I’ve had a copy of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice for a long time. It looks like I picked it up from a remainder table, but probably I had already heard of it by then. I haven’t read much of it yet. I may have made an effort to read it all from the beginning once, but most likely didn’t get far. I’ve been unable to get much of a sense of a political position or theory from it. It’s a defense of “pluralism,” meaning a refusal to reduce life to a single “sphere,” a defense of the idea that there are social ideals other than strictly equal distributive justice of material goods. Most of the book jumps around to different times and societies, illustrating what’s meant by terms like “membership” and “recognition,” and how these concepts are important to how human beings conceive of themselves and their lives. It appears to be in the vein of the communitarianism that was somewhat prevalent at the time (which is how it’s referred to in the works I’d seen that cite it): writers like Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor.
Every so often I pick it up (because it happens to be in a bookcase that made its way into my bedroom after my daughter was born and we needed the space it occupied for her play yard). I thought of making some notes as I read, and I think I will actually blog some of my reading.
The biggest question I have, reading the preface, regards Walzer’s use of the word “domination.”
I had seen the word used before, not in any assigned academic reading, but in things I’d encountered in other books and in online articles and discussions. It seemed to be used as a bottom-line concept: a system is bad because it involves domination, even if one can’t make a solid argument against it for any other reason. It was used by people who seemed to have questions of morality in mind, rather than distributive justice, democracy, or progressiveness. I got the impression from these people that domination was felt to be bad because dominating another person is morally wrong—not, necessarily, that domination is bad because being dominated is an evil in itself.
Walzer, however, uses the term in a very different sense. Domination, he says, is the attempt to override people’s wishes, to impose the use of improper criteria, which one may get away with because one possesses some other, extraneous and irrelevant good. So buying a position that ought to be reserved for those who earn high marks in a civil service exam would be an example of domination. Walzer grounds the desire for an egalitarian society in the wish to avoid instances of domination, in this sense. “Domination” also refers to a situation that results in the feeling of being subordinated to another person, something related to, but I think slightly different from, the other definition; for Walzer, it’s the point of view of the subordinated person that matters.
Walzer uses the word as if he expects his readers to know it, or at least to find it unsurprising. Spheres of Justice, in the edition I have, was published by Basic Books, which aims at a general audience. Walzer says in his introduction that he intends not to write as an ivory-tower academic, but from within his own society, and this is borne out by the way the rest of the book is constructed. There are a few references to important theorists, like Rawls and Marx, but for the most part his arguments are grounded in concrete narratives and descriptions of social situations, with little or no overt logical argumentation or recourse to high-theoretical concepts. So it seemed plausible that the word “domination” was in fairly broad current use at the time, but this turned out to probably not be the case.
I looked around on the Internet to try to find someone else using the term, and eventually discovered a book by Frank Lovett, A General Theory of Domination and Justice, which promises, in the appendix, to offer a historical consideration of the word itself. It seems that the idea itself (or rather that of “non-domination”) is associated with “civic republicanism,” a theory developed by Quentin Skinner at around the same time Walzer was writing, and later by Philip Pettit, and that many people have discussed the idea under different names, but that it isn’t at all obvious at what point it was coined. Most references Google brings up are related to Skinner and Pettit, but are from dates later than that at which Spheres of Justice was published.