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The European Legacy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp.

723, 2001

Philosophy, Democracy and Tyranny: Michael Walzer and Political Philosophy

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Since Athens put Socrates to death for the crime of publicly challenging the complacency of his fellow citizens, to Heideggers pragmatic complicity with Nazism, and on even to such contemporary events as Negris long incarceration at the hands of the Italian authorities, the relationship between the philosopher and the state has been a problematic one. For some, Socrates for example, philosophy is by its very nature a critical activity, the task of which is to alert us to injustice and immorality. But for others, certain modes of philosophizing potentially mask rather than reveal injustice and immorality, legitimating tyranny rather than undermining it. In the context of the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project of securing emancipation through the discovery and dissemination of universal standards of truth and justice, the universalist mode of philosophizing has increasingly become the focus of criticism. Postmodernists such as Lyotard dismiss universalist philosophies as terroristic and emphasize particularism as a means of undercutting tyranny (Lyotard 1984). There is much at stake in this debate. Documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which embody the Enlightenment emancipatory aspiration to make tyranny impossible, are now, fty years on, viewed by some as little more than vehicles for a form of cultural imperialism. Yet it remains an open question as to whether or not particularist modes of philosophizing are likely to be any more successful in undercutting tyranny than their universalist counterparts. This paper explores these issues through an analysis of the work of Michael Walzer. In a series of books and articles spanning more than two decades Walzer has consistently made the case for particularism over universalism. In his seminal work Spheres of Justice (1983a) Walzer described his own preferred position as radically particularist, and this is presented as a mode of philosophizing that avoids the fate of giving comfort to tyrants. Theories of justice, he claims, ought to be both immanent and phenomenological, which is to say they should be tied intrinsically to a cultures own shared understanding and not to abstract, universalistic principles. Walzers importance in terms of political philosophy lies precisely in the consistency with which he has defended and developed the emancipatory ideals of the Enlightenment, retaining a belief in freedom and equality, for example, but couched in particularist terms. He

School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, The University of Wolverhampton, Dudley, West Midlands, UK. ISSN 1084-8770 print/ 1470-1316 online/01/010007-17 DOI: 10.1080/10848770020026690 2001 International Society for the Study of European Ideas


therefore occupies an interesting position, distancing himself both from postmodern critics of the Enlightenment project, and from those whom the postmodernists criticize. For those of us who are interested in the fate of the Enlightenment project, the fate of Walzers project must be of interest. This paper therefore examines Walzers central claim that the particularist approach better defends against tyranny than the universalist approach.


Walzers aim in Spheres of Justice is captured in the following programmatic statement:
I want to argue that the principles of justice are themselves pluralistic in form; that different social goods ought to be distributed for different reasons, in accordance with different procedures, by different agents; and that all these differences derive from different understandings of the social goods themselvesthe inevitable product of historical and cultural pluralism. (Walzer 1983a, 6)

Walzer claims that questions of distributive justice cannot be settled by appeal to abstract and universal criteria but must instead be settled by appeal to shared meanings within a particular (yet to be speci ed) community. For Walzer, justice is tied to the social meanings of social goods. Each social good then represents a sphere within which there will be an appropriate distributive principle. The distributive principle within any given sphere will derive, not from the social good as such, but from the meaning of the good which is to be distributed. Walzers point here is that it is not just that different social goods have different distributive principles, but that what counts as a social good differs from time to time (historical pluralism) and place to place (cultural pluralism). On Walzers view, as many have pointed out, justice is just what we around here think it is and if we, for example, think it is just that society be ordered hierarchically rather than on strict egalitarian principles, then it is.1 We cannot then produce an authoritative list of social goods and their attendant distributive principles and simply apply these to all societies for this would con ict with any particular societys self-understanding of those social goods. In a crucial passage from Spheres of Justice (Walzer describes it as central to my argument) this point is forcefully reiterated:
We are (all of us) culture-producing creatures; we make and inhabit meaningful worlds. Since there is no way to rank and order these worlds with regard to their understanding of social goods, we do justice to actual men and women by respecting their particular creations. And they claim justice, and resist tyranny, by insisting on the meaning of social goods among themselves. Justice is rooted in the distinct understandings of places, honours, jobs, things of all sorts, that constitute a shared way of life. To override those understandings is (always) to act unjustly. (Walzer 1983a, 314)

For Walzer, the correct way to begin philosophizing about justice is to interpret to ones fellow citizens the world of meanings that we share rather than to fashion for oneself (what can never be fashioned for ordinary men and women) an objective and universal standpoint. The traditional way for the philosophical enterprise to get going,

Philosophy, Democracy and Tyranny

he claims, is for the philosopher to walk out of the cave, leave the city, climb the mountain. The universalist philosopher must be an outsider; standing apart from any particular community, adopting a position of radical detachment (Walzer 1981, 37981). But Walzer proposes to remain where he is in the cave, in the city, on the ground (Walzer 1983a, xiv). The link between universalism and tyranny is made explicit through Walzers account of the distinction between simple and complex equality. According to Walzer, the concern of traditional, universalist theories of distributive justice is with simple equality where a good, which is currently monopolized by an individual or an elite, is to be distributed equally around society. In other words, traditional, universalist theories of distributive justice focus on the issue of monopoly. Walzer believes that focusing on the issue of simple equality (or monopoly) lends itself to tyranny because breaking the monopoly in order to distribute the good equally necessitates both the centralization of political power and continual intervention by the state. Theories of simple equality (traditional theories of distributive justice) therefore justify massive and continuous state intervention, and Walzer clearly nds this unacceptable. Walzer fears that expansion of the state, even when that expansion takes the benevolent form of administering more and better welfare bene ts, nevertheless brings with it intensi ed social control (Walzer 1980, 33). Walzers own theory of justice is distinguished from traditional, universalist theories of justice in its focus on tyranny or dominance rather than monopoly. The issue of dominance is addressed by attending to what Walzer has called complex equality. The mistake of traditional theories of distributive justice (i.e. those that invoke simple equality) is that they ignore the plurality of goods which are to be distributed, and treat the aim of theorizing about justice to be the establishment of a unitary principle of distribution. Walzers own account of justice rejects unitary models of distributive justice as incompatible with complex equality.


Walzer claims that in order to rank and order different distributive arrangements, one would require an objective, universal standard against which to compare these arrangements. The assumption underlying such a standard would be that there is one unitary conception of justice applicable everywhere. But for Walzer the construction of such a standard jettisons precisely the material out of which principles of distributive justice ought properly to be constructed (Walzer 1997, 3). Walzer implicitly attacks Rawls and other universalists when he claims that his own theory of justice is not a utopia located nowhere or a philosophical ideal applicable everywhere, but is instead a practical possibility here and now, latent already in our shared understanding of social goods (Walzer 1983a, xiv). Given that justice is rooted in the distinct understandings of places, honors, jobs, things of all sorts, that constitute a shared way of life it follows that overriding those distinct understandings is (always) to act unjustly (Walzer 1983a, 314). Thus the philosopher of justice who produces a unitary principle of distributive justice where a plurality of meanings exist overrides the understandings of the community whose life he or she otherwise shares and sets him-



or herself upin a phrase recently employed by Richard Rortyas the supreme cultural arbiter (Rorty 1993, 1201). Walzers claim is that, in order to accomplish the task of constructing universalist theories of justice, the philosopher must set him- or herself apart from the community to which the theory is addressed. But those who forsake the companionship and solidarity of their fellow citizens for the airless heights of the universalists mountaintop nd, as Nietzsches Zarathustra did, that on descending from their mountains they are no longer understood by the people to whom they preach.2 Universalistic theories of justice which make use of hypothetical abstractions such as rational man and rational woman will therefore have little to do with those actual men and women who have, as he puts it, a rm sense of their own identity (Walzer 1983a, 5). It is not that such philosophies are impossible to produce; it is that when they are produced they cannot connect with the audience to whom they are addressed. The universalistic philosopher inhabits a world that is, Walzer suggests, literally devoid of meaning and his or her pronouncements are unlikely, ever, to command general agreement amongst his or her fellow citizens (Walzer 1983a, 6).3 For Walzer, only the situated philosopher is capable of speaking in a languagethe shared language of meanings and understandingsthat his or her interlocutors can understand. On nding that he or she fails any longer to connect with the audience to whom the theory is addressed the universalist philosopher will, so Walzer believes, have to resort to manipulation and compulsion (Walzer 1987, 62), to coercion and uniformity (Walzer 1994, 8), or at the very least to whispering in the ear of power (Walzer 1981, 381) in order to root the abstract principles in any particular communitys practices. Thus the universal legislator is driven to preempt the democratic formation of norms (Walzer 1981, 3823). As Walzer puts it: The peoples claim to rule does not rest upon their knowledge of truth. The claim is most persuasively put not in terms of what the people know but in terms of who they are (Walzer 1981, 383). The philosopher who descends from the mountain bearing truths carved in tablets of stone sits at odds with this deliberative process. Conversely, the situated philosopher who is attentive to the shared meanings and seeks distributive principles that are rooted in those meanings undermines domination. Moral and political argument simply is the appeal to common meanings. It is to the common life of a community that the philosopher must appeal in argument, but this is advice for all of us, not philosophers alone (Walzer 1983a, 29). In a discussion of democracy in Spheres of Justice Walzer rejects Platos claim that the technical competence of the pilot of a ship entails that the pilot ought to be accorded the authority to decide where the ship is to go (Walzer 1983a, 2857). This, claims Walzer, ought properly to be treated as a matter of what the passengers want. In terms of the state, it is not a matter of what the politicians think ought to be done; rather what politicians and pilots need to know is what the people or the passengers want for the proper exercise of power is nothing more than the direction of the city in accordance with the civic consciousness or public spirit of the citizens (Walzer 1983a, 287). The philosopher has no privileged mode of arguing here, and this makes the philosopher just another interlocutor in the ongoing and collective process of cultural production. Walzers philosopher becomes, as it were, an agent of the people offering them particularist stories about distributive justice, social criticism, and national identity in which he

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will invite them to recognize themselves (Walzer 1994, xi). The philosopher remains in the cave, in the city, on the ground in what is in effect a gesture of solidarity (Walzer 1994, 11). The interpretive strategy and the democratic project are therefore mutually supporting enterprises, and this can also be seen in Walzers claim that it is the meaning of social goods that ought to be the focus of a theory of distributive justice. Walzer does not claim, for example, that there is a logically necessary entailment between any given social good and its distributive principle for such things are a matter of historical and cultural embedding. It is true that in some cases Walzer does appear prepared to argue for such entailment, in the case of love, for instance (Miller 1995, 5). But by and large, strong conceptual entailment is incompatible with Walzers professed approach. Discovering such entailments is not a matter of interpretation. One is not interpreting the concept of love when one says that it is not something that can be bought or sold, one is effectively de ning it. To suggest that which is bought and sold in the name of love is really love is not to offer a rival interpretation; it is to either misunderstand or misuse the concept. The point is, that strong conceptual entailment need not require the democratic approach to philosophizing that Walzer wishes to adopt. For what matters is the authority of the conceptual entailment, and there is no reason why this should be a matter for democratic interpretation. If justice means just this, then there is nothing more to be said and those who disagree can be disregarded. Walzers methodology resolutely commits him to not deserting his fellow citizens for the universalist camp whose methodology pushes its inhabitants along the road towards injustice and tyranny, or at the very least delivers them into the hands of those who wish to advance partisan claims under a respectable veneer of (universalistic) philosophy. Walzers Spheres of Justice then is intended to serve two purposes: First, his text provides a methodological defense of the democratic formation of norms against the supremacist aspirations of universalistic theories of justice; and second, it is a contribution to that very process of norm formation, a contribution, that is, to the ongoing democratic debate. Yet Walzers methodology cannot so easily resolve the problems he identi es with traditional, universalistic philosophizing. As we have seen, Walzer ties substantive claims about justice to the shared understandings of a community. Moreover, shared understandings underpin both claims to justice and resistance to tyranny. But Walzer is sorely lacking in statements about the actual processes of cultural production, the process whereby understandingsshared or otherwisecome into existence. Whilst Walzer is concerned with the articulation of shared meanings within bounded communities in the present, and about the impact of distributive principles based on these shared understandings for present and future members of these communities, he is explicitly not interested in the historical origins of these communities and, by implication, of their shared understandings (Walzer 1983a, 31). Walzer does not only reject universalistic theories of distributive justice; he has also rejected world-historical theories such as Marxism which see social life as one long series of interconnections running from the past through the present (Walzer 1980, 3). The effect of Walzers methodological position here is to exclude an important issue from the debate around justice: that of how a society has come to have shared understandings in the rst place. As Brian Barry puts it, if we found a society in which



there were something approaching a consensus, the most plausible initial hypothesis to explain the phenomenon would be that it had come about as the result of power over communications, education, and religious doctrine exerted by the bene ciaries of the status quo (Barry 1995, 78). It is true that Walzers examples demonstrate that at different times and in different places, different practices and institutions have been thought to be just. But the methodological tolerance towards different times and places (the historical and cultural relativism) draws attention away from the processes through which values come to be embedded in any society. Yet without some account of these processes we cannot realistically make a judgment about whether or not we are in fact dealing with the issue of justice in society as opposed, say, to some con dence trick perpetrated by a powerful individual, elite, caste or class.

To illustrate this dif culty, let us imagine a dictatorshipWalzeriain which the dictator has successfully absorbed the latest research into marketing techniques, techniques of manipulation, psychological theories and so forth. Let us also imagine that these techniques have successfully been employed in and through the state religion, state education system, the state-run media (TV, newspapers, etc.) and let us also imagine that the dictator has managed to insulate his people from external in uences so that Walzeria is an hermetically sealed society. There is no Coca-Colonization, no MacImperialism, and nobody has heard of Nike. Everybody in Walzeria is in agreement with what the dictator has established as just, though for their part they think that these arrangements are natural and not merely the product of their glorious leaders mind. Everybody believes that women ought to be subordinate to men and consequently may be assaulted with impunity for insubordination; that homosexuality is a moral failing and ought to incur physical punishmentincluding genital mutilation where necessary; that the rstborn male child of every family ought to be surrendered to the state for medical experiments; and that cats are dead ancestors come back to cause wickedness in this world and consequently ought to be slaughtered on sight. Many of us, perhaps most of us, would probably nd such a set of beliefs and practices repugnant. Some of us, whilst feeling deeply uncomfortable about the practices might just be able to accept that, whilst we might not think it just, it is at least plausible that some culture could think them some of them just. Granting these quali cations, I want to suggest that what is wrong with Walzeria is not so much that justice is what the people of Walzeria all think it is. The problem lies in the way in which the people have come to their beliefs about justice. Given that the dictator of Walzeria has successfully duped his subjects the question about the justness of his actions entirely escapes the attention of his subjects. It might be objected that the example of Walzeria is implausibleunworkable evenbecause no state, no matter how powerful, could so effectively manage to control the thoughts of its population. I think that these objections are sound. Only the most dogmatic of conspiracy theorists is likely to believe that states are capable of this level of domination. But the plausibility of the account is not what is at issue. The point here is to show that appeal to shared understandings in isolation from analyses of power relations is inadequate as a means of identifying justice in any given society. It is not a question of

Philosophy, Democracy and Tyranny


whether or not Walzeria is workable or desirable as a form of society. The point is rather that there are certain questions about justice that cannot be asked if one is to read justice through the shared understandings of that society. Speci cally, the justness of the power relation between the dictator of Walzeria and its citizens cannot itself be evaluated in terms of the shared understandings of that society.4 The danger here is that claims of justice may, in fact, mask inequalities in power relations. Paradoxically, Walzers methodology might contribute to tyranny, rather than defend against it. Let us now though consider some of the possible responses to the issues raised by Walzeria.

