A Connetced Critics

Can Michael Walzer Connect High-Modernity with Tradition?

Chung Fai Cheung

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Annexed Theses


This study attempts to investigate the significance of Michael Walzer’s social and political thought. For several reasons, Walzer’s works are of interest to those theologians who are engaged in the discussion of social justice. First, Walzer is a penetrating critic of liberal society and liberal theory. Through his criticism, we can gain a better understanding of the dominant social structures and their legitimating ideas. Second, his interpretation of shared understandings points towards a new basis, that is, one that grounds on anthropology, for doing social ethics. Third, his internal and connected criticism—to criticize liberalism from within by articulating both the liberal ideals and the hidden Judeo-Christian tradition—opens an alternative way to the formulation of Christian social criticism without having to rely on some rival theories, such as Marxism or postmodernism.

The aim of this dissertation is threefold: to present Walzer’s thought in a systematic way, to explicate the ambiguous and controversial points in his theory, and to give his works a comprehensive evaluation. Walzer’s theory will be discussed with reference to six areas: the basic ethical position, the source for the study of morality, the method of interpretation, the standpoint of an intellectual, domestic society, and international society. In all these areas Walzer has broken fresh ground. The new ideas he introduces may best be interpreted from the perspective of high-modernity.

Walzer is a critic of liberalism, who often makes use of history and tradition. He describes the modern social critics as disconnected solitaries, and distinguishes himself as a connected critic. How should we understand this? I think it is crucial that we locate Walzer in the current map of thought.

Recently, two trends have emerged and posed themselves as rivals to liberalism. They are commonly known as communitarianism and postmodernism. It seems to me that neither of them can adequately explain Walzer’s project. Very often Walzer is categorized under the banner of communitarianism. If we take the broad meaning of communitarianism as a re-emphasis on the importance of culture and community, Walzer’s theory can indeed be regarded as a communitarian critique of liberalism. However, there are signs revealing that Walzer intends to distance himself from this camp. First of all, Walzer never admits he is a communitarian, rather he repeatedly calls himself a “social democrat.” In the article titled The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism, Walzer criticizes the communitarian endeavour as a meaningful but futile action. Communitarians are good at making complaints, but they are unable to offer a concrete political programme. In contrast, Walzer has constructed a more sociologically accurate alternative to challenge liberalism. He calls it democratic socialism. So it would be misleading to label him as a communitarian.

But could Walzer’s writings be seen as a kind of postmodern theory? Apparently, socialism has long been regarded as the post-capitalist social structure. Some people even believe that socialism will finally replace capitalism and become the dominant organizing ideal. Since capitalism is one of the main institutions of modernity, its downfall will definitely inaugurate a new social epoch. If Walzer is interpreted in this line of thinking, he may be called a postmodern theorist. But this is not how Walzer understands himself. In fact, he never acknowledges that he is a postmodern thinker. He seldom mentions the word “postmodernity.” To my knowledge, Walzer only discusses postmodernity in the last part of his book On Toleration, where he discerns the appearance of a new social phenomenon, namely the multicultural selves in immigrant societies, which may perhaps be called a postmodern condition. He then goes on to speculate whether this postmodern condition will eventually force him to rewrite his socialist programme. In the end, he insists that his programme is capable of accommodating the new condition. He argues that the postmodern theory cannot adequately handle the tension between multiculturalism and individualism. Walzer believes that democratic socialism is the best political creed that can defend the kind of toleration needed in multicultural societies.

So, Walzer is neither a communitarian nor a postmodern theorist. Rather, he’s a connected, marginal liberal critic who criticizes liberal society for its own sake. He is not trying to replace liberalism with some new theory of his own, he is simply working out a social theory from within liberalism that matches more closely to the existing liberal society. Walzer observes that liberalism cannot satisfactorily deal with some situations emerged in the process of modernization. He sees it as his duty to derive an improved version of liberalism that will better serve modernity. Since his methodology, argumentation, and political proposals are distinctively different from traditional liberalism, his theory deserves the new name “democratic socialism.”

How should we then understand the newness in Walzer’s theory? I suggest that it should be interpreted, to borrow Anthony Giddens’s words, as a “high modernity,” that is, “as modernity coming to understand itself rather than the overcoming of modernity as such.” Modernity is a critical enterprise. It is critical of tradition. But when it is in its early stage, it is not critical enough of itself. Yet when it comes to its maturity, it becomes reflexive of its own true nature. It is driven by its nature to criticize itself. A mature modernity comes to acknowledge that it cannot reform the world as it wishes, and that it has to adapt itself to the consequences of modernization. Walzer’s criticism of liberalism is best understood as such. His theory is a liberalism of a mature kind, which attempts to re-connect modern men and women to the existing but suppressed tradition. In short, Michael Walzer is a connected critic in a double sense: like the Israelite prophet, he is connected to the people of his country, and he is also connected to his own national history in particular and the broader human history in general.

