The vision of the political on Shklar’s terms seems rather pessimistic, if not ‘dystopic’ (Benhabib 1996). Her suggestion for dealing with the conflictual political situation is, again, negative: The Faces of Injustice analyses the (epistemological) resources of conceptualising injustice. The negative approach—injustice rather than justice—is a result of the focus on unavoidable and irreducible conflict in the political sphere. Injustice and fear are conceptually related, as Bajohr argues: the primary and secondary notions of fear ‘are closely intertwined with a third, transcendental principle, which describes conditions of the possibility for articulating a sense of injustice’ (Bajohr 2019, p. 168). Acknowledging the conceptual status and normative significance of the political notion of fear thus makes possible a liberal perspective on injustice: ‘This is where the third source of normativity comes in; after the empirical and the formal, it is a transcendental argument. It looks at the condition of the possibility for giving voice to one’s sense of injustice’ (Bajohr 2019, p. 171). This condition is, for Shklar, the articulation of experiences of injustice in a democratic system.
As a liberal, Shklar relies on the rule of law as a means of dealing with injustice. Yet she shares the non-ideal intuition that the mere establishment of the rule of law or ideal principles of justice is not sufficient. This is because, as Shklar argues, the boundary between misfortune and injustice is historically variable:
When is a disaster a misfortune and when is it an injustice? Intuitively the answer seems to be quite obvious. If the dreadful event is caused by the external forces of nature, it is a misfortune and we must resign ourselves to our suffering. Should, however, some ill-intentioned agent, human or supernatural, have brought it about, then it is an injustice and we may express indignation and outrage. As it happens, in actual experience this distinction, to which we cling so fervently, does not mean very much. The reasons become clear enough when we recall that what is treated as unavoidable and natural, and what is regarded as controllable and social, is often a matter of technology or of ideology or interpretation. (Shklar 1990, p. 1)
Hence, injustice cannot not be assessed independently of its historical context. It is precisely for this reason that ideal principles of justice are too rigid to grasp the complexity of political conflicts. This should not be understood as a relativist approach that makes injustice dependent on the dominant culture or ideology. What Shklar points out is that something that was a misfortune in the past (e.g. dying in an earthquake or of a disease) can become an injustice due to technological, medical, or social progress of protecting persons from existential risks.
Considering its focus on injustice and on the respective circumstances of an unjust situation, Shklar’s approach mirrors the concern of non-ideal theory. Yet there is a crucial difference between these two approaches: non-ideal theory essentially remains dependent on Rawlsian methodology, which is why injustice in fact remains a secondary phenomenon. Shklar’s non-utopian approach, on the other hand, operates without recourse to an ideal theory; starting with the avoidance of the summum malum hence opens up a perspective on injustice without having to take the detour of ideal theory.
For Shklar, the distinction between injustice and misfortune is made possible through the ‘sense of injustice’:
What, however, is the sense of injustice? First and foremost it is the special kind of anger we feel when we are denied promised benefits and when we do not get what we believe to be our due. It is the betrayal that we experience when others disappoint expectations that they have created in us. And it has always been with us. (Shklar 1990, p. 83)
The sense of injustice mirrors the primary concept of fear as its empirical foundation:
For while we internalize the ethos of inequality and accept it as right and just, we do not lose our natural ability to feel deprived, humiliated and offended when our expectations as human beings are not met, when our claims are ignored, […]. And many of our expectations are rooted in nature, not in culture. (Shklar 1990, p. 87)
Just like the primary notion of fear, the sense of injustice is hardwired into human nature and therefore not reducible to the given circumstances. And like fear, the sense of injustice has a secondary and political notion, too: ‘we are not only aroused on our own behalf but emphatically also when the indignities of injustice are experienced by other people. The sense of injustice is eminently political’ (Shklar 1990, p. 83). In its secondary, political dimension, the sense of injustice has a corrective function: ‘As long as we have a sense of injustice, we will want to understand not only the forces that cause us pain but also to hold them responsible for it’ (Shklar 1990, p. 5). In order to detect shifts from misfortune to injustice, Shklar suggests taking seriously experiences of injustice. Her argument for proceeding in this way lies in the specific and unique knowledge that victims of injustice have:
The perceptions of the victims and those who, however remotely, might be victimizers tend to be quite different. Neither the facts nor their meaning will be experienced in the same way by the afflicted as by mere observers or by those who might have averted or mitigated the suffering. These people are too far apart to see things the same way. (Shklar 1990, p. 1)
This specifically epistemological aspect of injustice has become a central aspect of the debate on injustice. In support of Shklar’s claim that victims of injustice have specific knowledge of injustice, e.g. Medina (2013) analyses the respective epistemic capacities of persons belonging to socially marginalised vs. privileged groups. He argues that there are three epistemic virtues marginalised persons are more likely to possess, namely epistemic humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; whereas persons occupying privileged social positions tend to develop epistemic vices, notably epistemic arrogance, laziness, and close-mindedness, which can result in ‘active ignorance’ (Medina 2013, pp. 27–55). The articulation of marginalised perspectives can lead to ‘epistemic friction’ (Medina 2013, p. 46) in the public sphere. Hence, the marginalised and the victims of injustice have ‘knowledges from below’ (Medina 2011, p. 21), which can, in Shklar’s terms, eventually lead to a shift in the boundary between misfortune and injustice if they are taken seriously. The articulation of individual experiences of injustice can be a valuable resource for political change, which in turn can benefit other people besides the original ‘victim’ too. Paying attention and taking seriously experiences of injustice can thus help remedy one type of epistemic injustice, namely ‘testimonial injustice’ (Fricker 2007, p. 41), which she describes as the denial of proper credibility regarding the testimony of victims of injustice.
