In his new book, Michael Walzer proposes a pluralistic theory of social justice which aims at what he calls “complex” equality. He rejects the goals of “simple” egalitarians who want to make people as equal as possible in their overall situation. He thinks they ignore the fact that the conventions and shared understandings that make up a society do not treat all goods as subject to the same principles of distribution. Our conventions, he argues, assign different kinds of resources and opportunities to different “spheres” of justice, each of which is governed by its own distinct principle of fairness. These conventions provide what Walzer calls the “social meaning” of different goods; for us it is part of social meaning, he says, that medicine and other necessities of a decent life should be distributed according to need, punishment and honors according to what people deserve, higher education according to talent, jobs according to the needs of the employer, wealth according to skill and luck in the market, citizenship according to the needs and traditions of the community, and so forth.
The theory of complex equality consists in two ideas. Each kind of resource must be distributed in accordance with the principle appropriate to its sphere, and success in one sphere must not spill over to allow domination in another. We must not allow someone who achieves great wealth in the market, for example, to buy votes and so control politics. But if we keep the boundaries of the spheres intact, then we need no overall comparison of individuals across the spheres; we need not worry that some people have yachts and others not even a rowboat, or that some are more persuasive in politics than others, or that some win prizes and love while others lack both.
This is a relaxed and agreeable vision of social justice: it promises a society at peace with its own traditions, without the constant tensions, comparisons, jealousies, and regimentation of “simple” equality. Citizens live together in harmony, though no one has exactly the wealth or education or opportunities of anyone else, because each understands that he has received what justice requires within each sphere, and does not think that his self-respect or standing in the community depends on any overall comparison of his overall situation with that of others. Unfortunately Walzer offers no comprehensive description of what life in such a society would be like, of who would have what share of the different types of resources he discusses. (I shall try to show, later, why in fact he cannot do this.) Instead he offers anecdotal and historical examples of how different societies, including our own, have developed distinct principles for distribution in different spheres.
His aim in providing these examples is not only practical. He hopes to break the grip that the formal style has lately had on Anglo-American political philosophy. Such philosophers try to find some inclusive formula that can be used to measure social justice in any society, and that can…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.