Social Theory: Judith N. Shklar

18th Oct 2022 by Simon Mabon

Social Theory: Judith N. Shklar

By Amal Bourhrous.


Judith N. Shklar (1928-1992) is a political theorist of the margins. Her focus is not on the elaboration of a theory of justice, but rather on thinking politics from the perspective of injustice, hearing the voices of the victims, and taking their points of view into account. Her political theory is less concerned with the state and forms of government as theoretical concepts, and more concerned with their concrete implications for people, especially with regards to experiences of cruelty, oppression, and fear. 

Intellectual context

As a political thinker, Shklar herself has largely remained on the margins, despite being a distinguished Harvard professor, and only recently has there been a growing interest in her political theory. She is often compared to Hannah Arendt, as their biographies are similar and the political thought of one is often considered as the mirror image of that of the other (Bajohr 2021). Like Arendt, Shklar came from a Jewish family and was forced to leave her home during the second World War. Her journey as a refugee took her from Riga, Latvia to Sweden, then to the United States where she and her family were detained as illegal immigrants, before finally obtaining asylum in Canada in 1941 (Hess 2014). In the case of both Arendt and Shklar, the horrors of totalitarianism in the 20th century and the personal experience of exile and refuge largely shaped their political thought. There are, however, significant differences in their political thinking, not least the kind of liberalism each one of them propounds. While the detour by Arendt can certainly shed light on aspects of Shklar’s political theory, it is also important to consider Shklar’s ideas in their own right. Her contributions to political theory are considerable and they can also offer many insights that can be useful in the study of politics in the Middle East. 

Key argument

Shklar’s political theory is characterized by rigor and sobriety, and is strongly influenced by the skeptical tradition of Montaigne and Montesquieu. As George Kateb (1998, pp. xvi-xvii) points out, moderation and an aversion for excess are key characteristics of her thought in that “she fears elites, and she also fears ordinary people when they are amassed together in action or mobilized to act. She fears the power of the powerful and the irrationality of the many. Yet she does not want the few to disappear or the many to be dominated.”

One will not find a systematic political theory in Shklar’s work. As she herself put it, she does not engage in the kind of political theory that analyses concepts and constructs models, but seeks “a more concrete way of thinking about politics, one closer to men and events and to our historical preoccupations and institutions” (Shklar, 1984, p. 228). However, while her writings appear to be disparate – addressing different themes and engaging with a variety of thinkers and genres – in reality they are connected by a common thread: her preoccupation with cruelty, oppression, and injustice and with the possibility of preventing them and reducing their occurrence. 

Shklar approaches injustice and oppression from different angles. One of them is her sharp analysis of moral psychology. Throughout her work, but particularly in Ordinary Vices (1984), Shklar looks at the sentiments and the motives that drive human tendencies to inflict harm and to commit atrocities. Vices, she says, are not just flaws of character; they also have implications for public life. Their political dimension and their implications for government, institutions, and citizens make them relevant to liberal political theory. Of all vices, the greatest, in Shklar’s view, is cruelty. Cruelty is “the evil, the threat to be avoided at all costs” (Shklar, 1984, p. 237). 

Shklar’s focus on vices and moral psychology is not part of some belief in the perfectibility of the human moral character. Shklar is a liberal, but she defends a “barebones liberalism” independent of human virtue and free of utopian ideals, the teleology of progress, and the quest of the perfect society. Hers is a liberalism without illusions that focuses, above all, on avoiding cruelty, oppression, and fear. The liberalism of fear, Shklar writes, does not ‘offer a summum bonum towards which all political agents should strive, but it certainly does begin with a summum malum, which all of us know and would avoid if only we could. That evil is cruelty and the fear it inspires, and the very fear of fear itself” (Shklar, 1989, p. 29). 

Shklar’s plea to “put cruelty first” connects her interest in moral psychology to the analysis of the workings of power, government, and the state. As Shklar put it “while the sources of social oppression are indeed numerous, 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” (Shklar 1989, 21). The liberalism of fear never loses sight of the fact that coercion and the ability to perpetrate violence and cause fear are at the core of government and political power.

For Shklar the state is not an abstract notion, but a concrete reality, actualized through the bureaucratic apparatus of the state and the social agents who embody its authority (Benhabib 1994). The behaviour and the moral integrity of bureaucrats, public officials, and political leaders thus matter greatly because their action (or inaction) can give rise to experiences and perceptions of injustice (Shklar, 1990). Understanding the sense of injustice and taking seriously the point of view of the victims highlight the many faces of injustice, including passive injustice and injustice dressed as inevitable misfortune. In decentring the state and focusing on political experiences on the margins, Shklar thus challenges the tendency of political theory to dismiss injustice as the mere opposite of justice. 

