Resisting the avalanche

Bernard Williams

  • Ordinary Vices by Judith Shklar
    Harvard, 168 pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 674 64175 2
  • Immorality by Ronald Milo
    Princeton, 273 pp, £24.70, September 1984, ISBN 0 691 06614 0

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.

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