§1. The Structure of a Modern Society

§2. Justice, Liberty, and Equality

§1. The structure of a modern society

Since the appearance of Spheres of Justice in 1983, praises have alternated with criticisms. Charles Taylor praises the book for its creativity: “This brilliant book works out a new and radically different conception of distributive justice … Spheres of Justice should and will transform the debate about distributive justice beyond all recognition.”1C. Taylor, quoted in Spheres, backcover. William Galston attributes Walzer’s originality to his mastery and integration of various Western traditions: “Walzer began as the inheritor of three disjoint traditions of discourse: formal political philosophy, understood as speculation sub specie aeternitatis; radical social criticism, conducted from a standpoint outside existing institutions and practices; and the everyday talk of citizens and leaders about what is to be done here and now.”2W. A. Galston, Community, Democracy, Philosophy. The Political Thought of Michael Walzer, in Political Theory 17 (1989) 119-130, pp. 119-120. On the other hand, Ronald Dworkin criticizes Walzer’s theory as “irrelevant” and his argument a failure. “The ideal of complex equality he defines,” Dworkin observes, “is not attainable, or even coherent, and the book contains very little that could be helpful in thinking about actual issues of justice.”3R. Dworkin, To Each His Own, pp. 4,6. Brian Barry banishes Walzer by labelling him “the scourge of Anglo-American political philosophy.”4B. Barry, Liberty and Justice. Essays in Political Theory 2, Oxford, 1991, p. 1. Critics differ about Walzer. Nonetheless their opinions converge at least at one point, and that is, Walzer has proposed a new conception of justice, which may change the way of doing political philosophy. I interpret this newness as a phenomenon of mature modernity. As we have discussed Walzer’s interpretive methodology in previous chapters, we may now turn to the design of a mature modern society. To begin with, Walzer emphasizes that domestic justice is particular, and that he is writing a programme for the citizens of the United States. In view of this limited scope, we can appreciate that his proposal may not be directly applicable to other countries. Thus we will focus mainly on the theory and structure of Walzer’s programme.

A. The separation of spheres

1. Each according to its kind

In a paper defending equality, Bernard Williams raises the idea that goods should be distributed in accordance with “the relevance of reasons.” Classical theory holds that the distributive principle suum cuique or “to each his own” dictates that goods should be distributed in proportion to a person’s recognized inequalities. Williams accepts this principle, but he proceeds to argue that even then, equality is present in suum cuique. He starts with the distinction that men have inequalities in merit as well as in need. Merit and need are two different distributive principles. Correspondingly, there are two kinds of goods, Williams argues, which should be distributed according to merit and need respectively. For example, higher education should be given to those who possess the capacity to be benefited from it; whereas medicine, as a remedy for illness, should be administered to the sick. If these goods are distributed to those people who have money for them, then they are not distributed in accordance with “the relevance of reasons.” If goods are distributed in accordance with “the relevance of reasons,” that is, education to the able student and medicine to the sick, a certain notion of equality will then be realized.5B. Williams, The Idea of Equality, in Problems of the Self. Philosophical Papers 1956-1972, Cambridge, 1973, 230-249, pp. 239ff.

Williams’s ideas of equality and “the relevance of reasons,” Walzer acknowledges, constitute some of his starting points in thinking about distributive justice.6Spheres, p. 9, n. 7. He seizes upon the idea of relevant reasons and sets out to develop a theory of goods, which shifts the focus of distribution from its agents to the goods themselves.

Walzer begins his argument by inviting us to consider a straightforward description of the distributive process:

People distribute goods to (other) people.

Two categories are noticeable in the sentence: people and goods. People are both the distributors and the receivers, and goods are the direct distributed objects. It is quite straightforward to most people that it is the human beings who distribute goods among themselves. This is why most distributive theories focus on the category of people. Theorists would speculate on the human agent, either looking into his human nature, or trying to discover his rights. What they are searching for is a set of distributive principles which will sustain their image of the human person. Goods, on the other hand, are assumed to be passive objects that can be moved freely according to the will of man.7Spheres, p. 6.

This understanding of the distributive process appears to Walzer to be “too simple.” Every good we distribute has its meaning. It is dear to us, and we value it. Otherwise, we will not bother to distribute it. If goods have their internal meanings, it would then be unreasonable (or unjust) to distribute them contradictory to such meanings. So, when we think about the distributive process, we have to take into consideration the meanings of goods. Below is a more precise and complex description of the process proposed by Walzer:8Spheres, p. 6.

People conceive and create goods, which they then distribute among themselves.

This new formulation places its emphasis on the conception and creation of goods which precede distribution. Goods do not just appear in the hands of the distributive agents. There must be processes of conception and production. Goods “come into people’s minds before they come into their hands,” Walzer writes.9Spheres, p. 7. The conceiving, naming, and creating are at the same time attributing meanings to goods. Even natural objects and raw material—like air, water, stone, trees, and fruits—cannot escape human imposition of meanings. We give them meanings by naming them. For those that are scarce, we prescribe rules for their distribution; for those that are abundant, we distribute them according to need.

The meanings of goods, though first attributed by their inventors or producers, are not monopolized by them. They are subject to a wider public modification, and are undergoing complex processes of assimilation. The attribution of meanings to goods is a collective enterprise. Social meanings are vox populi, and vox populi as a whole resembles vox dei. Thus, a good with attributed social meaning can no longer be treated in an arbitrary or idiosyncratic way. Rather its meaning tells people how to value it, use it, and distribute it. A social good comes to life, so to speak, through the spirit of the collective intelligence of mankind. Once the social meaning of a certain good is established, the good may be said to distribute itself among people. Any violation of this internal logic of distribution entails criticism. For instance, priesthood is conferred on someone according to piety. In the history of Christianity, this principle has often been violated. Therefore, the Church condemns simony, and fights against the imposition of temporal power on the election of ecclesiastical offices. Goods, in this sense, are the more important subjects in the process of distribution. The meanings of the goods direct and constrain how the distributive agents are going to distribute them.

Six principles of goods

Social meanings do play a role in the distributive process. Yet, Walzer is not content with this proposition. His ambition is to establish the thesis that the meanings of goods alone are sufficient to account for distributive justice. Walzer thus constructs a theory of goods with six principles. I will first give a list of them before proceeding to their explanation.10Cf. Spheres, pp. 7-10.

  1. The goods with which distributive justice is concerned are social goods.
  2. Men and women take on concrete identities because of the way they conceive and create, and then possess and employ social goods.
  3. There is no single set of primary or basic goods conceivable across all moral and material worlds—or, any such set would have to be conceived in terms so abstract that they would be of little use in thinking about particular distributions.
  4. It is the meaning of goods that determines their movement.
  5. Social meanings are historical in character; and so distributions, and just and unjust distributions, change over time.
  6. When meanings are distinct, distribution must be autonomous.

1. All goods are social goods. Goods are distributed because they have use or sign values. Goods have different uses as well as different significations. The acts of assigning uses or signs are historical social processes. They are determined partly by the nature of the goods and partly by the collective creativity of a community. Goods circulated among people cannot escape the imposition of meaning. Every good distributed has social meaning. However, this claim does not exclude the possibility of the existence of idiosyncratically valued goods. Old pictures or odd family souvenirs are valued individually. But, these private goods are not distributed in the public. Moreover, they are culturally conditioned. Very often, these goods, which are cherished privately for sentimental reasons, are to be found only in cultures where sentiment is attached to them. As far as distributive justice is concerned, only social goods with shared meanings lie within its domain. Social goods carry with them the conspicuous implication that they are culturally specific. Different societies may have different goods and different meanings of the same good. There is no way to determine a priori how a good should be distributed in a particular society.

2. Goods define identity. A human person is not just an abstract entity. He has physical as well as psychological needs. His self-consciousness and well-being depend on his interaction with goods. Poverty is regarded as evil because it deprives a person of the material basis on which he develops his potential. Though man’s dependence on goods is undeniable, it can be disputed on the ground that the I-it relation is too materialistic. Personhood is equally, if not more so, conditioned by social connections, that is, a person comes to his identity through the history of interactions with other persons. It seems that at the time when Walzer was writing Spheres of Justice, he had not dealt with this subject adequately. However, in a later article entitled Objectivity and Social Meaning, he explains that interpersonal relationships are indeed very dense, and “one of the ways we reach that thickness [of moral world] and density [of human relations] is through the social construction of objects (of all kinds).”11Objectivity, p. 169. What he means is that human relationships do have a material basis. For most of the time, people relate to each other through the mediation of goods. Consider the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” People may in principle accept this rule, but when it comes into practice, they disagree. There are various interpretations of “love” and “neighbour,” each according to its tradition. Accordingly, the Golden Rule in the Christian tradition must be qualified by the acts and teachings of Jesus. When the Rule is being qualified, goods inevitably come into its formulation. For instance, one qualification of the Rule could be: “share your food with the hungry.” Precisely because food, or good in general, is scarce in comparison with attitude, manner, or speech, it becomes a good indicator of human relationship. The quality and the quantity of food offered indicate the intensity of love and the kind of relationship between the giver and the receiver. The focus on goods shifts our attention from people to matter. It has the advantage that goods rather than men become the point of contest. An attack on the unjust distribution of goods is definitely better than an attack on a class of men and women.

3. No basic goods. The third principle is a rejection of the idea of basic goods. Most political philosophers, such as Rawls, begin their philosophizing by reflecting on the basic human needs, and come up with a set of universal basic goods that are fundamental to the existence of men and society.12J. Rawls, A Theory, pp. 78-81. These basic goods are then taken as primary in the consideration of equality. An egalitarian society must guarantee a more or less equal distributions of the basic goods to its members. Walzer rejects this idea of basic goods for fear that the list of basic goods would quickly be “abstracted to a single good; a single distributive criterion or an interconnected set.”13Spheres, p. 4. Arguably, the rights of life and liberty in the Wars may be regarded as basic goods. It seems that Walzer does not think these two rights have anything to do with distributive justice. He argues that for a given good, there may exist several social meanings and distributive principles. The idea of basic goods elevates a single social meaning to a universal status, and the specific distributive principle connected with this social meaning is used to overrule the other distributive principles. For instance, food carries different meanings in different places: bread is the staff of life, the body of Christ, the symbol of the Sabbath, and so on. If we think in the line of basic goods, the staff of life will be the primary meaning of bread. Walzer objects this simplification by reason that there will be rare occasion when bread-as-staff-of-life would yield primacy, except in the case when “there were twenty people in the world and just enough bread to feed the twenty.” Even under such condition, we still cannot be sure of that. Suppose the gods demand the bread to be burned as sacrifice. Then, it will become uncertain which use should be the primary one.14Spheres, p. 8. Walzer’s argument would be convincing if not for the fact that most people regard food as a basic good. He also contradicts his own argument in the book by constructing membership as the basic good which regulates the distributions in many spheres.15Cf. G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic of Michael Walzer’s Theory of Justice, in Political Theory 27 (1999) 491-522, pp. 494-495.

4. Goods should be distributed according to their social meanings. The movement of a good is determined not by its intrinsic meaning but by its social meaning, similarly just or unjust distribution of the good is relative to the social meaning. Behind this proposition, Walzer is pondering on Bernard Williams’s discourse on equality. Williams thinks that goods should be distributed in accordance with “the relevance of reasons.” Here, relevance refers to the essential or intrinsic meanings of goods. But, does a good have intrinsic meaning? Is it not that any meaning is related to human beings? Even if we ignore the philosophical difficulty and grant that a certain good may have intrinsic value independent of men, that value will still be irrelevant to us, and we will be unlikely to use it as a distributive principle. Walzer insists that goods should be distributed according to their social meanings, and that what we regard as intrinsic meaning is, in fact, its social meaning.

5. Social meanings are relative. Since social meanings vary with places and change over time, the perception of just or unjust distributions will shift accordingly. It follows that justice is a relative concept. Some distributive principles of certain key goods look rather common, and people may think that they are universal. Walzer rejects the idea of universal norms, he believes such notion often leads to unwarranted assertion. Instead, he speaks of reiteration—some norms may reiterate across time and space. For examples, offices should go to the qualified persons; simony and nepotism are condemned as sinful and unjust. Apparently, these norms are universal. But, if we attend the goods close enough, we will discover divergent meanings of offices, simony, and nepotism. An office in one culture may not be an office in another culture at all. Williams’s “relevance of reasons” presupposes universal norms. What appears to him as universal is in fact reiterative. All distributive principles, confined within a certain boundary of space and time, require empirical investigation rather than intuition or speculation.

