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superficial amorality

a. Judith Shklar’s Liberalism of Fear

Throughout her work, the American political theorist Judith Shklar stressed the importance of seeing liberalism not as a utopian or perfectionistic ideal, but rather as a bulwark against tyranny and cruelty. In effect, she claimed that liberalism ought to be defined more by its opposition to oppression and nastiness than by anything else.

Shklar traces the roots of liberalism to the struggle for religious toleration in Reformation and Baroque Europe. In her model, a progressive consensus emerged in Western thought, holding that cruelty is supremely wicked. Early figures in this development include Montaigne and Montesquieu, whom Shklar contrasted with Machiavelli on this question.

This commitment to “put cruelty first” contributed greatly to the development of liberalism’s abhorrence of dictatorships of all kinds, including those of a modern totalitarian character. This implies an affirmation of memory over hope, and of sensitivity to the horrors of oppression over utopian aspiration. Not merely property rights, cultural pluralism, and the rule of law, but anti-tyranny first and foremost define the modern liberal perspective. If liberalism is rare historically and globally, this has more to do with the widespread character of cruel delusion than with any intrinsic defect on its part. For Shklar, we ought to remember at all costs the disastrous consequences of not putting cruelty first:

We must…be suspicious of ideologies of solidarity, precisely because they are so attractive to those who find liberalism emotionally unsatisfying, and who have gone on in our century to create oppressive and cruel regimes of unparalleled horror. (Shklar, 1998: 18).

Shklar’s negative liberalism has been criticised by Michael Walzer as setting reasonable anti-totalitarian boundaries for democratic action, while not recognising the importance of moving beyond them in the interest of social progress: