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On Betrayal

by Avishai Margalit Harvard University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 352 pages
AU$54.99 NZ$60.86
Product Status: In Stock Now
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Adultery, treason, and apostasy no longer carry the weight they once did. Yet we constantly see and hear stories of betrayal, and many people have personally experienced a destructive breach of loyalty. Avishai Margalit argues that the tension between the ubiquity of betrayal and the loosening of its hold is a sign of the strain between ethics and morality, between thick and thin human relations. On Betrayal offers a philosophical account of thick human relations—relationships with friends, family, and core communities—through their pathology, betrayal.


Judgments of betrayal often shift unreliably. A whistle-blower to some is a backstabber to others; a traitor to one side is a hero to the other. Yet the notion of what it means to betray is remarkably consistent across cultures and eras. Betrayal undermines thick trust, dissolving the glue that holds our most meaningful relationships together. Recently, public attention has lingered on trust between strangers—on relations that play a central role in the globalized economy. These, according to Margalit, are guided by morality. On Betrayal is about ethics: what we owe to the people and groups that give us our sense of belonging.


Margalit’s clear-sighted account draws on literary, historical, and personal sources, including stories from his childhood during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Through its discussion of betrayal, it examines what our thick relationships are and should be and revives the long-discarded notion of fraternity.


1. Why Betrayal?

2. The Ambiguities of Betrayal

3. Betraying Thick Relations

4. What Is Betrayal?

5. Treason

6. Collaboration

7. A Collaborator in the Court of History

8. Apostasy

9. Class Betrayal

10. A World without Betrayal




“This book is written in the analytic style, but in Margalit’s own version of that style, which is wonderfully engaging. Margalit possesses what Keats called ‘negative capability.’ His discussion is provocative and illuminating, without reaching for any kind of irritable certainty. This allows Margalit to connect all the forms of betrayal and to explore their various versions, across many centuries and many cultures.”—Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study  


“On Betrayal seamlessly combines analytic rigor with personal memoir: its illustrative arguments are drawn from political history and Biblical commentary, from novels and biographies. It presents a lifetime of reflection on philosophic methodology: it is the culmination of Margalit’s attempts to analyze the meaning and normative force of betrayal as an essentially contested concept.”—Amélie Rorty, Tufts University
Avishai Margalit is Schulman Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.