6. Goods congregate into distinct spheres. When the social meanings of goods are widely known and accepted, goods become “autonomous.” By autonomous, Walzer means that a good or a set of goods will form a distinct distributive sphere, where the goods are governed by their own distributive principles and arrangements. Money and priesthood, according to their social meanings, form two distinct spheres. Money is not appropriate in the sphere of ecclesiastical office, and piety should not be weighed in the market place. Any intrusion from one sphere into another is unjust. Yet, Walzer also realizes that social meanings will not be totally distinct, and that spheres are more likely to be overlapping and interdependent. What he argues for is thus a “relative” autonomy. Though spheres do not appear in a clear-cut style, we cannot deny their existence.

Walzer puts his groundbreaking theory of goods in a few pages and states the six principles as if they were self-evident. His brevity invites intense questioning. Three subjects, namely relativism, social meaning, and autonomous spheres, are severely criticized. As we have already discussed relativism and social meaning, we may now come to the issue of autonomous spheres.

2. Spheres or no spheres

The first attack comes from Ronald Dworkin. In a review of Spheres of Justice, Dworkin harshly criticizes Walzer for his tendentious creation of the spheres as if he were “bewitched by the music of his own Platonic spheres.” Dworkin means that Walzer, like Plato in the construction of the universe, has a perfect scheme devised in advance. He faults Walzer with secretly fixing eleven spheres of justice and their distributive principles, and then applies the whole scheme to the United States. In order to maintain the harmony of his scheme, Walzer disregards social reality, and proposes startling distributive arrangements without giving any proof. His spheres are arbitrary and unfounded. As a result, his theory is “irrelevant” for the United States.16R. Dworkin, To Each His Own, p. 6.

In reply, Walzer bluntly retorts: “I don’t in fact make any such assumption.” “Social goods and distributive spheres,” he continues, “have first to be found through a process of empirical investigation, and then they have to be understood through a process of interpretation. They have the forms they take in a particular society; there are no preordained forms.”17M. Walzer & R. Dworkin, ‘Spheres of Justice’, pp. 43-44. Dworkin issues his criticism without giving substantial evidence either. Thus Walzer could easily answer his accusation by saying that the eleven spheres are identified through empirical research. However, it is equally unclear what kind of empirical research has been conducted by Walzer. Dworkin’s charge is indecisive, and Walzer’s reply is incomplete. Their exchange only serves to inaugurate an ongoing debate which has not yet ended.

The academic world is divided over Walzer’s spheres. A group of critics rally behind Dworkin, and try to look for mistakes in Walzer’s theory. An often voiced criticism is that the movement of the good in the Spheres does not follow its social meaning, rather it follows some abstract distributive principles independent of the social meaning. Among these critics, Jeremy Waldron is perhaps the one who formulates the most forceful argument.

“Money,” Waldron opines, “is a solvent of complex equality.”18J. Waldron, Money and Complex Equality, in Pluralism, 144-170, p. 144. It will dissolve the spheres set up by Walzer. By destroying the boundary of money, all the other spheres will implode. The first point Waldron wants to make is that money is not a good with intrinsic value. A silver coin may have aesthetic value on top of its exchange value. But money-objects are no longer used in the contemporary world. The banknotes and coins we own have no value in themselves. They represent abstract numbers, which are institutionalized into a system of exchange. The numbers in our bank accounts and the huge amount of electronic transactions carried out everyday in the financial institutions give us the best picture of what money really is—it is only a neutral medium of exchange. If money is said to have social meaning, it is its role as an exchange platform that gives it such meaning.19J. Wardron, Money, pp. 147-148. So far, Waldron’s conception of money does not differ much from that of Walzer, though he claims that Walzer misconceives the nature of money. The difference between them is that Walzer wants to constrain money within a sphere, while Waldron proposes to let money work freely according to its social meaning.

There is no question that goods do have social meanings, but it is not so obvious that when meanings are distinct, goods will separate to form spheres, each according to its kind. The meaning of money, for instance, does not tell us to which sphere it belongs. If we must impose a sphere on it, that sphere should include all things that people want to exchange. Walzer attempts to restrict the exchangeable things to a set of goods called commodities. But it is difficult to say what a commodity is. Walzer does not succeed in giving it a positive definition either. What he achieves is to write down a long list of goods that are prohibited to buy. Outside this list of blocked exchanges, everything that answers our needs, or pleases our eyes is a commodity that can be traded in the market.

Walzer’s procedure is questionable: he does not strictly follow his sixth principle in defining a sphere. It seems that the social meanings of goods do not carry the idea of commodity, and Walzer has to fix the sphere of money and commodities indirectly. Waldron even produces more damaging evidence by showing that Walzer’s list of blocked exchanges is irrelevant to the sphere of commodities. He accuses Walzer of committing a “category mistake.” The blocked exchanges, according to Walzer, indicate that some goods should not be bought by money. The exchanges are blocked, Waldron points out, often because they are banned in society rather than they have anything to do with money. Walzer says, “Citizens … cannot purchase a license for polygamy.”20Spheres, p. 101. He is correct, but polygamy is not a distributive good. American citizens can in no way obtain such a license. Exemptions from military service and jury duty cannot be sold. These are also correct, but there is no legitimate way whatsoever of exchanging these exemptions. The most “bewildering rubric,” Waldron says, is the series of criminal sales. Murder contracts, blackmail, heroin, stolen goods, fraudulently described goods, adulterated milk, and confidential state information, all these things are blocked from exchange not only for money but also for any other good.21J. Wardron, Money, pp. 155-159. Thus the sixth principle of goods is problematic. Waldron has shown us that the sphere of commodities does not follow this logic. Do the other spheres behave like this as well?

Now, suppose all the distributive spheres were not derived from the social meanings of goods. Even then Walzer’s kind of spheres do seem to exist, with their corresponding distributive principles peculiar to each of them. So some parts of Walzer’s argument must at least be valid for some distributions. Why is this so?

Govert den Hartogh has the ambition to uncover the mystery of spheres. He sees Walzer’s theory as a “promising alternative” to the “Grand Theory, as it is represented by the work of Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, or Habermas.” “One obstacle to its having the impact it deserves,” den Hartogh writes, “is that the real structure of the theory, as it is applied in Walzer’s patient discussions of the exchange of actual goods, is quite different from the way he describes this structure himself.”22G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic, p. 491. To show Walzer’s discrepancy between consciousness and praxis, den Hartogh offers a thorough deconstruction of Walzer’s theory.

The spheres of goods, according to den Hartogh, do not actually exist. They are Walzer’s invention, which serves as a theoretical smokescreen behind which he engages a familiar traditional philosophizing. The novelty of spheres has impressed us. Besides that, the language of spheres has no more function other than confusing us. In order to go into the real architectonics of Walzer’s theory, we have to get rid of the spheres first. If some people still insist on speaking of spheres, they may continue to do so provided the concept of sphere to be strictly understood “nominalistically.” We can speak of the sphere of public education, the sphere of private education, the sphere of professional education, or the sphere of private affairs, etc. “Nothing depends on the decision; it is only a matter of convenience of exposition.”23G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic, p. 502.

How are we then to explain Walzer’s eleven spheres? The sixth principle of goods states that distributive principles are derived from the meanings of goods. But den Hartogh, following some previous critics, points out that this principle is only applicable to honour and love. One cannot sincerely praise someone who one does not admire, or one cannot genuinely love someone who one dislikes. One can sing praises, or one can offer marriage. But the act itself is not honour, or love. Honour should be given to those who are honourable, and love to those who are lovable. Praise and love, however, are connected to a person’s psychological state, and they cannot be distributed. Only laurels and marriage can. If laurels are commonly regarded as an expression of honour, and marriage as a loving relationship, their proper distributive criteria can be said to be derived from their social meanings.24G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic, pp. 505-507.

Yet the cases of honour and love are exceptional. Other goods do not share the same properties. Walzer separate them, den Hartogh opines, not according to their social meanings but by two covert methods. The first is selection by principle, and the second, selection by goods. To apply the first method, Walzer has to fix beforehand four basic distributive principles: membership, need, desert, and free exchange.25Cf. Spheres, pp. 21-26. He then sets out to determine, for a particular principle, the range of goods to which it can be applied. The resultant group of goods is said to form a sphere. In other words, a particular distributive principle is being imposed on some goods whose social meanings do not contain the principle itself. Den Hartogh names three such spheres: security and welfare, money and commodities, and recognition. The most obvious one is the sphere of money and commodities. Walzer first affirms a principle of entitlement, namely, people are free to dispose of their possessions provided they abide by some rules. He then constructs a sphere, puts in all the goods that are not prohibited for exchange, and elaborates on the distributive principle.26G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic, pp. 495-498.

The other method is selection by goods. It begins with a liberal selection of a set of goods with some common properties. These goods are then defined as a sphere. To find out which distributive principles are appropriate to that sphere, Walzer examines each good by the four basic principles in turn. Is it necessary to support full membership? Is it a need? Is it a reward? Or is it a commodity? After that, he derives social meanings from the fixed principles. The majority of the eleven spheres are constructed by this method. Take education as an example. Walzer groups various kinds of education into a sphere. He then considers them one by one from the elementary to the advanced levels. Basic education is necessary for an effective participation in the community. It is a need, and should be distributed to every member. General education is a kind of welfare, and should be distributed to anyone who is interested in it. Specialized education for jobs that require expertise is a kind of office, and should only be given to those who are qualified. Although the meaning of education does not prohibit education to be provided by the free market, in view of the fact that priority has already been given to other distributive principles, private education should be strictly limited.27G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic, pp. 499-501. In the final analysis, den Hartogh reduces Walzer’s theory to four principles. In his opinion, Walzer has no theory at all. The sphere is only a “disguise.” But happily, “what it disguises turns out to be a very effective way of doing applied ethics without theory.”28G. den Hartogh, The Architectonic, pp. 516,518.

On the whole, I do not find den Hartogh’s argument convincing. Walzer could not have imposed distributive principles on educational goods, and then derived social meanings from them. Den Hartogh’s charge is absurd. How can one derive the long historical account of a good from its distributive principle? It needs a wilful determination on the part of the reader to ignore the narrations of goods in the Spheres. We see here the Principle of Prior Simplicity is at work on den Hartogh—he wants to reduce Walzer’s thick description of goods to a set of four distributive principles. It may be possible that Walzer has determined the distributive principle in advance, and then looks for historical cases to support his argument. But den Hartogh cannot give evidence for it. It is also true that Walzer is unable to define positively what a commodity is. This is due to the fact that men have the ability to exchange almost everything via a monetary system. Hence the sphere of commodities has to be defined negatively. But that does not mean the market has no boundary. As to the idea of entitlement, Walzer must have known it, and it certainly plays an important role in Walzer’s construction of the sphere. However, Walzer would probably say that the concept of entitlement is a part of the social meanings of commodities.

There are some ambiguities concerning the meaning of “the social meaning of a good.” Most critics will understand it in the narrow sense of the term as the immediate meaning of the good. For example, they would say that medicine is meant to cure illness. Whereas Walzer would take a long and broad view of medicine. He would investigate how the meaning of medicine changes in history, and how this meaning is related to other aspects of life. Thus he would arrive at the conclusion that medicine is for the “cure of the bodies”—an equivalent of the “cure of the souls” in the Middle Ages, and that it should be equally distributed to everyone who has the need. The critics have misunderstood Walzer. Of course, Walzer himself must assume some degree of responsibility for not making himself clear in his theory of goods.

Den Hartogh has not solved the mystery of spheres. Nonetheless, his suspicion is valid. Is it true that Walzer constructs his spheres arbitrarily? Or has he some tacit criteria in mind? Could we take the concept of sphere “nominalistically” and use it as a matter of convenience? To all these questions, I cannot find satisfactory answers in the Spheres of Justice, so I have to look for them elsewhere.

3. The liberal project

An article published in 1984—Liberalism and the Art of Separation— discloses the origin of Walzer’s spheres: they come from the root of liberalism. In it, Walzer suggests that liberalism be interpreted as “a certain way of drawing the map of the social and political world.” The method that the liberals employed is separation. Instead of annihilating their rivals, liberals were often content with a division of power. Their aim was immediate: they wanted a limited freedom of their own. Before the movement of liberalism, society was conceived, Walzer writes, as “an organic and integrated whole.” Though there were distinctions between various aspects of life, they were connected with each other through Christ, the redeemer of the world. The Church, who is the representative of Christ on earth, co-ordinated diversity into unity. Liberalism emerged as a movement of separation, of fighting against integration and domination. They drew lines to differentiate spheres of life, and they built walls to protect them. First came the separation of church and state, then followed by church-state and universities, civil society and political community, family and state, public life and private life.29M. Walzer, Liberalism and the Art of Separation, in Political Theory 12 (1984) 315-330, pp. 315-317.

Separation may be regarded as evil—a destructive force which disintegrates the coherence of society. However, separation may also be seen as a positive process of differentiation, of struggling against chaos—a continuation of the creative work of “each according to its kind.” Each separation creates a new sphere of freedom. The separation of church and state creates religious liberty which safeguards the autonomy of each religious institution. At the same time, it allows each individual to have equal freedom in seeking his or her own salvation, that is, a priesthood of all believers; it tends to create churches dominated by laymen rather than by priests. The line between church-state and universities brings about academic liberty. Academic freedom protects the autonomy of universities, which in turn enables the universities to make their own rules of admission and research independent of the rich and the powerful. The separation of civil society and political community creates the free market. All persons are equal in market place. The price is determined by the market mechanism instead of status or race. The split of family and state abolishes nepotism, and paves the way for careers open to talents, which provides equal opportunities for equally talented persons. The separation between public and private life facilitates the right to privacy. It protects individual and familial freedom against intrusion by the authorities. It affirms that values held by individuals or families are equal.30Liberalism, pp. 315-317.

In a few strokes, Walzer outlines the achievements of the liberals over the past several hundred years. Few people would doubt what he says. Indeed, liberal theorists always reiterate the independence of state, church, and civil society. Walzer only adds some more items to the list. His spheres are in fact a description of the liberal world. One of the factors that make Walzer’s theory distasteful to some critics may be his use of language, which bears a striking resemblance to the creation narrative of the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition.

The creation story of Genesis (1,1-2,4a) tells us that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth; the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Then, creation is described as consisting of acts of causation as well as acts of separation: light is created and separated from darkness; firmament is created which separates the waters above and the waters below; waters on earth are separated from the dry land; plants and animals are created and separated according to their various kinds; stars are created and separated to function differently; human beings are created and separated into male and female. The act of creation is not only creation ex nihilo but also separation and assignation of functions. Thus, the creation is changed from formlessness and darkness into a differentiated, ordered, meaningful world. The Christian interpretation of creation emphasizes the aspect of creation ex nihilo, and tends to neglect the implication of separation. However, in the Jewish tradition, separation occupies an important role.

Let us take the creation of light (Gn 1,3-5) as an example and see how the rabbis interpret it. Rabbi Rashi, commenting on verse 4, says,

He saw that it was good, but it was not proper that light and darkness should function together in a confused manner. He established the daytime as the limit of the former’s sphere of activity, and the nighttime, as the latter’s.31N. Scherman and M. Zlotowitz (eds.), Bereishis. Genesis / A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources (Artscroll Tanach Series). Translation and commentary by M. Zlotowitz, Vol. I(a), New York, NY, 21986, p. 41, c. 1. Italics added.

For Rabbi Rashi, it is important that light and darkness should each have its own sphere of activity so that they will not work in a confused manner. It is noteworthy that both Rabbi Rashi and Walzer, coincidentally, use the same word “sphere.”

Another rabbi, Ibn Ezra, when commenting on separation, suggests that “the ‘separation’ here refers to God’s differentiation of light and darkness by assigning them different names as detailed in the following verse.”32N. Scherman and M. Zlotowitz (eds.), Bereishis, p. 42, c. 1.

The verb בדל does not mean simply ‘divide’. It carries with it, at the same time, ‘a positive allocation, a separate existence, a separate purpose.’ Light thus awakens, and darkness gives the opportunities to relax from stimulation, and it is God who arranged and limited these two most important contrasts … Light is not to work unceasingly … we cannot bear constant light … we must sink back, after twelve hours of using all our forces, into the old darkness and imbibe fresh forces.

Here, it is significant to note that division is not understood in a negative way. It bears “a positive allocation”—an independent sphere, “a separate existence”—a real distinction from other beings, and “a separate purpose”—a specific function. Darkness is not seen as evil or bad; it has its specific function. Both light and darkness are essential to the well-being of humankind.

The Talmud also has similar opinion, though presented in a different form:33N. Scherman and M. Zlotowitz (eds.), Bereishis, p. 43, c. 1.

It is comparable to a king who had two servants, both of whom wanted to serve during the day. He summoned one of them, and said ‘the day will be your domain,’ and to the other he said ‘the night will be yours.’ Similarly, here: and to the light He called day—i.e. to the light He said ‘the day will be your domain’, and to the darkness He called night—i.e. to the darkness He said, ‘the night will be your domain.’

In this passage, we are told that light and darkness will come into conflict if God does not allocate different domains to them. It implies that an ordered world is a world separated into different domains. Each heavenly body should be confined to its domain for the exercise of its specific function.

There are many such passages in the Bible and in the Talmudic literature. But the above quotations will suffice to show that separation and sphere are ancient ideas in the Western tradition. They may have deposited their traces in the mind of the liberals, and possibly in Walzer if he is brought up in a traditional Jewish family. In view of their Western origin, it is not inappropriate for Walzer to articulate the ideas of separation and sphere. And it seems quite sure that Walzer does not separate the spheres arbitrarily, for at least six of the eleven spheres—money and commodities, office, education, kinship and love, divine grace, political power—are created by the liberals. Den Hartogh’s suggestion that the concept of sphere “be taken as nominalistically as possible” is unfounded. His deconstruction does not help us understand Walzer. On the contrary, it leads us to misunderstand Walzer as well as the real world. Of course, there does not exist a canonical list of spheres, but there is a framework of spheres, I believe, not only in the West but in every society. To define them properly is an art of separation.

Walzer is a master in the art of separation. His eleven spheres define the main features of citizenship in a mature modern state. No critic, as far as I know, has challenged his separation. This may be taken as evidence that Walzer has accurately articulated the Western ideals. The real problem of Walzer’s spheres is his sixth principle of goods, which states that the distributive principle of a good is derived from its social meaning. If Walzer’s statement is taken in its strictest sense, it may not be true for some spheres. To solve this problem, David Miller has a clever advice: “I do not think we need to accept Walzer’s claim in its strongest form in order to defend the spheres of justice argument. That argument requires that it should be possible to establish a separate criterion of distribution for each good, but it does not require that the criterion should be directly determined by the good’s social meaning.”34D. Miller, Complex Equality, in Pluralism, 197-225, p. 222. I agree with Miller’s suggestion that the distributive principle of a good may or may not come directly from the social meaning. In some cases, the distributive criteria are embedded in the social meanings. In other cases, they are implied by the names of the spheres. And in some others, they result from the interactions among spheres. The sixth principle of goods is inaccurate. Nevertheless, each sphere of goods has its own social meanings, and these social meanings are determinative in choosing the criteria of distribution.

B. The transition from liberalism to democratic socialism

1. Three interpretations of the liberal project

Following Walzer’s interpretation, I have described the liberal project as a way of separating society into autonomous spheres. This seems to me to be a natural understanding of the liberal society. Marxists, however, have another interpretation. They take liberalism, says Walzer, “as an ideological rather than a practical enterprise.” They regard the liberal project of separation as “a pretence,” “an elaborate exercise in hypocrisy.” They insist that liberal society is an organic whole with economy as its centre and other inter-connected spheres as attached to it. Freedom and equality are denied; they exist only nominally. All the independent spheres as a whole is but an ideology covering the hegemony of the capitalists. Religion is the opium that calms down the resentment of the oppressed; the universities are training camps for the top working classes; free market benefits only the large companies and corporations, which manipulate public policy and use public facilities to their best advantage; offices, though not legally inheritable, are still in the hands of the capitalist class; freedom at home is allowable so long as what happens there does not threaten the capitalist state.35Liberalism, pp. 317-318.

The Marxists are blind to the achievement of the liberals. The separation of society into different spheres has indeed created a certain degree of freedom and equality. This is undeniable. People living in a liberal society can easily recognize them. How can the leftists ignore such facts? The answer, Walzer suggests, is that they are too occupied with their own ideology. They aspire to a homogeneous society ruled by the proletarians; they project their aspiration to the liberal society, and conclude that the liberal society must be ruled by the class of entrepreneurs.36Liberalism, pp. 319-320. The Marxists are self-contradictory, Walzer complains. They say that separation is a pretence, but at the same time, they criticize the liberal society for manufacturing individuals separated from community.37Liberalism, p. 318. It is quite difficult to imagine how a seamlessly integrated society can have free floating individuals.

Either the citizens in the liberal state are free or they are not free. The Marxists’ interpretation is inconsistent. They are misled partly by their own presupposition, and partly by the liberals’ doctrine. When Marx writes that “the so-called rights of man … are simply the rights … of egoistic man, separated from other men and from the community,” he is reporting the liberals’ self-understanding.38K. Marx, Early Writings, trans. T. B. Bottomore, London, 1963, p. 24. Marx’s report is correct: liberals couch their theory in the terminology of individualism and natural rights. They commonly assume that man is a solitary endowed with a set of inviolable rights. For instance, John Locke justifies the rights of individuals by appealing to nature. In The Second Treatise of Government, he writes:39J. Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, in P. Laslett (ed.), Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge, 21967 (repr., 1988), ch. 2, sect. 4.

To understand Political Power right, and derive it from its Original, we must consider what State all Men are naturally in, and that is, a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man.

In the state of nature, a man or a woman is a free individual, who is bound only by the unique law of nature which says “no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”40J. Locke, The Second Treatise, ch. 2, sect. 6. But man in society is not absolutely free; he has obligations, and is under the rule of judges, kings, or the majority. Liberal theorists accept this limitation as a challenge, and try to draw a plan for society that resembles as much as possible the state of nature. They ask: What are the best political arrangements which allow individuals to enjoy their natural liberty? So, liberal theorists interpret the separation of institutions as an intermediate stage in the process of setting individuals free from each other. If needs arise, individuals can form voluntary associations, and through their consent, cede some rights to the central bodies. Every relationship is seen as non-compulsory. Individuals can at any time renounce their agreement, and withdraw from the associations.

Consent and individual rights, Walzer admits, are two important elements in modern society. But they alone are not sufficient to explain our complex world. The political theory that builds on the imaginary state of nature is a kind of “bad sociology.” Men probably never live in a state of nature. Such hypothesis simply cannot adequately explain social cohesion and the actual experience of man in society. Walzer asserts that the liberal individual who is by nature free and who enters into institutions and relationships by his own consent “does not exist and cannot exist in any conceivable social world.” “The goal that liberalism sets for the art of separation—every person within his or her own circle,” he judges, “is literally unattainable.”41Liberalism, p. 324.

Modern society has engaged in a long-term process of social differentiation. The separation of institutions is the necessary and inevitable consequence of modernization. Marxists do not take it as a reality, and lightly explain it away. Liberals capture the significance of social differentiation. They theorize it, and make themselves the leaders of the movement. Now, Walzer points out that their interpretation is also inaccurate. Social differentiation and the separation of institutions cannot be explained as a process that ends up with spheres of individuals. Thus Walzer suggests interpreting modernization as a process of institutional separation, which aims at setting people free from oppression. If the art of separation is properly understood, he asserts, a consistent “liberalism passes definitively into democratic socialism.”42Liberalism, p. 328.