Walzer might defend his position here in terms of an immanent critique. After all, as I have already noted, Walzer himself describes his approach as immanent and phenomenological. Suppose that we actually surveyed (in secret, of course, and with some dif culty) the views of the subjects of Walzeria, describing to them their own predicament but concealing from them that it is their predicament as opposed to some other ctional society. If we found that they thought this situation unjust in the abstract, then we would have grounds for claiming that their shared understandings in turn ground a claim that the dictator is acting unjustly in their actual concrete case. Assuming, for example, that the dictator believed it wise to instill in his subjects a belief in the value of openness in their dealings with each other and had always gone to great pains to appear to be open with his subjects, then the revelation that he had not been so might well leave him open to the disapprobation of his subjects. But were such a defense to be mounted it would still miss the point for we are not interested in the fact that the dictator of Walzeria has failed to take into account this eventuality (he could after all have anticipated the problem). The subjects disapprobation, directed as it is at the failure of the sovereign to live up to standards he has set for others, is patently not directed at the power relationship itself which still escapes evaluation. It is a matter, not of the justness of the dictator in relation to his or her people, but rather of his or her moral rectitude; it is not a question of justice but rather one of the virtue of the dictator. Walzer cannot, therefore, make shared understandings the ground of a theory of justice without rst attending to the parity of power relationships in that context; he has to be sure that the shared understandings are themselves constitutively just. One way to deal with this would be to insist upon values such as openness, frankness, or honesty in dealings amongst citizens as a matter of justice. As we shall see, this is an option that Walzer takes up under the rubric of a minimal morality and I will return to this below. Another option would be to insist upon greater participation at all levels in the creation of societys self-understandingin other words, the democratization of society. This sits well with Walzers self-description as a radical and a democrat. Yet if we understand Walzer as requiring democratization as a means of ensuring the parity of power relations then such an insistence would not itself be culture-bound since it is a claim about the basis upon which a culturesany culturesshared understandings ought to be evaluated. However, the project of the democratization of society also creates a problem for Walzers project of defending complex as opposed to simple equality. To see why this



is, let us turn to a discussion of where democracy plurality of distributive spheres.

ts into Walzers argument for a






It might be objected at this point that Walzer himself allows for this in that he grants the political communitythe political sphere that isa distinct and unique status within a society, relative to the other distributive spheres. The sphere of politics is not just one sphere amongst many for it has the task of superintending the autonomy of the other spheres (Walzer 1983a, n. 15). Just as for Rawls the political realm is an association of associations, so the political realm is, for Walzer, a sphere of spheres. It has its own integrity, of course, and this can be compromised by the conversion of other goods such as money into political power. In this sense it ought to be as autonomous of the other spheres as they are of each other. But its regulatory function encompasses these other spheres in a way that is not reciprocated. Given Walzers claims that shared understandings underpin a societys conception of justice and that the political community is probably the closest we can come to a world of common meanings it follows that the political community occupies a central role in establishing what is just for that society. Presumably because of this unique and central role played by the political community Walzer also makes it the focal point for his democratic project, for as he remarks: as soon as we start to distinguish meanings and mark out distributive spheres, we are launched on an egalitarian enterprise (Walzer 1983a, 28). For Walzer, the political community ought to be organized on the basis of equality even if the political community agrees, in accordance with its shared understandings, that no other sphere ought to be. We might then conclude, given that Walzer allows a unique role to the political sphere in relation to the identi cation of shared understandings, that Walzers theory of justice embeds a democratic egalitarian project at its foundations. We might further conclude that this undercuts my previous complaint that Walzer sacri ces democratic egalitarianism to shared understandings in the absence of any account of how those shared understandings came to be shared in the rst place. But such conclusions are too swift. To see why, we need to be clear about a distinction that can be made between Walzers theory of justice, which is general in scope, and his claims about complex equality which are intended to be particular in scope. The theory of justice, properly speaking, turns on the claim that one ought to respect local conceptions of justice as cultural creations. Complex equality, premised upon a plurality of social goods, is just such a conception, a cultural creation, which will not necessarily apply to other societies whose cultures might properly support a simple conception of equality. For example, a theocratic society organized around the authority of a Holy Text authoritatively interpreted may have a uni ed conception of justice as opposed to a plural one, and a correspondingly simple conception of equality as opposed to a complex one (if indeed there is any operative conception of equality at all). Any attempt to impose the pluralist account of justice and its corresponding notion of complex equality on such a society would therefore be tyrannical since it would contravene that societys shared understandings. Even societies that are marked in the here and now by a plurality of social goods and complex equality may in the past have had a uni ed

Philosophy, Democracy and Tyranny


account of justice, but given the shared understandings of social goods in the here and now, this uni ed account is no longer appropriate and so to impose a uni ed conception of justice on such a society would be as tyrannical in its way as imposing a pluralistic conception of justice on the theocratic society. Given Walzers claim that there is no way to rank and order rival conceptions of justice we cannot conclude that societies with a plural conception of justice are more just than those with a uni ed conception; it just means that they are different, and the general theory of justice entails that we should respect difference (Walzer 1983a, 315). But unfortunately the project of focusing on the special place of the political community in relation to the production and identi cation of shared meanings only leads Walzer back to the impasse identi ed above. This is because the claim, that the political sphere has this regulatory role with respect to the other spheres whilst at the same time remaining autonomous, is itself a contextual claim. For a society whose shared understandings are uni ed around a dominant, uni ed distributive principle (say, the Word of God) the autonomy of politics will be an alien concept, as might the concept that politics ought to be conducted democratically. Clearly, in such cases invoking the democratic egalitarian character of the political sphere as a defense against the usurpation of power by a dictator or some elite claiming special knowledge would be inappropriate. Walzer, for example, poses the question as to who should possess and exercise political power? to which there are only two answers that are intrinsic to the political sphere:
rst, that power should be possessed by those who best know how to use it; and second, that it should be possessed, or at least controlled, by those who most immediately experience its effects. (Walzer 1983a, 285)

