The Limits of Complex Equality


Linda S Mullenix

97 Harvard Law Review 1801


John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, published in 1971 to wide critical acclaim and hailed as the most notable contribution to the Anglo-American tradition of political philosophy since Sidgwick and Mill, has revived interest in broad questions of legal and political theory and encouraged many philosophers to turn their attention to the problem of what constitutes a truly just society.

Michael Walzer's book, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, is part of the post-Rawlsian dialogue concerning “who gets what, when, and how.” Like Rawls and his critics and commentators, Walzer is concerned with distributive justice, and the subtitle of his book provocatively suggests that twentieth century liberalism is under siege. As a “defense” of pluralism and equality, Walzer's book is squarely within the contemporary liberal political debate. Walzer's book is important not only for its contribution to the post-Rawlsian dialogue, but also for its reflection of the revitalized interest in substantive philosophical inquiry.

As commentators on Rawls have noted, A Theory of Justice was noteworthy because it marked a return to an older tradition of political philosophy, one that focused on issues of right and wrong, rather than on the linguistic puzzles posed by contemporary legal positivists. In addition, Rawls' work broke from the positivist school by borrowing from the social sciences — an approach that linked Rawls with “the English tradition of Hume and Adam Smith, of Bentham and of John Stuart Mill, which insists on relating its political speculations to fundamental research in moral psychology and political economy.” Spheres of Justice is part of this revival of philosophical interest in discussing moral and political issues.

Walzer attempts not only to develop a theoretical construct for his idea of justice, but also to grapple with such troublesome contemporary political problems as affirmative action, school busing, and tuition voucher plans. In so doing, Walzer, more than Rawls, draws broadly on examples and anecdotes from many disciplines, including anthropology, economics, history, literature, political science, and sociology.Walzer's book is part of the revived substantive philosophical debate in yet another sense.

A Theory of Justice, like the great works of Western political theory, is ideological in that it provides a defense and justification for liberal democracy. As commentators have noted, historically significant works of political philosophy — such as those of Hobbes, Locke, Marx, and Lenin — have generally looked to contemporary mores and institutions in formulating a theoretical foundation for civil society. The great works in political theory have often become rallying points for action, and A Theory of Justice is patterned on this tradition.

For Walzer, Rawls' theory of just distribution is flawed because it is based on the hypothetical choices of ideally rational men and women. Walzer doubts that ordinary people as we know them, with particular ties to history, culture, and community, would have made the same choices as do Rawls' ideal actors. Walzer's book is intended to be political philosophy in the grand tradition. His point of departure is a criticism of Rawls and all those political philosophers who speculate about man and society in the abstract.

At the outset, Walzer promises that this analysis will be “imminent and phenomenological” and will provide “a map and a plan appropriate to the people for whom it is drawn, whose common life it reflects”.Despite its shortcomings, Walzer's notion of “spheres of justice” is original and thought-provoking, and his criticisms of Rawls and other political theorists contribute to the continuing philosophical debate over what constitutes a just society.

Ultimately, however, this is a disappointing book. First, the foundation of Walzer's theory — his notion of autonomous spheres — is, in the end, too weak to support the weight of much theorizing. Second, his belief in shared meanings and assumptions takes insufficient account of social diversity and provides no clear methodology for resolving conflict. Finally, Walzer's relativism robs his theory of whatever residual force it might have had. He does, in fact, offer occasional glimpses of his own political preferences — which he describes as “a decentralized democratic socialism” — but in the end he gives us no reason to prefer his own vision of the just society to anyone else's.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, The Limits of Complex Equality, 97 Harvard Law Review 1801 (1984) (essay reviewing Spheres of Justice: a Defense of Pluralism and Equality, by Michael Walzer).