Chapter One is titled “Complex Equality” and begins with sections titled “Pluralism” and “A Theory of Goods.” Each of these first two sections contains a kind of analysis of a small number of concepts from political theory. As a non-scholar, I feel I have to know how these should be taken. Are these Walzer’s proposals, or are they Walzer’s summaries of the scholarly consensus?
Walzer describes “distributive justice” as a theory about the distribution of everything within a society, even things that aren’t normally transferable, and so on. This sounds like a good idea, and almost obvious. How else could philosophers and other thinkers evaluate the justice of a society, other than by characterizing the distribution of various bad or good things among its members? Why should questions of the distribution of one thing be discussed in different terms than the distribution of others? Moreover, as will be seen in the following pages, Walzer is responding to A Theory of Justice, a far-reaching theory published about a decade earlier by John Rawls. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Rawls is interested in justice as it applies to everything that might be shared either justly or unjustly.
However, this is not what Rawls was doing. (At least, it’s not what he’s taken to have been doing, from the vantage point of today. It would be interested to learn whether he addressed this question somewhere in the very long text of his book, but for me, that’s a research project for another day.) Moreover, it’s not what philosophers mean by “distributive justice.” Distributive justice is pretty much about economics, and economics-like things. It doesn’t expand the concern with distribution until everything that might fall under a discussion of justice is rephrased in distributive terms. Rather—although it sometimes generalizes its concerns from money to “happiness” or “utility,” or something along those lines—it narrows the concern with justice to what can in fact be measured and in some way seen as distributed.
Walzer offers some criticism of Rawls in this introductory chapter, and in this he seems to me to approach the issues along the same lines as Michael Sandel (in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice) does. I don’t fully understand Sandel, either, but he seems to take Rawls to be attempting to encompass the entire social world in something of the same way Walzer does here. His objection to Rawls is that Rawls asks people to consider things that are important to their sense of being who they are as, instead, something they could alienate from themselves, whether to engage in the reasoning of the original position or to accept the results of its reasoning as binding on themselves. I think a better way of putting this is expressed by Martha Nussbaum and Charles Larmore as that Rawls pays insufficient attention to the fact that people in modern society in fact disagree about what “the good life” is (to use the terms traditionally taken from Plato and Aristotle), and that modern philosophers on the whole reject the idea that a consideration of what the good life might be is essential to doing philosophy at all.
“Pluralism,” here, means pluralism of goods. There isn’t just one kind of good, like pleasure, happiness, or money (as there is in certain kinds of utilitarianism). There are other goods, like honor and divine grace. “Pluralism” does not mean, however, pluralism of different groups: that every group should be able to do as it likes (see the previous post on this topic). More about this will become clear in the next section (which I’ll discuss in a future post).
Here, I’ll just say that pluralism in this sense feels very plausible. It seems to be in line with what liberals of a few decades earlier had called “minority living”: the ability to pursue tastes and values that aren’t shared by the rest of the population. It seems to be in line with a sense that society as it’s currently constituted is leaving some important things out of consideration.
From a philosophical view, part of his argument might seem to fit fairly well with that of Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre would hold that arguments about, say, divine grace, can only be made within the limits set by previous discussions about divine grace. People educated in those existing discussions have no real reason to listen to outsiders who criticize the distribution that results from the insiders’ ideas, unless they are given a reason to do so. So this might seem to be the upshot of Walzer’s discussions of how different societies have understood such a thing. But it isn’t immediately obvious that Walzer’s purpose in bringing up all these different kinds of goods is to argue that people who find them important, today, have to be listened to. “Divine grace” and “membership” may turn out to be very different types of goods, with very different levels of importance.
So “pluralism” for Walzer might seem to be more philosophical or even methodological: a reluctance to reduce all possible goods to the same scale, to be measured and compared using the same tools. It seems connected to the suspicion that people from different backgrounds will be insufficiently convinced that the comparisons offered by the majority are correct ones.
Walzer insists that all goods are both distributed and given meaning by society. By “society” he means, not some kind of structure (of the sort that was presumably being discussed a lot at the time he wrote the book), but the society’s members taken individually and collectively. He states explicitly that money has no actual meaning unless society decides to give it one. The same is true of individual attributes like talent or divine grace.
On the one hand, this appears to be an argument about the importance of society and institutions for any individual endeavor—something like what was simplified into “you didn’t build that.” On the other, it sounds like the argument John Searle makes in The Construction of Social Reality to show how money does acquire its meaning and significance from social arrangements. But it seems overstated. For one thing, there’s a difference between saying that society or culture determines the meaning of something like talent, why talent matters, what will count as talent, and so on (as well as that the way in which talent is recognized and developed depends on social arrangements), and saying that a person only has talent because other people agree to grant them talent. The second version suggests not only that it might be possible to take a vote as to whether a person should be talented, but that something like a vote does actually happen, and would be seen to have happened if the situation were correctly understood.
But even more than that, the argument is a very extreme version of the social constructionism hypothesis, which has in the intervening time been pretty thoroughly discredited, in its strong form (see Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?). Richard Rorty (in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity) shows how something like Walzer’s statements here can be true but have less strong consequences than might appear on a naïve reading like the one that’s natural to me, as a non-expert, and his is the interpretation I prefer. This may or may not turn out to be incompatible with what Walzer actually says. On the weaker reading, all Walzer’s saying here is that the distribution and meaning of personal traits are mediated by culture and by the institutions that structure social interactions. On the stronger reading, he’s providing fuel for something like Steven Pinker’s attacks on what he views as a social-science consensus—something actual social scientists deny. This seems to leave Walzer here arguing for something without real support.
It also leads him into a kind of misguided nonbeliever’s defense of religion that can actually come across as insulting, as when he insists that actual, existing religions find the spiritual meaning of “bread” to be so much more important than the material meaning that they might conceivably—deliberately—let people starve—and that they would be right to do so. Walzer allows no room at all for anything, even food, to have a sheerly material significance. This seems, again, overstated. Surely, in anthropology and literary criticism, it’s important to recognize that a social (or as a believer would say, spiritual) meaning has a place. That’s not to insist that everybody must deny the existence of everything else. Saying it is displays a severe misunderstanding of religious discourse, not a decent respect for believers in religions.