There’s a discussion going on at the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians about a new book by Jacob T. Levy on pluralism. Reading the posts, I noticed that Levy uses the word “pluralism” in a different way than Michael Walzer does. Levy’s use of the word is more like what I’d expect (partly, probably, because I’ve read a lot of things by him and the people he’s in dialogue with, published a lot more recently than Spheres of Justice was). By “pluralism,” Walzer means something like (to put it in more MacIntyrean terms, which are the only ones I know for raising my understanding of it to this level of abstraction) that there are different methods and logics that are appropriate to different realms of inquiry. He doesn’t (that I see) discuss the idea that there are different groups or institutions within society. In fact, he explicitly talks in terms of “society” as a whole. He takes it for granted that anybody in the society can criticize any aspect of it, as long as they do so in appropriate terms. Levy, though, means that there are different groups in society, and some of them should be protected from criticism by the others. I think Walzer would reject this. However, I don’t think Walzer provides much support for fending off Levy’s interpretation. After about thirty years, it seems to me that Spheres of Justice—though it clearly is not offered as an argument in favor of something like what Levy proposes—can fit pretty well, even surprisingly well, alongside Levy’s argument.
As far as I can tell, Jacob Levy’s ideas fit easily alongside a lot of “liberaltarian” type argument that try to assimilate libertarianism to liberalism. They have a lot in common with the right-libertarianism found in many places in contemporary North America. They’re in favor of the free market, though not absolutely opposed to all regulation. They’re in favor of health regulations. They’re opposed to government control of schools. They accept a lot of communitarian or traditionalist arguments in favor of the autonomy of small “local” groups, by which they mean groups that are ethnically and religiously homogeneous, practicing traditional “unliberated” ways of life. They’re in favor of scientific research, including social science, and accept the difference between modern and premodern ways of thought. They accept modern constitutionalism and modern ways of thinking about political theory.
But they generally fall on the right side of the political spectrum. They may support feminism and gay rights in principle, but in practice they support the rights of people who’ve traditionally had power to act in ways liberals consider bigoted. Moreover, they argue that social science research supports (and some of it does appear to do so) their opposition to what they consider excessively accelerated progress.
And parts of their views are accepted, to some extent, by liberals, and by some (mostly communitarian-leaning thinkers) on the left.
The relevant part of the theory seems to go something like this:
We do, in fact, right now, have a bunch of institutions. These include religions, families, and so on. People spend a good amount of their lives in these institutions—for the most part, most people are raised in them—and in fact they operate according to their own rules which are often different from what you’d expect if you started with liberal principles and deduced these institutions from them
We also, in fact, right now, have liberalism, which operates in certain parts of society, such as academia, the learned professions, the marketplace, and so on. People operate in liberal society—sometimes called the public realm, or civil society, or by some other term—as adults, in the workplace, when they participate in national or global or culture, and so on.
The idea seems to be that we don’t have to investigate the two realms farther than that. The liberal parts of society are what they are, and the institutions are what they are, and society works pretty well this way. The libertarian kind of idea Levy proposes holds that, however, liberalism is always trying to criticize the institutions, and that liberalism should change its ways and thereby back off a bit and let institutions make their own decisions. From this point of view, for people to be free and to live in a free society, they have to be rooted some of the time in a less liberal, perhaps less free community. Or, at least, if free people choose to live part of the time in such a community, they have to be allowed to do that. This is held by a number of liberals, not only by libertarians. And so it’s held that nothing really needs to be done in this area. Liberalism can go on criticizing the institutions, but keep its gloves on and recognize that criticism won’t always be taken seriously, and the institutions can keep on doing what they’re doing, and it’s all good.
But, I would object, in a lot of cases, institutions aren’t present in that way. They’re often not present (in the way expected by the theory) where there’s been cultural disruption, as from immigration, or poverty, or slavery, or on the reservation. They’re usually not present where there’s been modernization and urbanization. It is unrealistic in the modern era to assume that religion is mandatory in the way it was in the past. It’s unrealistic to assume that the arguments about the need for premodern institutions hold equally well in a diverse society as in an ethnic monoculture. Those arguments seem to assume that those traditional institutions are always there to fall back on, and are a kind of base of operations for those who aren’t or can’t be fully immersed in the liberal world; and this is often not the case—most obviously, for those who are engaged in child-rearing.
More than that, there’s reason to believe that the parts of society called liberal share more with those institutions than the theory would predict. This has been urged by scholarship increasingly, over the past three or four decades, by thoroughly respectable thinkers who are not extremists or cranks. They are more infused with religion, for example, and not only because they rely on religious institutions to form the personalities of their members. Or their ideas stem from a more narrow slice of history than has usually been recognized.
And so the argument seems itself to be a little abstract: uninterested in the details of what institutions exist, what they’re like, or how they interact with one another and with the liberal aspects of society. Philosophy doesn’t get its hands dirty with details like that, and presumably the points would be raised by a different field of knowledge. But those fields of knowledge are themselves constrained, in what they can argue, by what’s accepted as philosophically correct.
Moreover, the points I’ve raised are relevant to criticisms of liberalism and its attitude toward institutions. There are further objections I’d make with regard to traditional institutions themselves. The argument seems usually to suppose that institutions are unitary and unchanging, without internal conflict. Thus, it seems easily to collapse into the assumption that internal conflict within traditions is caused by external influence (usually from liberalism, or at least from tensions caused by liberalism, for example as a result of globalization). It lends itself to use from within a traditional institution as a mechanism for demonizing all change—or one side of a longstanding conflict—as deserving criticism along the lines of the arguments Levy suggests.
I don’t want to suggest that Jacob Levy would agree with the implications I’ve drawn out from the context I’m trying to set him in. I do think that these points are relevant to my understanding of Spheres of Justice, which was written before some of these argument were drawn out at such length, at a time when the political options on offer were different than they are now.