That this is a contextual point is con rmed by Walzers acknowledgment that in some societies all authority is conceived to be a gift from God and that this claim is intrinsic to those societies understanding of politics (Walzer 1983a, 285). Walzer also acknowledges that this is an anti-democratic argument based on special knowledge, knowledge in this case of Divine purposes or similar. Methodologically, Walzer ought to be neutral about this. It is not that such societies are worse than pluralistic and egalitarian ones; they are just different. The important point is whether or not the particular account of justice accords with the societys self-understandings. An authentically monistic society will properly have a uni ed conception of justice, just as an authentically pluralistic society will properly have a pluralistic one. Yet Walzer the democrat is not neutral about this. He discusses the relative merits of the two intrinsic meanings of political power in the context of his discussion of Platos argument from analogy that the ship of state, like any other ship, requires a deference on the part of the passengers (or the people) to the pilot (or the governor) (Walzer 1983a, 2857). The grounds for Platos claim lie, of course, in the superior technical knowledge of the pilot and these grounds, as we noticed earlier, are rejected by Walzer as inappropriate. The ship of state, contra Plato, ought to be run in accordance not with what the expert politicians judge to be in the interests of everybody, for politicians ought properly to be understood as the the agents of the citizens, not their rulers (Walzer 1983a, 287). Thus it would seem that the invocation



of special knowledge or expertise ought not to be allowed to function as a justi cation for usurping the proper exercise of power.


No doubt a defense of Walzer could point to the context of his argument. It should not after all be surprising that, with respect to his own political community (or culture), he is not neutral on this or any other matter. If, for example, Walzers arguments were addressed to his fellow Americans (as at one level they surely must be) then it might be plausible to invoke democratic principles against claims to special knowledge. After all, since the establishment of the Union (and even for some time before this) American political and social life has been self-consciously democratic in character, even if there has often been dispute about precisely what this means in practice. The problem with this kind of defense is that Walzer clearly does not restrict himself to commenting upon American society. His discussion of guest workers is a case in point (Walzer 1983a, 5661). Whilst it is true that America plays host to such workers, it is also true that many other countries do. Walzer himself cites three Switzerland, Sweden and West Germanyand this suggests that his argument is general in scope and not aimed at his fellow Americans as such (Carens 1995, 49). An attempt might be made to rescue Walzer at this point by redrawing the bounds of the community to which his argument is addressed. We might say that Walzer is not appealing to his fellow Americans so much as to fellow Western liberal democrats and social democrats who, let us say, draw upon a discourse of universal natural (or human) rights derived from the European Enlightenment. When the USA unilaterally declared its independence from its colonial master, it justi ed its action by appealing to this European universalistic tradition. Even if we grant Walzers particularist claims, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the universalistic philosopher derided by Walzer is in fact doing little more than speaking the traditional language of his or her moral and political community. Ironically it may well be that the universalism criticized by Walzer is, when located in the context of American political history, just what we American academics do around here. But Walzer does not seem to be appealing to the community of liberal democrats so much as employing liberal democratic values to establish a general argument, and there is nothing in this to suggest that Walzer does not mean his argument to apply to all countries, whether they are Western liberal democracies or not. The problem with respect to guest workers is that they are exploited or oppressed and this is in part because they are disenfranchised, incapable of organizing effectively for self-defence (Walzer 1983a, 59). What is more, this is so irrespective of the shared understandings amongst the guest workers themselves who may, as Walzer acknowledges, enter the host country fully accepting the terms under which they are to be employed and fully cognizant of their status while they are there (Walzer 1983a, 58).5 Walzer is not above invoking universal values in the form of transcultural human rightsa right to life and a right to liberty or in their simplest (negative) form: not to be robbed of life and liberty. These two rights follow from our common humanity and are the two most basic and widely recognized rights of human beings whereas rights other than these follow from shared conceptions of social goods and hence are

