THE DECENT SOCIETY by Avishai Margalit


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 Down to the last detail, an overly theoretical and abstract elaboration of exactly what would and would not comprise a decent society. In his seminal work A Theory of Justice, John Rawls postulated an ideal Kantian society designed along strict equalitarian lines. As a philosophical construct, it has been enormously influential. But in practical terms it has stood just a bit too far above the wicked ways of man. So, as a kind of compromise, Margalit (Philosophy/Hebrew Univ., Israel) offers a slightly more realizable societal framework, one in which ``institutions do not humiliate people.'' Roughly modeled on George Orwell's passionate brand of humanitarian socialism, this is the decent society, the next best thing to Rawls's ideal society. Margalit is aware of the possible problems, quibbles, and exceptions to his beautiful model, and he feels compelled to chase after all of them. With a syllogistic fervor worthy of Aristotle, he proves this, refutes that, and argues about the other, until the law of diminishing returns has taken over completely and he is seriously fretting about such venal trivialities as snobbery and gossip. While the formal logic behind his arguments is impeccable, he sometimes veers close to elaborate tautology (always a problem with such metaphor- and definition- based reasoning). And many of the assertions buttressing the high towers of theory are extremely debatable. For example: ``Punishment is the litmus test of the decent society.'' America has capital punishment. Mexico doesn't. Which is the more decent society? Even though his construct is more practicable than that of Rawls, Margalit seems less interested in political possibility than philosophical soundness, particularly in his absolutist conception of decency. Like a crossword puzzle, an ingeniously constructed matrix that cannot quite rise above being just a clever diversion.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-674-19436-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1996


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