Judith N. Shklar

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Judith N. Shklar
Born(1928-09-24)September 24, 1928
DiedSeptember 17, 1992(1992-09-17) (aged 63)
Alma materMcGill University
Harvard University
Scientific career
FieldsPolitical science
InstitutionsHarvard University

Judith Nisse Shklar (September 24, 1928 – September 17, 1992) was a political theorist, and worked at Harvard University as the John Cowles Professor of Government.


Judith Shklar was born in Riga, Latvia to Jewish parents who fled there from World War II when she was thirteen. She graduated from McGill University and received B.A and M.A. degrees in 1949 and 1950. She received her Ph.D degree from Harvard University in 1955.

After graduation, Shklar became a faculty member at Harvard University and spent her entire academic career there. She was the first tenured woman in Harvard's Government Department. She was also president of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy and the first woman president of the American Political Science Association (1989–1990).

She was a renowned teacher and advisor, and many of her former students contributed to a volume of essays on her thought, Liberalism Without Illusions, edited by Bernard Yack. Among her celebrated former students are Amy Gutmann, Patrick T. Riley, Nancy Rosenblum, Bernard Yack, Rogers Smith, Melissa Williams, and Tracy Strong.


Shklar's thought centered on two main ideas. The first being that cruelty is the worst evil, which she touches on in her essay The Liberalism of Fear (1989) and elaborates more fully in Putting Cruelty First, an essay in Ordinary Vices. Her second main idea concerns the "liberalism of fear" and is founded on her view that cruelty is the worst evil and that governments are prone to abuse the "inevitable inequalities in power" that result from political organization. Based on these views she advocates constitutional democracy,[1] which she sees as flawed, but still the best form of government possible, because it protects people from the abuses of the more powerful by restricting government and by dispersing power among a "multiplicity of politically active groups" [2]

Shklar stated that "Every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of his or her life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult" and that this "is the original and only defensible meaning of liberalism" [2]

She described rights less as absolute moral liberties and more as licenses which citizens must have in order to protect themselves against abuse.

Shklar was deeply interested in injustice and political evils. She claimed that "philosophy fails to give injustice its due," that is, most past philosophers have ignored injustice and talked only about justice, likewise they have ignored vice and only talked about virtue. In Ordinary Vices and The Faces of Injustice Shklar attempts to fill this gap in philosophical thought, drawing heavily on literature as well as philosophy to argue that injustice and the "sense of injustice" are historically and culturally universal, and are very important for modern political and philosophical theory.


Professor Shklar wrote many influential books and articles on political science including:

  • After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (1957)
  • Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials (Harvard University Press, 1964, ISBN 0-674-52351-2)
  • Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory (1969)
  • Freedom and Independence: A Study of the Political Ideas of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (1976)
  • Ordinary Vices (1984) – A collection of six essays on the ordinary vices of cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, betrayal, and misanthropy.
  • Montesquieu (1987) – An introduction to the thought of Montesquieu.
  • The Faces of Injustice (1990) – Three essays on injustice: "Giving Injustice Its Due," "Misfortune and Injustice," and "The Sense of Injustice."
  • American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (1991).

Several of her essays, including the "classic" [3] The Liberalism of Fear, have been collected in two posthumous volumes from the University of Chicago Press, Political Thought and Political Thinkers, edited by Stanley Hoffmann (1998), and Redeeming American Political Thought.


  1. ^ Judith Shklar, Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials (Harvard University Press, 1964, ISBN 0-674-52351-2).
  2. ^ a b Judith Shklar, The Liberalism of Fear (written in 1989, first major publication 1998)
  3. ^ Vladimir Shlapentokh and Eric Beasley, Restricting Freedoms: Limitations on the Individual in Contemporary America (2013)

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