2. The shape of a democratic socialist society

While Walzer anticipates that a consistent liberalism can have many forms, he painstakingly works out in Spheres of Justice a very detailed social plan for distributive justice. He thinks that a democratic socialism for the United States should have the following arrangements:43Spheres, p. 318.

a strong welfare state run, in part at least, by local and amateur officials; a constrained market; an open and demystified civil service; independent public schools; the sharing of hard work and free time; the protection of religious and familial life; a system of public honoring and dishonoring free from all considerations of rank or class; worker’s control of companies and factories; a politics of parties, movements, meetings, and public debate.

To actualize this vision, Walzer separates the American society into eleven spheres: membership, security and welfare, money and commodities, office, hard work, free time, education, kinship and love, divine grace, recognition, and political power.. Much of Spheres of Justice is devoted to defining the boundary of each sphere and to fixing its distributive principles. The overall aim is to promote a sense of equal membership. The spheres are not, as Walzer says, autonomous. Rather, the idea of equal membership is used to shape the distribution of goods. Equal membership is the salient character of Walzer’s democratic socialism. Instead of giving a complete account of all the spheres, I will only provide a glimpse of the project. I believe an overview of the four spheres—membership, security and welfare, money and commodities, and political power—is sufficient for us to grasp the characteristics of Walzer’s democratic and socialist ideals.

a. Membership

Membership is the first and foremost sphere, for in Walzer’s opinion, distributive justice can only be meaningful within the confinement of a political community. We distribute goods among ourselves, but not to strangers. In Western languages, the root of the word “stranger” means “enemy.” It takes the Western people many centuries before they can distinguish strangers from enemies, and allow them to enter into their territory, offer them hospitality and assistance, and open their market for mutual trade. Walzer holds that that is all they would deal with strangers: they invite them to their market, but exclude them from all the other spheres.44Spheres, pp. 32-33. He justifies the exclusion by appealing to the preservation and development of cultural identity. This is a good reason, but there are complications arising from globalization that Walzer’s concept of citizens may not have adequately dealt with.45I cannot treat the problem of citizenship fully here. I only present two issues that Walzer has touched upon.

Walzer’s view on members and strangers, from the perspective of the cosmopolitans, may not match the emerging the global conditions. Under many years of intensive economic campaigns, the world has been transformed by the capitalists into a sphere of market. Everybody has become a stranger to everybody. These individuals are connected only by a trading relationship. Offices are open to talents, and social welfare is provided by insurance companies. Individuals can move around the globe anywhere they like. The only distributive justice entailed is perhaps Robert Nozick’s minimal state. The above description is only an exaggeration. We are not yet in this state, but we may be at the doorstep to this future world. Another criticism can be raised from the perspective of global justice: Walzer’s inclusion and exclusion are, to borrow the word of Veit Bader, “parochial” ideas, which permit the free movement of goods, but at the same time, deny people from developing countries the chance to compete with the citizens of the wealthy countries for work in the well-developed world.46V. Bader, Citizenship and Exclusion. Radical Democracy, Community, and Justice. Or, What Is Wrong with Communitarianism?, in Political Theory 23 (1995) 211-246, p. 221. Merchandise is free to move, but labour force is not. This is a partial implementation of the free trade principle in the advantage of developed countries.47Cf. V. Bader, Citizenship, pp. 211-213.

Walzer, however, does not believe in one global market and universal nomadism. To him, communal life is something more than just security and economic activities. If states open their borders to let strangers in, the members of local communities, Walzer observes, “will organize to defend the local politics and culture against strangers.”48Spheres, p. 38. It is our desire to nurture intimate relations and to share them selectively. Some people may wish to annul the boundaries set up by nation-states, but this is not be the wish of the majority.

As to the question of exclusion, Walzer cannot give any good solution to the foreigners outside one’s state territory: we simply cannot open our border to all outsiders. But he is not insensitive to this problem; he is willing to speak for the metics within a state. Some European countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany, Walzer says, have encountered the shortage of labour. The “shortage” is not really a shortage; it is only a “shortage” in the economic sense of supply and demand. These are affluent capitalist states with generous welfare systems. Such societies will naturally have difficulty in finding workers to fill up the vacancies of dirty, dangerous, and degrading jobs. These undesirable jobs must be done one way or the other. Either they prune the welfare benefit and force the underprivileged to accept the jobs, or they raise the salary of the jobs to attract workers. Neither way seems desirable. The third way proposed by the business managers is to import labour force from poorer countries. It is the most economical way, and it is also beneficial to everybody—companies, citizens, and foreigner workers. These imported foreigners are called “guest workers.” The word “guest” is a euphemism. These workers are not really being treated as guests. Their salary is relatively low, their living environment is not pleasant, and their movement is strictly regulated. “Alien” would be a more accurate description: they are given permits to work, but they are denied any citizen right, not even the opportunity to become a citizen. Although the guest workers have given their consent, Walzer still thinks the policy unjust. The guest workers are residents of the host country, and are subject to its ruling. They make contribution to the country, but they are barred from taking part in its decision-making. Walzer calls the citizens of the host country “citizen-tyrants.” They should not exclude anyone who lives under their jurisdiction. The foreign workers should at least be given a chance to become naturalized, Walzer pleads.49Spheres, pp. 56-61.

Once membership is clearly defined, a political community emerges. The members of the commonwealth can speak of distribution of various goods among themselves: political power, titles, wealth, responsibility, punishment, etc. All in all, membership is still the most valuable good. It occupies a pivotal role in all other distributions. “What we do with regard to membership,” Walzer writes, “structures all our other distributive choices: it determines with whom we make those choices, from whom we require obedience and collect taxes, to whom we allocate goods and services.”50Spheres, p. 31. This statement does not fully express the importance with which its author has invested in membership. Membership, in Walzer’s enterprise, determines not only the questions of with whom, from whom, and to whom, but also the distributions of other goods. It restrains the autonomy of the spheres, and neutralizes the kind of inequalities that will depreciate membership and social bondage. The primary aim of a political community, in Walzer’s mind, is to sustain the sense of membership. Contrary to his own claim, membership is the basic good of his spheres of justice.

b. Security and welfare

“The original community,” Walzer speculates, “is a sphere of security and welfare, a system of communal provision, distorted, no doubt, by gross inequalities of strength and cunning.”51Spheres, p. 65. To him, it is self-evident that the most important end of a political community is to provide its members with security and welfare. When we ponder over the reason why people come together to form a community, the answer seems obvious enough: we need common effort to sustain and to enjoy our life. No individual alone can withstand the harshness of nature, the hostility of competitors, and the fragility and finiteness of human existence—both physically and psychologically. Even if he could, his life would be so short and so impoverished that no one would desire it. People, out of their common needs, gather together to organize a society. They cede power to a central governing body, and pledge their loyalty to it. In return, they expect the government to provide welfare for them. Every government recognizes this responsibility, and thus every government claims to serve its people, no matter how tyrannical or corrupt it actually is. Political community exists for the sake of provision, and provision strengthens the sense of belonging, the communal life, and the integrity of that community. Every society, in principle, is a welfare state.

How to provide welfare so as to foster a communal spirit is the prime art of politics. There are surely many ways to sustain social cohesion. Underneath the plurality of welfare systems, Walzer believes there exist some common distributive principles. To discover these principles, he compares two particular cases: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c., and the medieval Jewish communities in Europe.

Walzer observes that the Athenians and the Jews have different patterns of distributions. They attend differently to the needs of their people. The Athenians focus on democracy, while the Jews concern more with religious identity. The difference in communal interest leads to differences in communal distributions. The Athenians were generous in providing general provision, but almost indifferent to the needs of particular citizens. The Jews, on the contrary, distributed the public funds mostly in the form of particular distributions. Community does exist for the sake of the needs of the people, but the needs are not the same for every community. Human beings have many desires, and no community could claim to satisfy them all, nor has any the capability to do so. Which desires should we recognize as the needs of the community? And to what extent should we provide for the needs? Some basic goods, such as food, water, security, and so on, are needs of individuals and essential to our survival, but they are not necessarily recognized as the needs of the community. Food, for instance, was not perceived as a need by the Athenians and the Jews. The former thought that a guarantee of the supply of corn had already fulfilled the duty of the city, and the hungry should fill their stomachs by themselves. The latter did distribute food to the poor, but they regarded the distribution as charity, an unavoidable religious duty rather than the need of the community. So the Jews did nothing to improve the situation of the poor. It is curious that a community will sometimes spend a large proportion of public funds on something that is not regarded as essential for survival. The Athenians used over half of its revenue to pay those citizens who participated in public offices, whereas the Jews spent generously on education. These two communities have different concerns that have their origins in their respective national aspirations.

Once a list of the needs could be recognized, many of the goods provided would be distributed in proportion to the needs of the members. The reason is obvious. Public funds are distributed for the promotion of certain projects or to satisfy the needs of particular members. The aim of provision is to relieve certain distress or to enhance certain aspects of the communal life. The point here is functionality rather than equality. Thus, it must be provided to all members who need it in proportion to their needs. Any other criterion introduced to the distributive process, save the constraint of resources, is experienced as a distortion or a violation.

Still, there is an exception to the general rule of proportionality: the Athenians gave an equal amount of stipend to those who attended public offices, rich and poor alike. Why didnn’t they distribute the stipend according to need? Walzer points out that the underlying rationality was to uphold the equality of membership so that none of the citizens attending the Assembly would feel inferior. As individuals, they had different needs; but as citizens, their status was equal and thus they were equally paid. Provision is generally distributed in proportion to need, but at the same time, it should be distributed in a way that does not harm citizenship. Moreover, provision is different from charity. In the act of charity, the donor, out of kindness, responds to the misery of the donee. The giver will always have a sense of superiority over the receiver. Even if the giver is the community, the whole procedure is degrading and imparts to the receiver a sense of inferiority. This is why people are often reluctant to receive charity. Provision on the other hand is distributed on the recognition that each person is an equal member of the community.

Since goods are scarce, a community has to decide which needs, to what extent, and for whom they are going to provide. Even if we recognize some goods as the needs of the community, it is unclear how much we need them, or how much we owe each other. Most people will agree that internal security and order is a necessity of the community. But we may dispute the quantity and quality of policing to be provided. To make a city free of crime, we can position one policeman on every street. Though some cities can afford to do this, they may not think that they need such degree of security. Moreover, provision is redistribution, where the funds come mainly from taxes. As taxes are not equally distributed, so do benefits. Generally, the rich have to contribute more and benefit less in redistribution, while the poor give less and receive more. There will always be tension between different groups over the issue of how much to spend on a certain provision.

These questions, Walzer opines, cannot be solved philosophically. Speculation on human rights will not bring about an Athenian welfare state or a medieval Jewish community. Each community has its own history and identity, and thus will perceive problems differently. Philosophers can lay out general principles, but the specific arrangements will always be shaped by the people’s shared understandings and determined by public opinions. Walzer makes a distinction between authorization and validation.52For detailed discussion of the relationship between philosophy and democracy, see M. Walzer, Philosophy and Democracy, in Political Theory 9 (1981) 379-399. Authorization belongs to the sphere of politics whereas validation falls in the realm of philosophy. Politics and philosophy are two different spheres. Philosophy claims to have a special knowledge of the truth. But this claim is in fact one of the opinions. “In the world of opinion,” writes Walzer, “truth is indeed another opinion, and the philosopher is only another opinion-maker.”53Philosophy, p. 397. In politics, the citizens have the right to decide which opinion they want to adopt. Therefore, the decision as to what a community should provide, to whom and how much, should be determined by public opinions but not by philosophical speculation.

c. Money and commodities

Membership is the most valuable good in a political community, indeed the very existence of the community is to sustain a particular understanding of membership. We collectively create goods of all kinds, and arouse each other’s desire for them. Ideally, all goods are meant to facilitate the common identity. One way to realize this socialist ideal is to distribute goods equally among all members or according to particular needs. Walzer calls this kind of socialist thinking “simple equality.” Strictly understood, simple equality is bound to fail because no political community can provide total security and welfare that can satisfy every need of every member. Even if it could, people would not like such totalizing system. People like to obtain some goods and services from the market. They like to choose and to secure the goods they really want in an environment of free exchange. Taking into account the complexity of human desires, Walzer proposes to create a sphere of security and welfare separate from the civil society. A certain number of goods are allocated to the sphere of security and welfare, and they are to be distributed according to the socialist ideal. As for the vast varieties of goods which he calls commodities, they belong to the sphere of money and commodities. While the former sphere guarantees a minimum membership, the latter provides a space for free exchanges and entrepreneurship. According to Walzer’s theory, if the two spheres do not intrude into each other’s domain, they will operate justly by their own rules. Besides this idea of justice, Walzer also wants to uphold the ideal of equal membership, or in his words, “complex equality.” Now, we have a question here: do autonomous spheres entail equal membership? Walzer says they do, but in reality they do not. For example, Walzer himself acknowledges that the free market as we know it undermines equal membership. His creation of the sphere of security and welfare alone cannot effectively check the market forces, other external constraints need to be imposed on the market. This discrepancy between theory and praxis has misled many readers. To highlight the issue at stake, I suggest that we recast Walzer’s argument in the following order: the nature of the market, its problems, and Walzer’s solutions.

In the liberal ideal, the market is infinite. It does not have any border and boundary. It is indifferent to membership and is open to all. Sellers from everywhere are welcome to exchange whatever goods or services they possess. Buyers are welcome to look for the right kind of goods and services regardless of who offer them. Thanks to the invention of a monetary system, we can price almost anything. Theoretically, all goods and services that people are willing to exchange can be sold, except for a few things such as love and honour. When the market functions in an environment with no external intervention, we are informed by the liberal economic theory that it is the most effective medium to distribute resources. Apparently, Walzer seems to subscribe to this economic argument. “The right way to possess such things [commodities],” he writes, “is by making them, or growing them, or somehow providing them or their cash equivalents for others. Money is both the measure of equivalence and the means of exchange; these are the proper functions of money and (ideally) its only functions. It is in the market that money does its work, and the market is open to all comers. In part, this view of money and commodities rests upon the sense that there is no more efficient distributive process, no better way of bringing individual men and women together with the particular things they take to be useful or pleasing.”54Spheres, p. 104.

The distributive principle in the sphere of money and commodities is free exchange through the medium of money. Supermarket is not a good example of free exchange because the price is fixed by the management, and the consumer cannot bargain for a lower price. A better example will be the stock market or the futures market, in which buyers and sellers are both on an equal footing. The sellers can ask and the buyers can bid. When a bid price matches an offer price, a deal is done.

A capitalist system is characterized by its immense capability to exchange goods through an abstract monetary scale. The entrepreneurs, by their creativity and incessant effort, have connected our life seamlessly to the economic system. A large number of goods are supplied through the market to satisfy our basic needs, to please our desires, to develop our humanity, to educate our youth, to defend our country, etc. Money obviously is the dominant good in a capitalist society. The possession of a large capital immediately enables one to gain extra influence in other spheres. Moreover money can, rightly or wrongly, buy almost every good. Walzer perceives that the two market forces will cause four main problems in industrial society.

First, money confuses the line between price and value. Since different goods have different values, and normally goods with higher values will have higher prices, money can be conceived as a representation of value. Hence, every good, every service, every valued thing can be translated into monetary terms. For instance, life has value, and thus insurance company can calculate the prices for different lives. Sometimes price will coincide with value, but often enough, it fails to represent its true worth. If we evaluate a work of art in terms of money, and take the price as the value of the art, Walzer says, the most important value of the art will evaporate in the process. Just as when we translate a poem from one language into another, something quintessential will be missing.55Spheres, p. 97. Furthermore we have created some values which are difficult to price. Sometimes it is impossible or inappropriate to price, thus we call them “priceless.” But the pander can always name a price to priceless things. This illegitimate act is an obvious case that money can degrade the values we create.

Specifically, “money buys membership in industrial society.”56L. Rainwater, quoted in Spheres, p. 105. Walzer is not thinking of immigration or naturalization when he makes this charge. He is speaking of membership being degraded by money. A political community gives every member a social status which is supposed to be protected by the sphere of security and welfare. But the merchants create another sphere of status commodities, which supersedes the former. In a commercialized society, a person who possesses the set of commercially defined commodities will be accepted as a member of the society. For the have-nots, they are socially rejected. The merchants’ trick is to play on the human psyche of longing to be equal and differentiated at the same time. Commodities, through advertising strategies, acquire widely accepted sign values in addition to their use values. A certain product is mapped onto a certain class, creating an illusory equivalent of the two. It produces an effect that only through the possession of that particular good can a person identify himself as a member of that group. So an average American should have a house, a car, a computer, various electrical appliances, and go on vacation from time to time. Unless they own these socially required things, they cannot be socially recognized, or they cannot effectively participate in society. Walzer describes this situation as “status starvation.” This sociological disinheritance, he warns, is more serious than poverty because one becomes an alien in his own homeland—and often in his own home.57Spheres, pp. 105-106.

Money has also acquired a political character. This does not mean bribery. Walzer observes that capitalists have gained extra political influence, and that money has become a form of political power in capitalist state. In the mid nineteenth century, Rowland Macy and the Strauss brothers owned and ran the world’s biggest department store. As a result, they became very rich and popular. Later, the Strauss brothers, Isidor, Nathan, and Oscar entered politics and occupied important public offices. Walzer does not have any problem with their riches, he even admits that the Strauss brothers were capable managers as well as civil administrators. However, he is uneasy with their political advantage due to the money they owned. Their wealth definitely helps them to the offices. Walzer finds such prestige and influence unacceptable.58Spheres, pp. 110-112. Moreover, the accumulation of large amount of money is virtually an accumulation of political power. (Walzer discusses this when he deals with the sphere of political power. But it may be helpful to mention it briefly here.) It leads to the concentration of almost all means of production in the hands of a few relatively small groups of people. These means of production, such as plants, machines, and assembly lines, exert enormous influence on people. The owners can make all sorts of decisions which will constrain and shape the lives of their employees, or even the citizens. The control of productive means can effectively transform the entrepreneurs into the governors of their private governments.

In order to solve all these problems, Walzer recommends three solutions: blocked exchanges, redistributions, and regulating money as a kind of political power. The first constraint may be considered as an internal reasoning of the sphere, but the last two are external interventions. They are introduced not for the sake of the market, but for the integrity of other spheres. The nature of the rules will become clear when we look at Walzer’s explanations.

Blocked exchanges bring out the idea that some goods are barred from pricing. Different goods may be blocked from exchange for different reasons. But the underlying principle is the difference between value and price. Every good has its value, and it can be given a price arbitrarily or through the market mechanism. The price may or may not represent the value of the good, for price and value belong to different categories. We have created some values that cannot be represented by a price. For such values, we block them from exchange in the market. To substantiate this argument, Walzer lists a set of fourteen blocked items in the United States.59See Spheres, pp. 100-103.

This is an extensive list of things that cannot be bought in the United States, and probably in all the other existing states. But not all of the items in the list are blocked exchanges. Many of the presumed blocked exchanges are in fact prohibitions; they have nothing to do with value or price. There is no value in slavery (1), polygamy (5), or murder (14), we simply refuse to price them or to allow for their exchange. Slavery, polygamy, and murder are prohibited by law. Under no circumstances, should they be practised by anyone. Divine grace (12), love and friendship (13) can never be priced or bought. Other items are no better.60For a detailed criticism of Walzer’s blocked exchanges, see J. Waldron, Money, pp. 155-164. The only goods that may perhaps be said to be blocked from exchange are political power (2), offices (8), and honours (11). Despite such shortcomings, Walzer’s list shows that there are constraints imposed on the market. It implies that we may restrict or block some goods from exchange if we think fit. It is an external restriction, which has nothing to do with the social meaning of commodities, but it is an legitimate act nonetheless.

Even if we block the exchange of those goods that are important for sustaining membership, the market is still a risky place. It is ruled not only by demand and supply, but also by luck and strategy. There is no guarantee of success, or distributive equality, or a basic level of subsistence. A man who loses in the market has to suffer the damage. Those who have weak bargaining power can only get a small share of their production, or they may even be forced out of the market forever. Yet market is the place where people get most of their necessities and self-esteem. Therefore, the state must intervene. It has the responsibility to help its citizens to participate in the market so that they can realize themselves as active and equal members. In order to achieve this aim, redistribution is essential. Walzer proposes three kinds of redistributions which can help alleviate the severity of the market. The first one is the redistribution of market power such as the blocking of desperate exchanges and the fostering of trade unions. The government should help the weak so that they can bargain with the powerful for a fair share of their production. The second is taxation. The government can redistribute money directly through the tax system. Finally, the government can constrain property rights and the entailments of ownership, as in the establishment of grievance procedures or the co-operative control of the means of production. Yet even with these measures, we should not forget that the nature of market is venturous. These redistributions cannot provide absolute security, and should not be applied to the extent of stifling the internal mechanism of the market. After all, life is not totally controllable and misfortune does happen. But a responsible community should not leave its citizens to risk their lives alone.

When money has transformed itself into a kind of political power, blocked exchanges and redistributions can no longer be the effective means to curb its power. We have to socialize it, Walzer says, just as we have socialized the government. Before giving a full account of the socialization of money in his later discussion of the sphere of political power, Walzer indirectly mentions it here when he talks about wages. He argues that when we apply a democratic decision-making procedure in the sphere of business, the outcome will be a more equal distribution of profit. He substantiates his argument by citing a report of some American experiments on democratic determination of wages: “In each of the cases reported here, if the worker-owned enterprises did not make wages completely uniform, they at least equalized them significantly compared with capitalist-owned firms and even with the public bureaucracy.”61M. Carnoy and D. Shearer, quoted in Spheres, pp. 117-118. Further he adds: “The new distributive rules seem, moreover, to have no negative effects on productivity.”62Spheres, p. 118.

d. Political power

Political power is the crucial agent of distributive justice. All policies require legislation and enforcement. The state regulates and defends the boundaries of all spheres, it is the obligatory defender of its citizens’ freedom. Ironically, the government itself tends to be tyrannical. We thus have no better way than to limit its power. Some people may have the misconception that the sovereignty of the state is unlimited. Such kind of subject mentality is reinforced intentionally and repeatedly by powerful men and women. The ruling classes always pretend that they are omnipotence. In fact, they, including the dictators themselves, are not as powerful as they think or pretend to be because ultimately their power comes from the people. Without the consent and the co-operation of the citizens, the state is powerless. In human history, every form of government has been restricted in its use of power. Walzer’s list of blocked usage of power in the United States gives us a concrete case of a limited government.63See Spheres, pp. 283-284.

The power of state must be bounded, but, to Walzer, a limited government is not enough. State officials occupying strategic positions can easily turn regulation into intrusion, that is, they intrude into other spheres under the cover of governance. So, we have to ensure that state officials act within their boundaries as well. The best way to achieve this, Walzer suggests, is to socialize the government.

Wise man, like Plato, will certainly not agree that the best form of government is one ruled by the majority. In his argument against democracy, Plato analogizes a state to a ship, which requires a competent master to steer it. He envisages the danger of the ship of democratic state. Politics is a τέχνη, and it must be learned under a qualified teacher. The crowd can never learn enough to rule a state. Although Walzer agrees that effective governance requires certain knowledge and skill, he nevertheless points out that Plato has in fact wrongly applied the analogy. By quoting Renford Bambrough, he writes, “The true analogy is between the choice of a policy by a politician and the choice of a destination by the owner or passengers of a ship.”64R. Bambrough, quoted in Spheres, p. 286. A shipmaster does not have the privilege to determine the destination, and his τέχνη is irrelevant to the choice of a port. The owner or the passengers have to decide where they want to go. Therefore, the destiny of the state should not be determined by the politician. But then we have the question: who is the owner or passengers of the state? Emperors, kings, queens, and princes once claimed to own nations. But this era was gone. Today, most people regard themselves as free men and women, instead of the subjects of a sovereign, (even though some of them are still formally called subjects). All citizens are the owners of a state. Or better still, a state should have no owner. All citizens are the passengers on the same boat. They come on board, and they have to leave some day. They are all equal, and they must determine their common fate through a democratic process. State officials and technocrats are merely elected or appointed servants. They do not have more votes or privilege than any other ordinary citizens in determining the common destiny. They are only administrators of the collective decision. When a choice is made, they can then use their technical knowhow to find the best route, and steer the ship safely to its destination.

