In her essay, “The Liberalism of Fear," philosopher Judith Shklar focuses on developing her definition of political liberalism by drawing attention to and exploring the role that cruelty plays in political and social life.

Cruelty, writes Shklar, is “the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter" (11). Such a definition is straightforward enough, and it is one with which I would agree. I would also agree with the way in which Shklar expands the definition by examining it more profoundly, and the consequences of cruelty she identifies, both those that are tangible and obvious, as well as those that are psychological and philosophical. Although Shklar passed away in 1992, the reader cannot help but think of the prescience and relevance of her philosophical conceptualization of cruelty in the context of current events, especially the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

What makes Shklar’s definition of cruelty so profound and resonant with meaning is that cruelty is not, according to Shklar, “an occasional personal inclination" (11) as some might suggest, and indeed, as some have suggested. Recall, for instance, that in the wake of the revelation of the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib that observers and commentators shook their heads and tried to explain the episode as the result of the inability of a handful of stressed out soldiers to sublimate their aggression or their sexual tensions. The general public was unwilling to consider the possibility that many more episodes of abuse, just as severe, had occurred and represented something entirely different from personal perversions of a couple of soldiers who got out of hand. Shklar’s definition of cruelty, however, explains the dynamic of what was actually happening, and what is always happening in the dynamics of cruelty. Cruelty is systemic and institutionalized, Shklar asserts; it is built into the political machine in order to prop up the powerful.

Shklar acknowledges that there are a variety of “sources of social oppression," but she writes that “none has the deadly effect of those who, as the agents of the modern state, have unique resources of physical might and persuasion at their disposal" (3). Cruelty is physical and psychological, and by “invading…the private realm" (6) of one’s being, it provokes a fear that is paralyzing for the victim. The instillation of fear is what Shklar considers to be the most dire and devastating consequence of cruelty. Fear prevents citizens from engaging fully and responsibly in society, and it also prevents them from being able to exercise personal freedom, which is the aim of liberalism according to Shklar’s philosophy. “Every adult," she writes, “should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every other adult" (3). The responsibility of the liberal political doctrine and institution, then, is to draw the line between what is an appropriate degree of control and what constitutes cruelty. Once that line is drawn, writes Shklar, “it must under no circumstances be ignored or forgotten" (6).

The responsible individual, then, takes a stand against cruelty in all of its forms because to do otherwise would be to negate the value of freedom. Shklar calls for a “prohibition of cruelty" (11), which is, unfortunately, terribly naïve, though she herself acknowledges that “one cannot rest on this or any other naturalistic fallacy" (11). Shklar rejects the idea that humans are essentially good and morally intact, and indeed, contends that the natural order—at least of political and social life—will always tend towards the abuse and imbalance of power. As participants in the political and social systems, we must work to secure “the prevention of greater cruelties" (12), and we must avoid doing so only in verbal abstractions. Shklar also contends that we must condition ourselves against “trust[ing] unconditionally" the government that maintains an “overwhelming power to kill" and perpetrate all other manner of cruelties.

Shklar’s essay is powerful precisely because it engages some timeless political and social concerns, concerns that seem particularly relevant given recent events characterized by the abuse of power and exercise of cruelty by a highly resourced and powerful country against those less powerful, including its own citizens. She argues persuasively that cruelty is the worst form of human behavior, and posits convincingly the idea that cruel behavior is not some aberration, but rather part of the social system in which we live. While cruelty seems to be a given condition of political life from Shkalr’s perspective, she does not advocate that we remain morally neutral or passive in response. Rather, we must constantly fight against cruelty in order to maintain an acceptable balance in society that promotes individual and collective freedoms. We must also work continuously to create the conditions of living that combat fear by exposing cruelty for what it is, rather than trying to pawn it off as a strange and perverse personal predilection.

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Work Cited

Shklar, Judith. “The Liberalism of Fear." Ed. Stanley Hoffman. Political Thought and Political Thinkers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.