cruelty is just, or an injustice is helpful, or that to avoid some brutal act would be cowardly. The space in which those self-deceptions can occur is the same as that occupied by sounder thoughts, and it is much larger, and provides many more hiding places, than the area provided simply by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The influence of the morality system shows up, too, in what is said about our own or others’ reproaches. The only question for Milo seems to be whether one is blamed or excused, as though we were dealing with some transcendental penal system. In fact, our ethical life is made of many more reactions than those, and they play a large part in the account of how we may live well or badly. How does ‘morality’ deal with the many reasons for behaving badly that lie in the desire to be loved? As another of its ‘temptations’, no doubt, like a craving for marmalade.

That her book is about political theory means for Judith Shklar that it is in good part about history, and one of the things that she understands historically is the abstract morality system itself, and the problems that it has generated since it came into being. This history is our history, and her book is specially rich because its psychological understanding is rooted in history; for the same reason, the historical materials she gives us are unfailingly interesting. Unlike a lot of what is called ‘moral philosophy’, her admirable book is not all about books, and when it is about books, it is about good ones, of many different kinds.

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