Cover: The Decent Society, from Harvard University PressCover: The Decent Society in PAPERBACK

The Decent Society

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$30.50 • £24.95 • €27.50

ISBN 9780674194373

Publication Date: 01/13/1998


318 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches


A splendid book. It is serious without being ponderous, it is unassuming but ambitious, and it is engagingly unorthodox, both in its concerns and in the way it pursues them. At a time when the idea of decency appears in politics only in the mouths of politicians eager to keep sex off the Internet, it is a pleasure to come across an intelligent discussion of a much more serious subject, one that has had little attention from philosophers—how to build a society that doesn’t humiliate its weaker members.—Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books

Margalit’s discussion of these themes is full of deep psychological insight and philosophical precision. The book is a model of how philosophers, using only a fine attention to distinctions between similar-sounding moral terms, can help to clarify, and by doing so, purify our moral language. It is a noble addition to our understanding of what our political and moral ideals should be and it frees political reflection from the strait-jacket of pure rights talk.—Michael Ignatieff, The Times Literary Supplement

Margalit’s book offers a great deal… A decent society would have more books like A Decent Society.—Alan Wolfe, The New Republic

Arguably the most important book on social justice published since John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice 25 years ago… Margalit shows that decency is a strong moral concept in its own right. A decent society strives to eliminate the institutional humiliation of its members, which robs them of their self-respect or control over their lives.—Charles Leadbeater, New Statesman & Society

The Decent Society presents arguments in the rigorous style of British analytical philosophy about why no one should be humiliated. In an ideal world, we seek justice; in this world, we can realize decency, and the welfare state can help us to do so. To save the welfare state, we need to be reminded why we created one, which Margalit effectively does.—Alan Wolfe, Lingua Franca

[This] book explores the concepts of humiliation and respect and characterizes some of the central features of a decent society. What all cases of humiliation share in common, in Margalit’s view, is justified feeling that the actions or omissions of another indicate that one is being rejected from the human commonwealth… A highly engaging and original book. The work is sure to be important for scholars with academic interest in the topics of humiliation and self-respect in their own right. It offers timely and challenging corrective to the philosophical community’s obsession with the problems of justice. And it will be a stimulating resource for applied political theorists working on a variety of issues of cultural and social policy.—Alan Patten, Mind

Within philosophy much of the current thinking is in reaction to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, where justice is the principal value to be striven for. In The Decent Society, Avishai Margalit…offers an equally wide-ranging analysis which would see decency as the primary goal… That [the] experience [of humiliation] should be combatted is, in his view, one of the basic positions of any morality, not a conclusion that needs to be argued for. So he offers a wealth of illustrative example, from history, contemporary life, and literature. He also knows that decency is not enough—at a number of points he would favour a civilised society, one that for instance positively values cultural diversity rather than merely tolerating it. But if tolerance will avoid humiliation, and can be achieved, he is content to settle for that pro temps… To tell the story of a decent society, appealing to the honour of your hearers, in the hope of motivating people to bring its realisation about in the way that argument alone could never do, is the central goal of this challenging work.—Paul Nicholson, The Month [UK]

Margalit provocatively inquires whether a just society is also a decent society… [His] lucid exploration of decency includes insightful discussions of bureaucracy, the welfare state, punishment, and even snobbery… The Decent Society is a serious contribution to moral philosophy.Choice

The Decent Society develops with great subtlety a theme largely neglected in political philosophy since Rousseau. Alongside the denial of freedom, in a less than decent society, there can also be the humiliation that comes from second-class citizenship and the pain of exclusion from full humanity. Margalit’s account is notable for its fine discriminations, sensitivity, and care.—Stuart Hampshire

I finished reading this book with the feeling that I had had a quite wonderful experience. The tone of voice throughout the book is that of a serious but unponderous human being, continuously engaged with the reader, and determined to reason not only fairly but also graciously. The book is morally passionate, but free of rancor; it is sympathetic across a wide range of contending views, but clearly self-possessed. The book is philosophical, truly and successfully. It makes a distinctive contribution to moral philosophy and political theory.—George Kateb, Princeton University

This is a splendid book. It is an exacting account of the macro-ethics of political institutions and social practices that is also wonderfully attentive to the detail and nuance of everyday life. At its end, decency stands alongside justice as a distinctive moral idea.—Michael Walzer

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