In Ordinary Vices, Shklar took up two insights from Nietzsche. First, our fear of physical cruelty is not natural or self-evident, but the product of a particular set of historical contingencies. The modern West’s feeling of “horror” toward the bodily suffering of others is something unique in the history of the world. Inhabitants of ancient Rome, with its gladiatorial games, or the Aztecs, with their human sacrifices, reveled in cruelty that shocks and outrages us.
Our sense that all human beings are endowed with moral worth that ought not to be degraded, especially by inflicting pain, appeared to Shklar, and to Nietzsche, as the product of our peculiar religious heritage. Shklar argued that Christianity had taught Western cultures to value compassion and feel with those who suffer—but only in an “ex-Christian” and secular society can these values become paramount. Fear of cruelty to human beings can only be the worst vice for people who no longer fear God but have been enduringly shaped by their historical encounter with religion.
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