Despite these apparent benefits of the victim-centred approach on the epistemology of injustice, it suffers from a crucial shortcoming: victims are neither always capable nor willing to identify themselves correctly. Two cases are conceivable: first, cases in which someone does not identify themselves as a victim of injustice in spite of their situation fulfilling criteria of injustice, and second, cases in which someone does believe that they have suffered or are suffering an injustice, in spite of there being no good reasons for this assumption. With Fricker, the first case is a case of ‘hermeneutical injustice’. Hermeneutical injustice consists in an agent’s inability to make sense of their own experiences due to a ‘gap in collective hermeneutical resources’ (Fricker 2007, p. 6). For instance, ‘sexual harassment’ first had to be identified as a case of inappropriate behaviour, rather than counting as ‘flirting’ (ibid., pp. 152–153). The second case, in which persons see themselves as victims without there being any good reasons for this belief, has become increasingly important in the political sphere. This phenomenon is assumed to be one of the main reasons for the recent success of populism in Western democracies (Mueller 2016). Shklar’s victim-centred approach is unable to distinguish ‘legitimate’ grievances and expressions of injustice from the unjustified resentment and perceived injustice, for example of voters who feel that they are systematically disadvantaged through processes of globalisation, and who blame the ‘liberal elites’ for their situation (Khazan 2017). In light of these two cases, the assumption that the perspective of victims of injustice can contribute substantial insights on injustice becomes doubtful.
What the latter two cases highlight is the fact that the assessment of something as an injustice must depend on more than just the victims’ perspective, and that an independent standard is required. Starting from concrete experiences of injustice hence is a rather circular approach to understanding injustice. Yet, in spite of the challenge posed through the cases of victim-misidentification, a victim-centred perspective on injustice is more promising regarding the crucial problem that rigid theories of justice entail: their insensitivity to the fact that the boundaries of injustice and misfortune are variable. Therefore, the pre-established grid of an ideal theory of justice might simply be too abstract and even lead to new instances of injustice when it is applied to complex real-world injustice. If the boundaries between injustice and misfortune are variable, theories of justice are necessarily deficient tools for recognising injustice. This is why Shklar claims that justice and injustice are asymmetrical phenomena, and injustice consequently more than the mere absence of justice (see also Heinze 2017). Therefore, the liberalism of fear with its awareness of the conflictual character of the political is particularly sensitive to injustice: ‘Actually, the most reliable test for what cruelties are to be endured at any place at any time is to ask the likeliest victims, the least powerful persons, at any given moment and under controlled conditions’ (Shklar 1989, p. 35). Precisely because the asymmetry of the political always represents a reason for fear, the people occupying the weakest positions within the political community must be taken seriously.
In order to properly process the experiences of injustice, the liberalism of fear ‘is monogamously, faithfully, and permanently married to democracy—but it is a marriage of convenience’ (Shklar 1989, p. 37). Only in a liberal democratic political system it is possible to publicly criticise public officials: ‘democracy does not fulfil its immanent promises quickly, but at least it does not silence the voices of protest, which it knows to be the herald of change’ (Shklar 1990, p. 8):
Without the institutions of representative democracy an accessible, fair, and independent judiciary open to appeals, and in the absence of a multiplicity of politically active groups, liberalism is in jeopardy. It is the entire purpose of the liberalism of fear to prevent that outcome. (Shklar 1989, p. 37)
Shklar’s emphasis on the institutional setting in liberal democracies solves the problem of selection that a purely victim-centred approach would entail: the normative, universalist framework, the avoidance of the summum malum and of the ‘fear of fear’ remains in place in the institutionalised form of a liberal democracy under the guidance of the rule of law. Consequently, she does not advocate simply giving every self-proclaimed victim ‘their due’. In this respect, the liberalism of fear is congruent with any other liberal theory. However, the non-utopian methodology enables the perspective on articulations of injustice and the voices ‘from below’, which must be heard and be given an open-minded evaluation, rather than presupposing universal consensus.
Yet there is an epistemic benefit from taking injustice as the starting point. In fact, injustice is taken to have hermeneutical priority over justice. This can be made plausible from the fact that the claim that something is unjust is made much more often than the judgement that something is just (see also Heinze 2017, p. 364; Mieth 2005). Therefore, the critical as well as emancipatory potential of articulations of injustice should not be underestimated when it comes to identifying grievances that ought to be remedied. In this sense, the perspective on, or the ‘sense of’ injustice transcends theories of justice, since it can denounce and criticise theories of justice and their outcomes themselves (Mieth 2005, p. 66). This does not mean, however, that the sense of injustice leads directly into a theory of injustice. Rather, acknowledging two distinct levels of thinking about justice and injustice explains Shklar’s ‘asymmetry thesis’: that, first, justice and injustice are asymmetrical phenomena and second, injustice can only be insufficiently understood through the lens of a theory of justice. First of all, a theory of justice remains crucial for classifying situations or actions as just or unjust. The criteria for this assessment need to come from a normative standard that is not taken from merely subjective, relative experience. This is why Shklar develops the normative principle of the avoidance of ‘fear of fear’, which is not something that results from an individual victim’s perspective but from a universal statement about power asymmetries in the political setting; and why she relies on democratic institutions for the assessment of individual claims. What the victims of injustice do know about, though, is the way in which injustice presents itself: the object(s) of fear and the means of cruelty can change depending on the respective historical circumstances. Without this universal normative standard, the identification and avoidance of cruelty and the fear of fear would become conceptually impossible. Therefore, rigid normative principles of justice and the unsystematic sense of injustice can mutually inform each other, without their relation having to be symmetrical.