So far we are talking about public government. Nowadays, the greatest danger posed to liberty comes not so much from public government as from private government fostered by capitalism. Properly understood, ownership is a power over things. The owner of a thing has the right to dispose of it—he can keep it, use it, exchange it, or give it to anyone he likes. However, the control of things can be transformed into the control of people if the things in question are crucial to the survival of people. Anyone who possesses huge quantity of these goods can exert great influence on the life of people. Already the characters and habits of city dwellers have largely been shaped and partially manipulated by advertisers and entrepreneurs. They influence the taste and the choice of our food and clothing, and set the style of our life. For those who work in factories or corporations, they are under tighter and more direct control of the owners. Thus Walzer argues, the means of production cannot be regarded simply as commodities. They are, in fact, means to power, like weaponry of a modern army. Through the possession of them, owners can form private governments.

Private government is not merely a possibility but a reality in capitalist society. An illuminating case given by Walzer is the entrepreneur George Pullman of Illinois in the late nineteenth century.65Spheres, pp. 295-303. Pullman was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his time. His product—comfortable train compartment—was very popular at the age of railway. Having earned enough money, Pullman decided to build a new complex of factories with a town around it so that every aspect of the life of the workers could be under his control. He thought that this plan would give him the most efficient factories in the world—happy workers and strike-free plants. Pullman built his factories and the town Pullman along Lake Calumet just south of Chicago. Everything in the town belonged to Pullman, and he governed the people at his will. Once asked by a journalist about the management of Pullman, Pullman replied, “We govern them in the same way a man governs his house, his store, or his workshop. It is all simple enough.” Politics is not so simple as business. Pullman’s tyrannical rule bred resentment, people protested and the issue of civil rights was raised. Finally in 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the Pullman Company to divest itself of all its property not used for manufacturing purposes.

Pullman’s case makes it clear that the possession of basic necessities can help gain controlling power over people. Of course, the ownership of a town is different from the ownership of a factory. The influence of owning a town is reasonably greater than that of owning a factory. However, the influence of a factory owner is serious enough for its employees. In terms of the workers’ quality daytime, the owner has control over most part of it. Thus Walzer suggests that the control over the means of production should be regarded as a form of political power. If we think that it is appropriate to socialize public government in order to diminish its tyrannical character, the same argument should also be applied to private government. It follows that the right of decision-making should be turned over from the management to the workers. This does not necessarily mean the abolishment of private property. Ownership and sovereignty are not identical, and indeed can be separated. An owner’s right of using a property (sovereignty) can be restricted. He should not have the right to freely dispose of a property if the disposal will tremendously influence the life of his neighbours and fellow citizens. A group of shareholders can own a factory and receive dividends, but the right of management should belong to the workers. This is similar to that of owning government bonds. The bondholders receive interests, but have no right to interfere with any decision on policy. If private government is socialized, Walzer believes, capitalist society will transform into democratic socialist society.

§2. Justice, liberty, and equality

The spheres delineated by Walzer are neither arbitrarily drawn as commented by some critics, nor are they entirely autonomous as Walzer himself has claimed. There are different domains of activities in society, and Walzer’s hand is visible in moulding them into a definite shape. His purpose is to construct a model of modern society with, as it were, not only a skeleton but also flesh and blood—a feat that the Marxists, the socialists, and the liberals have all failed to accomplish. Walzer deserves praise for his nuanced description of a democratic socialist society. While many critics admire Walzer’s accomplishment, they query at the same time the nature of this régime: is it just? is it egalitarian? Walzer claims it to be an egalitarian régime of a complex kind. A novel idea! And we have to see what it means.

A. The separation of justice from the modern ideal

1. Justice and shared understanding

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—this is not merely the slogan of the French Revolution, it is also the touchstone of modern society. A set of political arrangements is said to be just if it promotes either freedom or equality. In order to construct a political theory that satisfies these standards, philosophers commonly identify some basic goods like welfare, opportunity, and freedom, and find ways to distribute them equally among citizens. Walzer disparages this kind of thinking as simple equality. Justice, for him, has many spheres, and simple equality actually violates the pluralistic justice we hold. “A given society is just,” he says, “if its substantive life is lived in a certain way—that is, in a way faithful to the shared understandings of the members.”66Spheres, p. 313.

However, this definition is ambiguous. How are we to measure “substantive life”? And what are we supposed to do if shared understandings are controversial? Walzer gives us two additional criteria for its clarification:

  1. All distributions are just and unjust relative to the social meanings of the goods at stake.67Spheres, p. 9.
  2. When people disagree about the meaning of social goods, when understandings are controversial, then justice requires that the society be faithful to the disagreements, providing institutional channels for their expression, adjudicative mechanisms, and alternative distributions.68Spheres, p. 313.

The first criterion is the distributive principle: to each according to its kind. It divides the measurement of the whole into parts. A society is just if it distributes goods in all, or almost all, or the major(?) spheres according to the shared understandings. The second criterion is the principle of democracy. It anticipates that there will be different interpretations of shared understandings. The solution should not be dictated by authority of any kind, be it of philosophical, religious, or political in nature. Indeed, no final or right interpretation should be presumed. Opposing parties can argue for their cases, and they can amend the existing distributions. The process is fully democratic, and we may say that democracy is the prerequisite of a just society. These two principles together imply that every existing society, except the dictatorial régime, is potentially just. An authoritarian régime is just if shared understandings authorize authoritarianism. An inegalitarian régime is also just if the inequalities are inscribed in the shared understandings. Many philosophers find the last two implications difficult to swallow.

2. Caste society

To further provoke his opponents, Walzer gives an example in which justice does not resist inequality, but instead enacts dominance and monopoly. The Indian caste system is a case in point.69Spheres, p. 313. Ancient India had a caste system in which people were divided into rigid, segregated groups with definite, un-transgressible boundaries. All goods, such as prestige, wealth, knowledge, office, occupation, food, clothing, even conversation, were subject to the hierarchical ordering. The distributions were determined by the single good of ritual purity, and purity was largely defined by birth and blood. There were no separate spheres, and the social meanings reinforced the status quo. In such a case, people can be faithful to their shared understandings but their society remains inegalitarian. Walzer asserts that ancient India is a just society.

For those who believe that inequality is unjust always and everywhere will certainly denounce the caste system as a notorious case violating “the demands of justice,” to borrow Brian Barry’s words. Barry rebukes Walzer for “flattering our audience and telling them that if enough of them believe the same thing it makes no sense to say they are all wrong.”70B. Barry, Spherical Justice, pp. 79-80. Walzer may answer that it is more effective to use the local language to persuade the local people. Barry would respond that truth has nothing to do with effectiveness. It is the requirement of human dignity that we should pronounce inequality unjust, “even if this cuts no ice with the beneficiaries.” Moreover, if criticism is not heard by the members of the group at stake, it “may convince those outside the society to support or undertake action to change things—ranging from letter-writing campaigns organized by Amnesty International all the way up to military intervention.”71B. Barry, Liberty, p. 17. Barry even uses Walzer’s principle of faithfulness to shared understandings to produce a counterargument: “The obvious objection to this is that ‘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—and it would not be correct to say so even if there was a consensus among Indians that it was just.”72B. Barry, Spherical Justice, p. 75.

I do not think Walzer really approves the Indian caste system. He only makes use of an extremely irritating case to arouse the cultural awareness of his Western readers. To him, a cautious approach to distributive justice is necessary. One should first try to understand the underlying ideology that legitimizes the caste system. And if we look closer into the matter, we will find out that the concept of Indian equality is closely linked to the country’s religious beliefs. The Indians believe that a person’s present state is the direct consequence of his previous life, and what he now does in this life will have consequence in what he will become in the next life. Each person will be awarded or punished according to one’s aggregate rights or wrongs. So, the Indians actually have a different idea of equality, and that is, equal opportunity is given to each person throughout the whole of his incarnated lives instead of focused in one single life.

Walzer further argues that the caste system, albeit its rigidity, still allows the lower castes a certain degree of enjoyment. Very often, the main cause of suffering stems from the exploitation of the upper castes which exceeds the limit of shared understandings. He gives an example of the distribution of grain in an Indian village:73Spheres, p. 313.

Each villager participated in the division of the grain heap. There was no bargaining, and no payment for specific services rendered. There was no accounting, yet each contributor to the life of the village had a claim on its produce, and the whole produce was easily and successfully divided among the villagers.

The picture presents a harmonious communal life despite the fact that the shares are significantly unequal. The division is normally done in public. Therefore, any unjust seizures of grain could easily be recognized. And if the landlord hires cheap labours from elsewhere, he violates the rights of the lower caste members of the village, who will certainly complain by invoking the shared understandings. The lower caste is not totally defenceless.

What if there are discrepancies in the interpretation of shared understandings? Some of the lower caste may be indignant with the unequal distribution of grain. If this were the case, we had to find out the reasons of their indignation. Perhaps there are principles behind these reasons which can be used to criticize the system. Furthermore the hierarchy of meanings may be incoherent, that is, some social meanings may not have been perfectly integrated into the system. For example, the shared understanding of royal power may involve some notion of divine grace, or human talent, or virtue besides noble birth and blood. If the man who sits on the throne is lacking in grace, or talent, or virtue, we may say that the situation is an unjust state of affairs.

Even if the caste system is fully justified by the shared understandings, there is still room for missionary work. A visitor to the village may try to convince the villagers that their system is not good enough, and that he could offer them a better alternative. He might argue that there is no next life, and thus equality should be realized here and now. If he should succeed, some new distributive principles would replace the old ones.

Barry and Walzer are exemplars of the universalist and particularist approaches. Barry is fully aware of the fact that the universal moral principles are based on the common values of a particular culture.74Barry has argued that utilitarianism and Rawlsian theory are not totally groundless and speculative. In fact, these theories, as well as Walzer’s, are based on some familiar beliefs of their societies. See B. Barry, Liberty, pp. 18-22. As a philosopher, his task is to extract a coherent set of abstract principles from those values. He will then test them, and modify them if necessary by comparing these principles and their imaginary applications with his intuition. Once a principle goes through the process and an equilibrium is reached, it will be declared valid and universal and can be used to judge any society. Since the truthfulness of the principle is so obvious to Barry, any society that violates it can be coerced to conform to it by criticism, public opinion campaign, or even military intervention. By contrast, Walzer emphasizes the intrinsic worthiness of any existing society. Though we can maintain our own beliefs of justice, it is improper to use them to judge other societies. Although the aspirations to the solidarity of mankind and the concern for other nations’ welfare are respectable, they must be conducted on the ground of mutual respect and in an effective way. Walzer thinks that internal criticism is the best way to achieve social change. If internal criticism cannot fulfil our aims, we can then go as missionaries to convert the local people. Intervention should never be used as a means to change a society’s distributive patterns.75. Walzer has argued that the legalist paradigm of non-intervention and self-determination should be accepted as the basic framework of international relations. However, intervention may be allowed under any one of the following conditions: “to assist secessionist movements, to balance the prior interventions of other powers, and to rescue peoples threatened with massacre.” See Wars, pp. 86-108.

B. Liberty and equality

Equality and justice, for Walzer, are two separate ideas. These two do not have conceptual link. A just society—such as the caste society—is not necessarily an egalitarian one. Justice and equality, Walzer argues, do have a sociological link in a highly differentiated society. In the Spheres, he says that when the goods are distributed justly, it will give rise to a kind of complex equality that is “consistent with liberty.”76Cf. Spheres, pp. xiv,315. Later in the Liberalism and the Art of Separation, he clarifies that the separation of spheres creates first of all spheres of liberty. Each separation creates a sphere of freedom, and each freedom facilitates a sphere of equality. Liberty goes hand in hand with equality. In fact, Walzer asserts, “a … society enjoys both freedom and equality when success in one institutional setting isn’t convertible into success in another.”77Liberalism, pp. 320-321.

Differentiation creates a multi-dimensional freedom; this is quite conspicuous. So far, no critics disagree with that. But when they come to equality, they express great reservations about Walzer’s complex equality. Walzer says that each sphere creates a new dimension of freedom, and a new kind of equality emerges with the freedom. For instance, civil society gives rise to the free market, and that everyone is equally welcome in the market. Equal admission can somehow be said to be a kind of equality, but this equality is so thin that it hardly matches the ideal itself. Almost all egalitarians would be concerned with the equality of bargaining power and the equal distribution of capital. Walzer holds a different opinion. He says that monopoly in the market is all right as long as the advantage gained in this sphere cannot be transferred to other spheres. What kind of equality is this?