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local and particular in character (Walzer 1983a, xv; 1977, 54; 1994, 16; 1997, 2, 5).6 Walzer allows these human rights because, as he puts it, they do real work in that they seem to account for the moral judgements that we most commonly make in time of war (Walzer 1983a, xv). But although they do real work, they are only of limited help in thinking about distributive justice (Walzer 1983a, xv, emphasis added). If these universal human rights were to be employed as a uni ed distributive principle across societies, they would quickly run up against local meanings. A theological society grounding its account of justice in a Holy Text might deeply resent the imposition of universal human rights, with their egalitarian overtones, since this would con ict with its own understanding. The imposition itself would, by Walzers lights, be unjust for all distributions are just or unjust relative to the social meanings of the goods at stake (Walzer 1983a, 9). Of course such rights, even if they are only of limited help, are nevertheless of some help when we are thinking about distributive matters, and in fact Walzer self-consciously appeals to them in his discussions of membership and welfare (Walzer 1983a, xv). Moreover, Walzer, who declares himself a relativist, does not advocate an unconstrained relativism, for no arrangement, and no feature of an arrangement, is a moral option unless it provides for some version of peaceful coexistence (and thereby upholds basic human rights) (Walzer 1997, 5). The basic human rights to life and liberty provide the absolute minimal content for morality as such, and therefore presumably provide a critical standpoint against which any cultures self-interpretation can be judged (Walzer 1994, 10). Yet this is inadequate from the point of view of Walzers interpretive standpoint, for these rights cannot act as a critical standard against which to judge other societies even if we agree (which not everyone does) that they must comprise the minimal content of any moral point of view. Just like Walzers claims about justice, these rights must themselves be objects of interpretation relative to particular historical and cultural contexts. Justice, says Walzer, is relative to social meanings and this follows, as he acknowledges, from his formal de nition of justice as delity to cultural self-understanding. The formal de nition is not substantive and, as Walzers discussion of the distribution of grain in an Indian village shows, if one did not start from an interpretation of justice that was faithful to the shared understandings of the members of a given society then justice itself would be tyrannical (Walzer 1983a, 31213). But why should such rights not be treated in the same interpretive light as justice? In accordance with Walzers methodological prescriptions, such rights will garner what substance they have from the historical and cultural interpretive context within which they have come to have meaning. But Walzer is caught here between a rock and hard place. If these rights lack substance, then they cannot provide a critical standard against which to judge particular societiesincluding, we should note, our own; on the other hand, if they do have substance they will have it because they are embedded in a particular interpretive context and similarly cannot provide a critical standard with which to judge other societies because we must acknowledge that other contexts legitimate other interpretations. This last point also raises the specter that there may be a variety of interpretive contexts (i.e. communities) within any given society (and even across societal boundaries) and a plurality therefore of legitimate and possibly rival interpretations of these moral concepts.



Here we touch on an issue that is crucial to Walzers project, for it is not clear what constitutes an interpretive context. Walzer wants to claim, for example, that despite the contentious nature of the debate in the USA, there is nevertheless a deeper understanding shared presumably by the majority of American citizens that the proper distributive criterion of health care should be need.7 To establish this claim, Walzer does not appeal to empirical evidence but rather to a device derived in part from Rousseau; this is the device of the social contract. This is an agreement [amongst members of a political community] to reach decisions together about what goods are necessary to our common life, and then to provide those goods for one another (Walzer 1983a, 65). The contract embodies, for Walzer, the idea that [p]olitical community is for the sake of provision, provision for the sake of community and a revised version of Marxs famous maxim: From each according to his ability (or his resources); to each according to his needs is, so he believes, the deepest meaning of the social contract (Walzer 1983a, 64, 91). This will obviously be bad news for those who understand the social contract (assuming, of course, that there is one) in terms of an authoritarian Hobbesian project in which provision for needs does not depend on the shared understandings of the community at large, but on the whim of the Sovereign; nor will it be much comfort to Lockeans (or indeed Nozickeans) who understand the contract in terms of the protection of private property. There are obviously communities of like-minded people who do not buy into Walzers interpretation of the deeper meaning of the social contract, and who may not even buy into the idea of a social contract at all. Are such people wrong? As we saw above, Walzer does not believe that this question is appropriate. Perhaps such people comprise a different community and share a deep understanding of the social contract which is not that of the community to which Walzer is appealing. Perhaps when Walzer claims to be radically particularist he is appealing only to a particular group of radicals. The claim that there exists a political community in the sense in which Walzers argument requires is at least disputable. In Northern Ireland, to take just one contemporary political example, one would very much like there to be a shared understanding uniting the various parties but many would be glad to see an agreement to differ. Its true, of course, that even an agreement to differ must require some sharing of values. In the case of Northern Ireland it is hoped that all the parties to the Good Friday Agreement do in fact share a commitment to the democratic process set in train by that, and other, documents. But again, Walzer the democrat treats democratic political arrangements as the ground for the emergence (or excavation) of shared understandings over substantive issues around rights and needs, and not as a subject for debate themselves (Walzer 1983a, n. 67). Walzer could, of course, simply drop the claim that the basic human rights provide a minimal critical standard against which to judge other societies and reintroduce it as itself a culturally bound claim. It has, for example, been pointed out that when Walzer claims, as he does in Spheres of Justice, that there is no way to rank and order social worlds he is just mistaken. As Brian Barry puts it, Justice is a word in our vocabulary, and it is not correct, according to the way in which most speakers of English use the word, to say that the caste system is just in India (Barry 1995, 75). I have already discussed the point that the American context within which Walzer lives and works may itself be understood as one which was founded upon a conception of

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basic human rights. We should not nd it altogether surprising, then, that Walzer would want to rank and order social worlds on the basis of their support for such rights, just as we would not be surprised to nd that someone who did not share Walzers cultural assumptions ranked Walzers social world on a different scale of values. By extension, Walzer should not be surprised to nd that societies other than his own valued, for example, duty or fraternity or even some form of equality more highly than liberty. Paradoxically, Walzers reasons for being attentive to particularity and difference lead him ultimately towards a universalistic position. It is not enough to start from shared understandings for these may be manufactured by precisely the kind of tyrannical state that Walzer sets himself against. It is not enough either to say that shared understandings are what we aim at, for, once again, these may be manufactured by authoritarian means. One must start from the processes through which shared understandings come to be formed, and this requires attentiveness to the many waysnot all of them obviously tyrannical but no less oppressive for their subtletyin which the voices of individuals, groups, cultures and even whole peoples can be sti ed, marginalized or even domesticated. Equally paradoxically, I think that Walzers claims concerning the appropriate arrangements in our own society stand as a pretty good account of the kind of arrangements that an attentiveness to the processes of achieving shared understandings might require as such, and not merely in the context of the USA.

