The Pound of Flesh, a Communitarian Principle

21 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2018

See all articles by Amitai Etzioni

Amitai Etzioni

The George Washington University

Date Written: March 22, 2018


In every society, people face scenarios in which one is legally entitled to take an action that would be morally wrong to carry out. A landlord, for instance, is within his rights when he throws out unpaying tenants on Christmas Eve; yet many would argue such an act is morally obscene. Indeed, so old is the question of how far to carry one’s rights that Shakespeare wove a play around this conflict, coining the phrase “the pound of flesh” — i.e. the now colloquial term for the recompense that only the most merciless among us would collect. The paper employs this idea to examine two areas of social conflict — free speech and discrimination. It argues that community members should exercise legal self-restraint to safeguard the integrity of the community writ large. Further, it draws on communitarian principles to establish a blueprint for finding the limits of how much a legally entitled individual should be expected to sacrifice by way of restraint. Finally, the paper explores how social forces drive community members toward healthier compromises that take into account the greater good by eluding the legal system, a coercive means of securing pro-social behavior.

Suggested Citation

Etzioni, Amitai, The Pound of Flesh, a Communitarian Principle (March 22, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Amitai Etzioni (Contact Author)

The George Washington University ( email )

2100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Suite 4058
Washington, DC 20037
United States

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