A good example of Shklar’s way of thinking the margins is her critical account of American citizenship, which highlights the plight of the disenfranchised that have been excluded from it, namely women and slaves who were denied political rights (Shklar, 1991). Her focus on the margins also allows her to view exile as an important category in political theory, inasmuch as it illuminates the complex linkages between loyalty and political obligation. Loyalty, Shklar argues, is the emotional attachment to a group (whether defined by nationality, ethnicity, religion, ideology) while political obligation refers to compliance with a rules and laws (Shklar, 1993). Sometimes, loyalty sustains obligation, but oftentimes the two clash and collide. 

In application

Shklar’s political thought is rooted in the American and, to a lesser extent, the European context. Her critique of liberalism is mainly directed towards liberal democratic political systems, and her hope is to redeem liberal political theory. Nonetheless, Shklar’s outlook on politics, her reflections on cruelty and fear, her insistence on giving injustice its due and listening to the victims, and her thoughts on citizenship, loyalty, and exile are important beyond their original context and offer insights for the study of the Middle East. 

The resilience of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is inseparable from their control of fierce coercive states that have the ability and the means to use physical violence and brute force to dominate societies, stifle dissent, and ensure regime survival (Ayubi, 1995). Cruelty and fear are common in state-society relations in many Middle Eastern countries, and it is precisely this dimension of the power of the state and of rulers that the political thought of Shklar pays close attention to. 

However, even in authoritarian contexts, and under extremely repressive conditions, mass protests have erupted and continue to erupt throughout the Middle East, their spark often ignited by the sense of injustice harboured by the vulnerable and marginalized segments of society. The latter’s grievances include pervasive corruption, routine abuses, daily humiliations and violations of human dignity. As Shklar argued, the line separating misfortune and injustice is often a political one. The demands of social justice that have spurred protest movements in several countries contest this line and show that what is often presented as misfortune are actually deeply seated injustices. 

Shklar’s different account of American citizenship, which takes as its point of departure the disenfranchised, is also relevant for the study of the Middle East, where struggles for citizenship reflect dynamics of inclusion and exclusion along the lines of gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, tribe, and so forth. It also puts into sharp focus the precarious situation of stateless persons, refugees, illegal immigrants, and alien guest workers whose access to citizenship is greatly constrained in several Middle Eastern countries.

This discussion about inclusion in and exclusion from citizenship is also intricately connected to Shklar’s reflections on loyalty, political obligation, and exile, which are particularly useful for the study of Middle Eastern diasporas. Tensions between the sense of loyalty to a social group (national, ethnic, sectarian, religious, etc.) and political obligation to the state have informed, at least in part, the decision of many members of these diasporas to leave their countries of origin. While they may retain an emotional attachment to what they have left behind, for many of them, leaving largely signifies a withdrawal of consent to be bound by the rules and the laws of the state and a relinquishment of political obligation to it. This raises questions about the extent to which political obligation can be expected in contexts of pervasive injustice, cruelty, and fear. It also raises questions about the meaning of belonging, especially when certain loyalties collide with political obligations and demands for loyalty in host countries.


Ayubi, N. (1995) Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.

Bajohr, H. (2021) Arendt Corrections: Judith Shklar’s Critique of Hannah Arendt. Arendt Studies, 5, 87-119.

Benhabib, S. (1994) Judith Shklar’s Dystopic Liberalism. Social Research, 61(2), 477-88.

Hess, A. (2014) The Political Theory of Judith N. Shklar: Exile from Exile. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kateb, G. (1998) Foreword. In: Hoffmann, S. (ed), Political Thought and Political Thinkers. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Shklar, J. (1984) Ordinary Vices. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Shklar, J. (1989) The Liberalism of Fear. In: Rosenblum, N. (ed). Liberalism and the Moral Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shklar, J. (1990) The Faces of Injustice. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Shklar, J. (1991) American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Shklar, J. (1993) Obligation, Loyalty, Exile. Political Theory. 21(2), 181–197.

Amal Bourhrous is Researcher with the SIPRI Middle East and North Africa Programme. Her research interests include the dynamics of identity, citizenship and nation-building as they relate to statehood and sovereignty; the relationship between securitization trends and the political process; and the ways in which the wider geopolitical transformations and the new challenges to international security affect the MENA region.