The contract of mutual indifference

Political philosophy after the Holocaust

By Norman Geras

The contract of mutual indifference


  • eBook
  • Hardcover

Book Information

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-0475-5
  • Pages: 200
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £12.99
  • Published Date: July 2020
  • BIC Category: PHILOSOPHY / Political, Ethical Issues & Debates, Political Theory, Social & political philosophy, Ethics & moral philosophy, Ethics & Moral Philosophy, Humanities / Social & political philosophy, Ethical issues & debates, PHILOSOPHY / Social, PHILOSOPHY / Ethics & Moral Philosophy
  • Series: Manchester University Press


'The idea which I shall present here came to me more or less out of the blue. I was on a train some five years ago, on my way to spend a day at Headingley, and I was reading a book about the death camp Sobibor... The particular, not very appropriate, conjunction involved for me in this train journey...had the effect of fixing my thoughts on one of the more dreadful features of human coexistence, when in the shape of a simple five-word phrase the idea occurred to me.'

The contract of mutual indifference

In this classic work, newly reissued here with a preface by Oliver Kamm, Norman Geras discusses a central aspect of the experience of the Holocaust with a view to exploring its most important contemporary implications. A bold and powerful synthesis of memorial, literary record, historical reflection and political theory, Geras's argument focuses on the figure of the bystander - the bystander to the destruction of the Jews of Europe and the bystander to more recent atrocity - to consider the moral consequences of looking on without active responses at persecution and great suffering. This book argues that we owe a duty of help to those who are suffering under terrible oppression.

Geras contends that the tragedy of European Jewry - so widely pondered by historians, social scientists, psychologists, theologians and others - has not yet found its proper reflection within political philosophy. Attempting to fill the gap, he adapts an old idea from within that tradition of enquiry, the idea of the social contract, to the task of thinking about the triangular relation between perpetrators, victims and bystanders, and draws a sombre conclusion from it. Geras goes on to ask how far this conclusion may be offset by the hypothesis of a universal duty to bring aid.

The contract of mutual indifference is an original and challenging work, aimed at the complacent abstraction of much contemporary theory-building. It is supplemented by three shorter essays on the implications of the Jewish catastrophe for conceptions of human nature and progress.


Praise for the first edition:

'In his passionate and lucid argument about political theory after the Holocaust, Geras explains his baleful titular concept: if you are unwilling to help others in their need, you cannot expect others to do the same for you. Therefore, any political philosophy which neglects the primacy of human duty to bring aid is short-sighted and shameful.'
The Guardian

'Some devote considerable time and money to combating moral catastrophes, but most of us hardly do more than lift a finger. Our behaviour is the subject of Norman Geras's thought-provoking new book. ... Geras identifies a major gap in contemporary political philosophy.'
Times Literary Supplement

'The skill of Geras's approach is to point to the wider implications of the Holocaust, while refusing to offer easy answers to the intractable questions it raises.'
New Statesman

'In a brilliant exposition, Norman Geras argues convincingly that indifference to suffering is the norm in human society. This profoundly disturbing study is a bleak commentary both on "bystanders" to the Holocaust and on our own moral emptiness.'
Ian Kershaw, University of Sheffield

'A remarkable book written with passion, compassion, and a genuine belief in the possibility of a better future. He is right to prompt us into proper consideration of what has previously been ignored.'

An impassioned plea to the reader to "consider that this has been" - the Holocaust. Geras's own thoughtful consideration shed new light on gaps and assumptions in moral and political philosophy, and asks us to revise, but not give up, hope in progress.'
Diemut Bubeck, LSE


Preface by Oliver Kamm

Part I
1 The Contract of Mutual Indifference
I 'Consider that this has been'
II A Different Kind of Contract
III The Duty to Bring Aid
IV An Open Structure of Value

Part II
2 Socialist Hope in the Shadow of Catastrophe
3 Progress Without Foundations?
4 Marxists before the Holocaust


Norman Geras was Professor of Government at the University of Manchester

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