1. A reinterpretation of equality

“Equality literally understood is an ideal ripe for betrayal,” says Walzer. It is, as understood by most egalitarians, an unrealistic dream and the self-torture of the obsessed idealists. Whenever people come together to strive for equality, they have to organize themselves. They distribute power, assign positions, and delegate authority in order that equality will be realized. As a result, they become unequal among themselves: some will have more power and some will become superiors. Gradually but surely, a hierarchy will be formed. Now let us imagine another scenario in which money and material goods are distributed evenly among members of a society. In the beginning everyone will have a fair and equal amount of possessions. But sooner or later, those who are smart enough will start creating new goods and exchanges will be carried out among the members. After some time, some people will accumulate more money or material goods than the others. If the society still insists on maintaining its equality, it must legislate strict laws to ban all exchanges and deploy strong force to police the citizens. This would require a powerful central government. Consequently, a few persons will become more powerful than the others.78Spheres, pp. xi-xii. This policy doubly hurts the society, for it forces people who are not actually the same to look as if they were, and asks the ruling élite to pretend ridiculously that they are ordinary citizens. Such as it is, literal equality is neither feasible nor desirable.

Equality is not merely an empty slogan put forward by ambitious politicians. It has always been a source of inspiration for modern states, and an ideal upheld by many people. In order to make the ideal of equality more feasible, philosophers commonly supplement it with liberty. Their aim is to guarantee every citizens some basic rights while at the same time allowing for social and economic inequalities. For example, in John Rawls’s two principles of justice, the first principle affirms an equal right to basic liberty, but the second justifies inequalities on some conditions.79J. Rawls, A Theory, pp. 72. Thus understood, equality consists of an equal right to basic goods, an equality of fair opportunity, and inequalities on the provision that priority has been given to the least fortunate.

This approach, however, is problematic, for it legitimizes inequality by using the ideal of equality. Marxists would naturally be suspicious of the formula. At the very beginning, Marx was critical of the idea of rights. He pointed out that the so-called rights of man and of the citizen are actually the rights of the bourgeoisie; the proletariat is excluded. The declaration of rights is, in fact, a betrayal of equality. Although nowadays the rights have been theoretically extended to include all men and women, not everyone can appropriate and enjoy them. Consider liberty. Most Western countries grant every citizen equal right to liberty. But in reality, not everyone enjoys the same degree of freedom because freedom itself is dependent on one’s possession of material goods. If I do not have money, how can I buy vacation in summer? If I do not have some control over the media, how can my speech be known? Liberty depends on capability. Yet this aspect is entirely left out in the language of rights. Therefore, the talk of rights is a deficient tool in the articulation of the fullness of the value of equality. Marx, while expounding on fair distribution in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, expresses a similar comment: “This equal right [the right to exchange equal amount of labour] is an unequal right for unequal labour.”80K. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, in E. Hobsbawn et al. (eds.), Collected Works, Vol. XXIV, London, 1989, 75-99, p. 86. Because of the differences in capabilities and needs, he moans that this individualistic claim of rights will end up in the same state of inequality as in the bourgeois society. The aspiration to equality has value deeper than the protection of individual rights. It calls for a thicker description of the bonds among people in community. Walzer is not so extreme as Marx as to deny the language of rights. He argues, in Just and Unjust Wars, that there are some basic rights of which any violation cannot be legitimized. That means the argument of rights is still appropriate in the domain of international society. However, he contends that the language of rights is so thin that it is inadequate to express a thick historical human relations denoted by the word “equality.” He criticizes the liberal theory as an ahistorical speculation. The dilemma of inequality in equality can be taken as a failure to interpret the deep meaning of equality.

In order to discover the deep meaning of equality, Walzer goes back to history. Having studied the major revolutions in the West, he concludes that the revolutionary political thought has a paradigm of “oppression, liberation, social contract, political struggle, new society.”81Exodus, p. 133. He traces the origin of this paradigm to the narrative of the Exodus, from which he develops a “liberation philosophy,” or what he calls “Exodus politics.” Central to all these revolutions is the idea of equality, though some revolutions have not used the exact word. And equality for the revolutionaries is the aspiration to liberation. “The root meaning of equality is negative”; Walzer states, “egalitarianism in its origins is an abolitionist politics.”82Spheres, p. xii. Every struggle has the common appearance of one group dominating the majority, who in turn organize themselves to fight against the domination. The people demand that the domination be abolished. Moreover, this demand is specific: it does not ask for the elimination of all differences but a particular set of differences, such as aristocratic privilege, capitalist wealth, bureaucratic power, racial supremacy. It also varies in different times and spaces, that is, people at a particular moment and in a specific situation may want to abolish a certain difference that they find unbearable.

Opponents of egalitarianism claim that the passions of the Exodus politics are envy and resentment. Walzer agrees that these two will shape the egalitarian politics, but only to some extent. For the passions alone are not strong enough to incite a political movement. Nor can they claim any moral justification. Something more fundamental must lie behind the vision of equality. Walzer observes that “the experience of subordination” is the real motive of abolitionist politics.83Spheres, p. xiii. The root of struggle is not so much the fact that there are rich and poor, clever and dumb, powerful and powerless as the fact that the rich and the powerful “grind the faces of the poor (Is 3,15).” The poor are put to shoulder the burdens of the society, but they are denied the reward of their hard work and the enjoyment of life. They groan and plead. But the rich reply like Pharaoh, “for they are idle; therefore they cry … Let heavier work be laid upon the men … (Ex 6,8-9, RSV).” All these oppressions awaken the people, sooner or later they will utter, to borrow Edward Schillebeeckx’s words: “This should not and must not go on.”84E. Schillebeeckx, The Magisterium and the World of Politics, trans. T. L. Westow, in J. B. Metz (ed.), Faith and the World of Politics. Fundamental Theology (Concilium, 36), New York, NY, 1968, 19-39, p. 29. They start demanding the abolition of some social and political differences. They do not intend to abolish all differences. Nor do they demand a uniform transformation of every individual. Their aim is to build a society free of domination and oppression. Walzer has a beautiful phrase for the lively hope signified by the word equality: “no more bowing and scraping, fawning and toadying; no more fearful trembling; no more high-and-mightiness; no more masters, no more slaves.”85Spheres, p. xiii.

In the above passage, I have fused Walzer’s liberation philosophy with liberation theology without apparent strain. It intends to illustrate that Walzer’s historical interpretation of equality is a correct one. His negative interpretation of equality is not well understood in society at large, and thus leads to the misunderstanding of complex equality. In fact, the negative and positive meanings of liberation have been discussed among the Catholic theologians more than a decade before Walzer’s publication. Since their discussion will shed light on our present issue, it is worthwhile to listen to what they have said.

In 1968, Schillebeeckx first voiced the idea that “new situational ethical imperatives or directives” are born out of “contrast-experiences.” Political actions such as protests against war, social injustice, and racial discrimination spring usually (but not exclusively) from the experiences of the atrocities of war, exploitation, oppression, and slavery. “Through these experiences,” Schillebeeckx writes, “man begins to realize that he is living at a level below that of his basic potential and that he is kept at this low level precisely by the pressure of existing social structures to which he is subject.” And what is against his basic potential cannot be tolerated; he must protest and abolish the oppressive social structures. Moreover, these contrast-experiences are not merely negative; underneath his anger, there must be some positive values. Schillebeeckx succinctly explains it as follows: “When we analyse these contrast-experiences insofar as they lead to new ethical imperatives, we find that these negative experiences imply an awareness of values that is veiled, positive, though not yet articulate; that they stir the conscience which begins to protest. Here the absence of ‘what ought to be’ is experienced initially, and this leads to a perhaps vague, yet real, perception of ‘what should be done here and now’.”86E. Schillebeeckx, The Magisterium, pp. 29-30.

If we accept Schillebeeckx’s analysis, then equality must likewise contain some veiled positive values. The absence of equality leads to a vague perception of what should be done here and now. In other words, though equality is a positive value, we cannot fully comprehend it. We can accurately articulate it negatively as the absence of domination, but its concretization will be partial and situational. Every positive elucidation of equality is particular and incomplete. It is particular in the sense that the contrast-experience is experienced in a particular community and at a particular time, and it is incomplete because the situational response called for by the aroused moral imperative does not fully represent the imperative itself.

Let us examine the French Revolution. At that time, most Frenchmen were quite aware of the oppressiveness of their social structures. This contrast-experience led them to the realization that “they were living at a level below that of their basic potential.” To liberate themselves, they decided to demolish the ancien régime. Anarchy, however, is worse than aristocracy. Hence they had no alternative but to propose a new constitution. In the introduction to the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, it states that the formulation of the declaration in terms of rights is a response to the violation of the integrity of human person: “The representatives of the French people … considering that ignorance, forgetfulness, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man….”87W. Laqueur & B. Rubin (eds.), , revised ed., Markham, 1990, p. 118.

It is also noteworthy to see how they forge the rights of man in Articles 1 and 2:88W. Laqueur & B. Rubin (eds.), The Human Rights Reader, p. 118.

  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights; social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness.
  2. The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man; these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

The idea of equality in the declaration is positively formulated as equality in rights, which are further specified as rights to liberty, property, safety and resistance to oppression. This qualification of equality is emancipatory but not without bias. As it is not possible to discuss the problem in detail, I will only point out one well-known shortcoming, which is, the declaration is exclusive. The rights of man here were not the rights of all human beings, but simply the rights of male; woman was excluded. Moreover, the declaration was only meant to protect the rights of a certain class of men and citizens, namely the bourgeois and the proprietors. Its main concern was the interests of the middle class. The needs of the proletariat had never been taken seriously. We see that the attribution of the cause of social misfortune to the violation of rights is per se particular and incomplete, and thus, the elucidation of equality inevitably leans toward the interests of the bourgeoisie. This confirms our view that equality defined negatively as the abolition of oppressive social structures is indisputable, while the positive formulation in the language of rights is partial and situational.

Two years after Walzer’s negative reinterpretation of equality in the Spheres, he complements his argument by adding a positive interpretation in Exodus and Revolution, where he argues that the negative meaning of liberation is closely tied to its positive meaning:89Exodus, p. 109.

“A kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is the original version, and one of the key sources, of a whole series of revolutionary programs: the Puritan holy commonwealth, the Jacobin republic of virtue, even Lenin’s communist society. None of these is adequately characterized by the negative ideal of nonoppression.… They all require an active and lively participation in religious and/or political life, and they require this not from some of the people but from all of them. The promise of milk and honey involves a kind of negative egalitarianism … The second promise [the kingdom of priests] aims at positive equality.

Although a concrete definition of positive equality cannot be found in the Spheres, it is nonetheless present in Walzer’s separation of spheres. Critics notice that Walzer is using some criteria to regulate the distributions of each sphere, though what these criteria are is never agreed upon. In the light of the quoted text, I would say that the criterion is the positive equality, which can be stated as the active participation in communal life to the effect that every member would gain a sense of self-worth.

2. Simple equality and complex equality

Having defined equality as nonoppression in the Spheres, Walzer proceeds to connect this meaning with his theory of goods. The most direct conception of oppression is that a number of men and women organize themselves into a group and oppress the others. Earlier Marx has conceptualized this intuition in his theory of class struggle: a small group of people oppresses a larger group, then the larger group revolts and takes over the government, and then the new ruling class becomes the new oppressor. Human history is then seen as a continuous process of oppression and anti-oppression. The good news that Marx preaches is that the process is not circular; instead it is linear and has a happy ending when everyone will be everyone’s equal. Walzer shares a similar view of world history, but he does not believe in Marx’s teleological hope. He also thinks that Marx’s theory legitimates violence and terror far too recklessly. Oppression and conflict surely exist in every society, and sometimes we may not be able to avoid using violence to fight against oppression. Much as we would like to live in peace, revolutions did break out from time to time.90Marx may suggest that the revolution but not the class struggle be ended by introducing the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This does not work in reality, for the communist party élites have proved to be oppressors of a different kind. Cf. K. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, p. 95. Now the most important question comes to a social theorist: can the next revolution be prevented, or at least, be delayed indefinitely?