We have seen that Walzers defense of particularism founders in a number of important respects. Most importantly for the purposes of this essay, it is clear that Walzers particularist approach cannot adequately do what Walzer claims it can do; it cannot provide for a methodological defense against the appropriation of philosophy by tyrants. Walzers appeal to shared values marks him out as a communitarian philosopher, but it is well known that communities themselves can be tyrannical towards their own members, sti ing alternative and dissenting voices in the name of shared communal values. In such contexts, universalistic arguments may be an effective means of countering tyranny (one thinks again of the Founding Fathers appeal over the head of George III to the universal Rights of Man orWilliam Galstons examplethe appeal by Soviet dissidents to the Western discourse of human rights, or even the dissident Iranian students recent appeal to that same discourse). Walzers appeal to a minimal morality suggests that he is aware of this, yet his own interpretive strategy feeds even the minimal morality back through communal values and seems therefore incapable of escaping this particular criticism. Walzer worries that universalistic philosophies license the imposition of one cultures values and beliefs on another culture, and his argument that one should respect other cultures is clearly intended to render such impositions illegitimate. But it does not follow that asserting values universally leads to cultural imperialism. Indeed, the Nazis under Hitler could be said to have asserted strictly particularist values against those of other cultures, both within and beyond their own boundaries. There is much to be said here about the way in which one asserts ones values, or argues those values with others. We can do this in ways that respect our interlocutors and ways that do not, as Walzer



himself knows well enough. But if we are cultural imperialists who do not respect our interlocutors then particularist values are likely to be as conducive to our aims as are universalistic ones. There is, it is true, an important issue here: that of how one generalizes respect for others and this is not solely a problem between cultures; it is also a problem within cultures. One may, like Richard Rorty, pin ones hopes for a more humane world less to philosophers than to poets and novelists who prompt us to imagine what it is like to be in someone elses shoes (Rorty 1993, 133). Walzer himself is a pretty good storyteller and this is one reason why his work is so accessible. But clearly, what is sought is not so much an appeal to values that we already share so much as a transformation of those values in a more humane direction. Unfortunately, whilst it is true that tyrants recognize the threat posed to their regimes by dissident writers and artists, and suppress these whenever they can, they also understand the usefulness of enlisting writers and artists in their attempts to secure their regimes against dissent. These are interesting and important issues, but they are issues of strategy rather than of the relative merits of modes of philosophizing, whether universalist or particular. Genuinely humane people, infused with an equally genuine respect for other human beings, will seek genuinely humane ways to protect and promote the values they endorse, whether or not those values are construed as particular (culture-bound) or universal (culture-independent). Need we then make a choice between particularism or universalism? It has been suggested that the polarized way in which Walzer presents the activity of philosophizing does not adequately represent the range of possibilities open to us. As William Galston has pointed out, between the universalists view from nowhere and the particularists view from somewhere there lies what Thomas Nagel has called the view from everywhere (Galston 1989). It will be recalled that Walzer refuses to walk out of the cave, leave the city, climb the mountain in order to fashion an objective and universal standpointwhich can never be fashioned for ordinary men and womenpreferring instead to remain in the cave, in the city, and on the ground (Walzer 1983a, xiv). But Walzer does not seem to recognize that leaving the city for the mountain need not preclude going back down again with a fresh perspective on ones starting point. As Machiavelli remarked, those who draw maps place themselves on low ground, in order to understand the character of the mountains and other high points, and climb higher in order to understand the character of the plains (Machiavelli 1988, 4). This dialectical approach comprises an important philosophical tradition in its own right. Hegel, for example, understood his philosophical project as one that sought to understand the many points of mediation between the universal and particular. To set up the particular in its own right unmediated by the universal (and vice versa) was, he believed, as dangerous as Walzer believes universalism to be. For Hegel, unmediated universalism led to the destructive fury of the Terror that followed in the wake of the French Revolution (Hegel 1977, para. 589; 1991, S5R).8 Similarly, in the unmediated particularity characteristic of civil society lay (and some would say still lies) an equally dangerous potential for destruction (Brod 1992, 98; Cullen 1979, 82). According to Hegel, it is with the movement between universal and particular that philosophy ought properly to concern itself; to focus on either pole exclusively will produce a truncated philosophy.