The first chapter sets forth the starting point of the Walzerian ethic. Walzer proposes a new ethical position, namely particularism, which holds that moral culture is particular per se, but contains nonetheless some universal elements. His ongoing task then is to try to find a balance between particularity and universality. Since he has argued for particularism in various ways, a historical approach may best serve to clarify his position.

Chapter Two explores the theoretical foundation of Walzer’s ethic—shared understanding. It is quite misleading of Walzer to claim that his is a non-foundational ethic. An investigation of his claim shows that his theory has in fact a sociological/anthropological foundation. What “non-foundational” really means is that the foundation needs not be systematically laid down. Since this approach has caused serious confusion, it is necessary to elucidate it further.Chapter Three continues to explore the interpretive method that is used to access the shared understandings. We will first establish the statement that ethics is mostly interpretive before we go on to extract, in the light of Fernand Braudel’s social time, four interpretive principles from Walzer’s writings.

Chapter Four investigates the reference point from which an intellectual can criticize the world. Modern critical theorists affirm that detachment is the primary requisite of a social critic. Walzer disagrees with them. On the contrary, he argues that connection is necessary for a successful critical enterprise. He proves his case by erecting the Israelite prophet as a paradigm of social criticism and substantiates his argument with the lives of eleven modern critics. We will argue that on the one hand Walzer’s prophetic criticism is a plausible paradigm for modern social critics, but on the other it is not entirely prophetic. Moreover, some of Walzer’s “true” critics do not comfortably fit into his prophetic paradigm. These critics, we will demonstrate, actually belong to another company of social critics which has its origin in Jesus of Nazareth.

Chapter Five analyses Walzer’s theory of domestic justice. Walzer takes a particularist approach in his discussion of distributive justice. He argues not only that justice is particular, but also that liberal society has separate spheres which operate according to their own principles of justice. But the autonomous operations in the spheres should never be allowed to undermine membership for the very reason that the existence of a political community is to foster a particular national identity. We will focus our discussion on three main issues: (1) liberal society has separate spheres of justice; (2) a mature liberalism necessarily passes into democratic socialism; (3) complex equality is a more plausible form of equality.

The last chapter turns from domestic justice to international justice. Walzer perceives that the most important issue in international relations is the just use of violence. He thus spends great effort to delineate in detail the morality of war. We will show that his interpretation of war morality from the deontological perspective is inconsistent, and that the overall structure of his argument is only partly correct. We will also contend that his argument for the mass killing of innocent people in supreme emergency is both unsubstantiated and morally wrong. As for the other issues in international relations, Walzer’s chief objective is to maintain a balance of power. His proposals on the subjects of national toleration, national liberation and the future world system are not original. But his contribution of a political structure of signification is helpful for a better understanding of the characteristics of a régime.

Annexed Theses

  1. The English utilitarianism, similar to Thomas Aquinas's double effect, appears to offer a neat calculus for every moral problem. But under closer scrutiny, it reveals itself to be indeterminate in many cases, and thus opens to exploitation.
  2. Kant’s universal formulation of morals cannot capture the complexity of the real moral culture. Even John Rawls’s improved version—reflective equilibrium—is too vague to meet the basic standard of scientific methodology.
  3. The French theories of social criticism, as formulated by Julien Benda, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault, are theoretically unsound and practically infeasible.
  4. Particularism is a sociologically accurate ethical position. At the same time, it can accommodate universal moral ideas.
  5. The interpretation of shared understandings is by far the most nuanced interpretive methodology in the sense that it provides a better guidance in the comprehension of our morality tradition.
  6. Walzer elegantly argues that, on the one hand, prophetic criticism is still a valid paradigm for social criticism; on the other hand, modernity has not divided humanity into two epochs separate by an unbridgeable chasm.
  7. The paradigm of prophetic criticism is not solely based on the practice of the prophets, rather it is a conflation of the prophetic and the rabbinic traditions. Moreover, the Gospels provide another source of social criticism in the Western tradition. This evangelical mode of social criticism, though not clearly formulated, is prevalent in Western societies. Yet, neither the prophetic nor the evangelical paradigm alone can circumscribe the practice of social criticism in the West.
  8. Walzer’s democratic socialism is a mature reinterpretation of liberalism that matches the liberal theory with the actual liberal society.
  9. The three degrees of global pluralism—international organizations, regional unions, and non-governmental organizations—is a radicalization of democratic politics.
  10. Walzer is a true Jewish-American social critic, who succeeds in appropriating the time of this transition period and in translating accordingly the common ethos into a genuine Jewish-American political philosophy.

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