Walzer’s liberation philosophy suggests that it could, if the revolting men and women are implementing the positive equality, that is, they actively participate in local politics. If ordinary men and women fight against injustices piece by piece, they don’t need a drastic revolution. Walzer also does not like the idea of class struggle, for it pillarizes society into classes and makes life harsher than necessary. Social conflict is unavoidable, but we can find ways to moderate it. Marx’s analysis of oppression focuses on class differences. It is true that sustained oppression must be organized as one group against another. But one group cannot oppress another group without possessing beforehand some kind of superiority. Walzer conceptualizes such superiority in terms of goods. Oppression must be mediated by the possession of a good or a set of goods, such as birth and blood, land, capital, education, divine grace, or state power. These goods have served at one time or another as means of domination. If we understand and control the dominant goods, there will be no need, Walzer says, to “stretch or shrink” human beings.91Spheres, p. xiii.

When we apply the idea of goods in the analysis of oppression, we discover that in all cases, the oppressors must at least possess one or one set of dominant goods, which can in turn be converted into other important goods. For example, political power is a dominant good. The possession of political power enables its possessors to gain a definite advantage over the control of other goods. In addition to power, politicians commonly have prestige and money, and their children attend the best schools, …. When one has power, other things easily come in train. These things do not fail to happen to politicians. Political power is a magical good. People who are able to monopolize this dominant good against rival competition form the ruling class.

The monopolizer of one dominant good may compete with the possessor of another, and these two struggle for supremacy. Such struggles have a paradigmatic form: whenever a group wins, they will work out a systematic conversion of the dominant good into all sorts of other goods. Can domination be stopped? Philosophers are positive to this question, and indeed they compete with each other to provide the best answer. Walzer has generalized the solutions in three forms:92Spheres, p. 13.

  1. The claim that the dominant good, whatever it is, should be redistributed so that it can be equally or at least more widely shared: this amounts to saying that monopoly is unjust.
  2. The claim that the way should be opened for the autonomous distribution of all social goods: this amounts to saying that dominance is unjust.
  3. The claim that some new good, monopolized by some new group, should replace the currently dominant good: this amounts to saying that the existing pattern of dominance and monopoly is unjust.

The third claim, according to Walzer, is the Marxist model of revolutionary ideology. It presupposes a sequence of class struggles: birth and blood be replaced by landed wealth, landed wealth by talent, talent by money and so on and so forth. Eventually, the means of production will be controlled by all, and the class struggle ends. Walzer does not agree with this Marxist reasoning. He thinks that class war will not propagate endlessly if only the means of production is the naturally dominant good, which indeed Marx believes so. Otherwise, someone may propose another naturally dominant good, and starts the class war again. But there is no naturally dominant good. Dominant good is only human creation. Goods do not have intrinsic values that will make them dominant naturally. Breeding and blood, landed wealth, talent, and money have all become dominant at a certain time and in a certain place, and they can be replaced one with the other. Marx’s model does not work.

The first claim is held by most philosophers because it suits their appetite for simplicity. It assumes that there exists a dominant good, and that equality means to break up monopoly by dividing that good equally. Walzer calls this concretization of equality “simple equality.” In order to form an egalitarian society, we have first to identify the dominant good, and then to divide it equally. Every member will possess an equal amount of the good, and equality can be realized in other goods through the process of conversion. If money is the dominant good, it should be distributed equally among the members of a society. Then everyone will have the same buying power as everyone else, and become everyone’s equal. However, as it happens often enough, everyone will spend his share in a different way: some will save the money, some invest it, and some just waste it. Equality at noon will become inequality in the evening unless every exchange is blocked. But this will render money useless and meaningless. Consequently, another dominant good will emerge and substitute the position of money, which in turn will undergo the process of neutralization and devaluation. Alternatively, we may use a monetary law to redistribute money periodically. In both cases, a strong central government is required to enforce the law. Yet a fundamental problem is that if money or the other dominant good is really dominant, it is questionable whether the government will be able or willing to distribute it equally. Suppose the government is committed to distribute the dominant good equally, then political power will become the most dominant, this means we have to divide the political power. When democracy renders political power powerless, another good can become dominant. In order to make this system work, we have to mobilize power to check monopoly, while at the same time to check power by some other means. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that some people in strategic positions will not seize and exploit important social goods in the processes.93Spheres, pp. 13-17.

Although the simple egalitarian régime of check and balance is workable, it cannot avoid large-scale conflict and exploitation. Walzer insists that this is not a good solution to fight against oppression. Many people have tried unsuccessfully before to break up monopolies. This fact indicates that monopolizers can always defend state intervention. If the effort to abolish monopoly is not effective, we should focus on the reduction of dominance. The root of oppression is dominance. An oppressor is a person who wants to control a wide range of goods. Since it is (almost) impossible for the oppressor to possess in large quantity of the most important goods, he has to manipulate the idea of one dominant good. It may be the case that many people have already accepted a certain good as dominant. Then, the oppressor can monopolize that good. Or, he can force other people to accept a certain monopolized good as dominant. In both cases, dominance hinges on the idea of one dominant good. In order to abolish dominance, we must guard against the exploitation of the idea of a single dominant good. The best way to do so is to draw the boundaries for various spheres.

Walzer asks us to imagine a differentiated society with various autonomous spheres. Monopoly is allowed in each sphere, but the good in one sphere cannot be converted into goods of the other spheres, that is, monopoly in one sphere cannot be multiplied across the spheres. This will be a society of many local monopolies held by different groups of men and women. Within each group, the people make their own rules governing the distribution of the good. Each group will defend the intrusion of alien distributive criteria so that each good becomes specific and cannot be converted into other goods. Though inequalities exist in each sphere, the monopolizers cannot multiply their dominance through the conversion process. This is a complex egalitarian society. It is complex because it has taken into consideration the complexity of personal differences, human relationships, and social structures. It aims to reduce dominance, but at the same time it allows the pursuit of personal ambitions and differences. It also makes more room for people to participate in public affairs directly related to them.94Spheres, pp. 17-18.

3. Simple inequality and complex inequality

Inequality, equality, simple equality, complex equality—this is the sequence of the development of the idea of equality. Listing the four terms together, one immediately feels the unevenness. For its completion, the series suggests us to add “simple inequality“ and “complex inequality.” Though Walzer has not mentioned the two terms in the Spheres, what he means by inequality can be taken as simple inequality. The real problem, according to Michael Rustin, is complex inequality. Walzer has overlooked the conceptual possibility of complex inequality, which, Rustin says, “describes by far the most common and probable state of affairs.” Walzer takes simple inequality as the current state of affairs, and then attempts to replace it with complex equality. He thus commits a categorical mistake, and this conceptual hiatus, Rustin argues, impairs his formulation of complex equality.95M. Rustin, Equality, pp. 26-28.

Not quite correct. Walzer does mention a case of complex inequality: a person who possesses all kinds of talents will most probably turn out to be the winner of all spheres. Imagine a person who is well-born and well-bred. Like Alcibiades, he is beautiful and attractive, and charms everyone he meets.96Cf. Seminar, p. 220, c. 2. More than that, he has the blessing of intelligence upon his diligence. He has also been taught not by one but many masters who are not inferior to Socrates in learning or in virtue. When he was young, he studied in prestige schools, scored extraordinary high marks in every examination, and made important scientific discoveries. Later a war broke out. He volunteered to join the army, fought bravely and won the highest honours. After the war, he entered business, and became a successful entrepreneur. Now, he is elected as a member of parliament, and he is the most likely candidate for the next presidency. Everybody loves him and respects him. A person like this can easily amass all the important goods without illegitimate conversions. A group of such gifted persons can naturally form a ruling class, and the society will be under their domination. The spheres are autonomous, but this same group wins out in every sphere.97Spheres, p. 20. Conversely, we can also think of another group of persons who possess low potential in every sphere. They score low grade in school, and perform poorly at work. They are neither physically distinguished nor morally superior. So they end up in the lowest stratum in every sphere.98M. Walzer, Response, in D. Miller & M. Walzer (eds.), Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, Oxford, 1995, 281-297, pp. 290-291.

The kind of complex inequality in Rustin’s mind is none of the above two sorts. He is thinking rather of the present patterns of inequality. In a differentiated liberal society, there certainly exist some relatively autonomous spheres. Walzer idealizes these spheres, and separates them as if they were absolutely autonomous. In reality, different spheres carry different “causal weight” in the determination of the overall structure of society and of the opportunity an individual has in each sphere. It will be difficult to quantify the causal weight of each sphere. Nonetheless, it can be quite sure that relative dominance exists in most societies.99M. Rustin, Equality, p. 28. As if to support Rustin’s claim, Susan Okin argues that women in all Western democratic countries are discriminated in every sphere. Because women are assigned a subordinate role in the family, they are treated as subordinates in every sphere. She uses the political sphere as an example. The statistics in all Western democracies show that women are disproportionately mis-represented in the parliament, especially in countries where patriarchalism is pervading. Since political power is the dominant good, by monopolizing this good, males are able to dominate females in other spheres. Thus women continue to stay in a state of complex inequality.100S. M. Okin, Politics. Okin is saying that while family does not seem to be a dominant sphere, its pattern of domination is able to reproduce itself in all other spheres.

In response, Walzer denies that Rustin’s case concerns complex inequality. Rather it is a case of simple inequality. A dominant good or a set of dominant goods converts itself into goods of other spheres. Okin’s example only confirms that the West is still a patriarchal society, though it pretends that women are now men’s equals. The same principle of patriarchy is enacted in every sphere. This is simple inequality. “We have not yet graduated to complexity,” Walzer says.101Response, p. 291. His spheres of justice is meant to overcome simple inequality. When the spheres are really autonomous, will we still have the problem of complex inequality?

Walzer entertains only the first two kinds of complex inequality. He thinks that it is unlikely to have a person possessing all the good qualities and excelling in all spheres. We have heard of such heroes, but only in fictions and legends created for political purpose. Even if such persons do exist, they will be so few in number that it would be hard for them to form a ruling class. Nor will their children be able to inherit their success. Most probably, a person can only become a master in one or a few spheres for a limited period.102Spheres, p. 20. Likewise, it is also unlikely that a group of people would fail in one sphere after another. The existing lower classes tell us succinctly the patterns of discrimination: the demarcation lines between the subordinate and the superordinate are drawn according to race, culture, and gender. They reveal, Walzer says, “a single systemic decision” rather than “a succession of autonomous decisions.” If spheres really become autonomous, he doubts if any pattern of domination can still sustain or reproduce itself.103Response, pp. 290-292.

Walzer’s argument is in fact a denial of the existence of complex inequality, which may exist as conceptual possibilities, but not in reality. To verify his proposition, we have to wait and see. Will the spheres ever become autonomous? I have no ready answer to this question. Right now, each sphere has different causal weight, so Rustin’s case cannot be dismissed too quickly. It is highly probable that we will have political power and money as the two dominant spheres, with the other spheres relatively autonomous. The socialization of political power has no doubt rendered it less dominant. Walzer suggests that money-power be socialized likewise. But the capitalist system is the foundation of the present world system. To change it, we need a revolution no smaller than the French Revolution. Complex equality seems as difficult to be attained as simple equality. Still, complex equality remains more attractive because of its attention given to the psychological dimension of equality. As a matter of fact advanced society is intrinsically unequal, and as such, equality can only exist as a psychological or mental state of the citizens. Walzer’s formulation of complex equality can be interpreted in this line of thinking. Indeed, he aims to yeast

a kind of self-respect that isn’t dependent on any particular social position, that has to do with one’s general standing in the community and with one’s sense of oneself, not as a person simply but as a person effective in such and such a setting, a full and equal member, an active participant.104Spheres, p. 277.

Spheres of Justice lays down a nonoppressive social structure that facilitates “equality of status.”105Cf. Response, pp. 283-284. But a passive structure cannot automatically make men and women into citizens with self-esteem. They have to earn self-respect by themselves and together with their peers. Exodus and Revolution tells the second half of that story.