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Ironically, and despite Walzers implicit criticism of his work, Rawls himself may be said to occupy an important place within this tradition. Not only does Rawls now (Rawls 1993) explicitly reject the kind of universalism that Walzer criticized him for, but it can be argued that Rawlss methodology was always designed to be sensitive to the relationship between the initial convictions and beliefs held by situated individuals, and any proposed conception of justice. Rawls understands well enough, and clearly understood this in his important 1972 work A Theory of Justice , that there is, in argument over conceptions of justice and moral principles generally, a dynamic between our initial viewsraw, unconsidered, intuitiveand the considered judgments we make in the light of re ection upon matters of principle. Rawlss phrase re ective equilibrium graphically captures the sense that both our initial intuitions about justice and our principles are amenable to revision in the light of further argument. As Rawls puts it: Moral philosophy is Socratic (Rawls 1972, 49) and Socrates himself understood philosophy as a dynamic, communicative activity.9 The return to Socrates, with whom this paper opened, prompts my nal comments on the task of the philosopher. There are those, Aristotle for example, for whom philosophy is essentially a solitary, contemplative pursuit to be carried on independently of the life of the city. For Socrates, however, philosophy is a public activity to be conducted not in contemplative solitude but in the marketplace, in the company of ones fellow citizens. In argument, Socrates un inchingly appealed to universal values yet this did not prevent him from seeing his role as that of an internal critic of Athenian life, and he consequently refused to desert his fellow citizens even on pain of death. But the most important thing that we learn from Socrates is that philosophy ought properly to be understood as a critical activity. Whether we remain in the particularists cave or climb the universalists mountain, the task of the philosopher is to raise the critical voice.

I would like to thank my colleagues Meena Dhanda and Michael Cunningham and an anonymous reader for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Barry, Brian. 1995 Spherical Justice and Global Justice. In Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, ed. David Miller and Michael Walzer. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Benhabib, Seyla. 1992. Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics. London: Polity Press. Brod, Harry. 1992. Hegels Philosophy of Politics: Idealism, Identity and Modernity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Canovan, Margaret. 1992. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Carens, Joseph H. 1995. Complex Justice, Cultural Difference, and Political Community. In Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, ed. David Miller and Michael Walzer. Cullen, Bernard. 1979. Hegels Social and Political Thought. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. Galston, William A. 1989. Community, Democracy, Philosophy: The Political Thought of Michael Walzer. In Political Theory 17, no. 1: 11930.



Hegel, G. W. F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Millar. Oxford; Oxford University Press. Hegel, G. W. F. 1991. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lyotard, Jean-Franc oise. 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Machiavelli, Nicolo. 1988. The Prince, ed. Q. Skinner and R. Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Miller, David. 1995. Introduction. In Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, ed. David Miller and Michael Walzer. Rawls, John. 1972. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. . 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press. Rorty, Richard. 1993. Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality. In On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, ed. S. Shute and S. Hurley. New York: Basic Books. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1973 [1762]. The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole. London: Dent/Everyman. Walzer, Michael. 1977. Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books. . 1980. Radical Principles: Re ections of an Unreconstructed Democrat. New York: Basic Books. . 1981. Philosophy and Democracy. In Political Theory 9, no.3: 37999. . 1983a. Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Oxford: Blackwell. . 1983b. Spheres of Justice: An Exchange. In New York Review of Books, 21 July 1983, 434. . 1987. Interpretation and Social Criticism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. . 1994. Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. . 1997. On Toleration. New Haven: Yale University Press.

1. Walzer signals this claim in an earlier essay where he writes the people may not know the right thing to do, but they claim a right to do what they think is right (Walzer 1981, 383, emphasis added). 2. Rousseau also recognizes the problem when he writes that wise men, if they try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, cannot possibly make themselves understood (Rousseau, 1973 [1762], 196). 3. Walzer believes that the interpretive philosophical method is likely to secure agreement amongst those to whom it is addressed in a way that the universalistic philosophical method cannot. For example, this claim is made to count directly as a criticism of Ronald Dworkin in Walzers response to Dworkins review of Spheres of Justice in the New York Review of Books (Walzer 1983b, 43). Brian Barry (1995) has questioned the integrity of a project that seeks agreement rather than one that speaks truths as it nds them. 4. It might be objected that my Walzeria story is precisely the kind of abstract example that Walzers particularist method is designed to avoid. My response to this kind of criticism, of course, is that such examples allow us to see sharply the limitations of the particularist method in a way that the particularist method itself is incapable of recognizing. I do not seek to argue that such abstractions ought to entirely replace an attentiveness to particularity. 5. Carens (1995, 50) has pointed out that Walzers argument actually overrides the shared understandings of particular communities about the nature of citizenship. 6. Walzer indicates the existence of other universal rights too, such as the right not to be excluded from the forms of rest central to ones own time and place (1983a, 196) and rights to peace and non-interference (1997, 2). There also exist transcultural prohibitions against deception, betrayal, gross cruelty that may be construed as additions to the group of basic rights (Walzer 1987, 24). More recently, Walzer has declared that these rights, which

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comprise a minimal morality, are not foundational though they are a part of the maximal or thick morality (Walzer 1994, 18). 7. Walzer claims that his immanent and phenomenological approach re ects those deeper understandings of social goods which are not necessarily mirrored in the everyday practice of dominance and monopoly (Walzer 1983a, 26). Yet, in fact, Walzer derives substantive principles on the basis of such rights that appear to have little to do with shared understandings, as when he argues that guest workers ought to be accorded something approaching full citizenship rights during their time in the host country (1983a, 61). Such proposals, as Seyla Benhabib (1992, 80) has pointed out, go well beyond any prevailing consensus in Western Europe or the USA. 8. According to Hegel, what mediates between universalism and particularity, in practical terms, are the various customs, traditions and institutions characteristic of actually existing societies. These were swept away by the radical universalism of the French Revolutionaries opening the way to the Terror, and were, or so Hegel believed, in danger of being swept away by the radical particularity (individualism) of civil society. 9. The communal (or communicative) nature of Socrates philosophical activity, as opposed to the detached, solitary nature of Platos (amongst others) is also recognized by Hannah Arendt (e.g. Canovan 1992, 25664).