Has contemporary moral and political philosophy placed too much emphasis on a mistaken search for ‘rational foundations’ for our moral beliefs? A number of recent writers have suggested in various ways that it has. Two stimulating books by Michael Walzer and by Stuart Hampshire make distinctive contributions to this debate. Both are more personal than most books in moral philosophy, and each gives the clear sense of an author working to understand and articulate values about which he cares deeply. Taken together, they offer related but contrasting reasons for turning our attention away from universal principles towards more local values.
Walzer and Hampshire agree that the shared values which constitute the way of life of a society can have an importance and normative force for the people of that society which does not depend on any rational defence of those values or any claim that they are ‘correct’ or ‘valid’ for people at other times or in other places. It is enough, they suggest, that the people see these values as ‘theirs’ – as constitutive of their way of life. Hampshire, while calling attention to the fact that some values have this purely local and non-rational status, recognises others – justice is his primary example – which are ‘intended to be ... defensible by rational argument’, which abstracts from the differences between people at different times and places, and hence can be expected to converge toward a single set of principles valid for many different societies. This is the realm of abstract argument of the sort found in the writings of Spinoza and Kant and represented in our own day by the theories of John Rawls, Robert Nozick and others (though these writers differ in how ‘universal’ they intend their principles to be). The essays collected in Morality and Conflict chronicle a movement in the author’s thought from philosophical theory of this kind to the view that not all moral values have or require the kind of foundation it seeks to provide.
In Spheres of Justice Walzer formulates an account of distributive justice which draws on and extends ideas about the primacy of group values which have occupied him at least since the writing of Obligations in the Sixties. While he does not deny that there could be moral principles which applied to a society even though they were not accepted by it, the thesis of the book is that principles of justice are not of this kind: the only relevant standards for appraising the distribution of goods within a society as just or unjust are given by the ‘social meanings’ of the goods in that society. Since goods can have different ‘meanings’ in different societies, standards of justice can vary as well; arguments about justice must be grounded in empirical inquiry into the ‘meaning’ of goods in the society in question, not in philosophical reflection which abstracts from the differences between societies.
Walzer and Hampshire thus disagree about the basis of claims of justice. They also disagree about the scope of the concept. For Walzer, justice concerns not only the distribution of income and wealth and the assignment of political rights but also the distribution of honour and respect, religious offices, and even love and affection. Wherever there is a good with a ‘social meaning’ there is a question of justice. For Hampshire, however, distributions of love and affection, religious offices and at least some forms of honour and respect are matters of local and personal values, not questions of justice in the sense in which it is part of a ‘universal’ ‘rational’ morality. Here Hampshire is in agreement with many contemporary philosophers, while Walzer may have ordinary usage on his side. I do not believe that it matters who is ‘correct’ on this point of usage, but it is important to note the difference in order to be clear about the difference between Walzer’s and Hampshire’s positions.
As I have said, Hampshire contrasts one area of morality in which the exercise of reason leads to convergence of values with another area in which the exercise of imagination leads to the creation of diverse forms of life. What is the relation between these two kinds of morality, according to Hampshire? To begin with, he is clear that conclusions of justice supported by abstract moral argument take priority in the sense that they set the limits to what may be done in the name of a particular way of life. This part of morality might be seen as prior in a further sense of providing the moral foundation for local values even within these limits. Thus what Hampshire calls a way of life might be seen as a set of conventions and practices which, given that they are established and provided that they are just, become morally binding on those to whom they apply. (This in virtue of some general principle such as Rawls’s Principle of Fairness or his Natural Duty of Justice.) But it is a central claim of Hampshire’s book that the ‘rational’ part of morality is not prior in this way. A person who is moved by a particular conception of personal honour or by an idea of what constitutes showing respect for the dead is not moved by the thought that to do otherwise would be unfair to the other members of the society. Rather, someone who does see this as a question of fairness has ceased to hold the values in question – ceased to value the way of life for its own sake.
Walzer believes that all considerations of justice have this local and historical character. He rejects the idea that abstract principles of justice either set the limits to local practices or provide the basis of their authority. In his view it is absurd to criticise the practices of other societies as unjust because they fail to conform to our principles of justice or to principles which we have arrived at through abstract philosophical argument, and he believes that this absurdity becomes apparent when we see how justice depends on ‘social meanings’. In order to assess this claim, we need to see what is meant by the ‘social meaning’ of a good.
Walzer’s examples of social meanings are of several different kinds. In some cases ‘the social meaning of a good’ is the reason why that good is thought of as desirable (or, in the case of a ‘negative good’, undesirable) in a given society. Bread, for example, has one social meaning when it is desired as a source of nourishment and another when it is valued because it is necessary for religious ceremonies. In other examples ‘social meaning’ is more analogous to linguistic meaning. The meaning of prizes and honours, for example, is that they express a social recognition of certain accomplishments or a certain distinction; punishment is an expression of social condemnation; certain styles of dress indicate particular positions in society. (Here what Walzer says is similar to a point made by Hampshire, who emphasises the similarity between a way of life and a language.)
It may seem that this second, ‘expressive’ form of ‘social meaning’ is actually just a special case of the first: prizes and honours, and forms of clothing which indicate exalted rank, are thought desirable just because of what they ‘express’, and this quasi-linguistic social meaning is relevant to just distribution only because it is the basis of the desirability of these goods. But this is not quite what Walzer is saying. The ‘expressive’ social meaning of honours and badges of rank makes them desirable even to those for whom they are not ‘appropriate’: those who are not, in the relevant sense, honourable or noble. But Walzer would say that it follows from the social meaning of these goods that such people ought not to have them. Just distribution of such goods must be ‘true speech’, and giving them to individuals who lack the relevant characteristics would at best be false, if not a kind of lie.
Walzer thus sees the expressive meaning of social goods as directly determining standards of just distribution. In a third class of cases, however, he sees these standards as arising from ‘social meanings’ which are neither ‘expressive’ nor merely a matter of the grounds of a good’s desirability. If a good is regarded as a commodity in a certain society, then it is properly distributed by the market; if it is seen as a necessity which no one must be without, then public provision is called for; if it is part of a system of ritual gift-giving, then it must be passed on as the rules of the system provide. Social meanings of this third form are less intimately linked than the first two forms to the nature of the goods involved, and thus amount to something much closer to specific principles of distributive justice.
Do these examples of variable social meanings show that abstract theories will be unable to account for our convictions about justice? This does not seem to be so as far as social meanings of the first type are concerned. Any plausible theory will allow, in its application, for the fact that the same thing can play different roles in the lives of people in different societies. In the case of Rawls’s theory, for example, such differences would be recognised as different concrete instances of the abstract categories of ‘primary social goods’.
With respect to social meanings in the second, ‘expressive’ sense the matter is more complicated. Some variations in this kind of meaning (Hampshire’s example of different ways of showing respect for the dead is a case in point) are no embarrassment for an abstract theory since they do not raise questions of justice in the sense such theories are concerned with (the sense connected with fairness). For reasons mentioned above in discussing Hampshire, I think that particularists should agree that these values are not matters of justice in this sense. So the only remaining disagreement in these cases is how widely the term ‘justice’ is to be applied. In other cases, however, variable social meanings in this second sense are relevant to what almost everyone would count as questions of justice. I am thinking here of such questions as the allocation of rewards, punishments and offices in accordance with the terms which define them and hence determine how they can be deserved. An abstract theory of justice can explain the dependence of just distribution on variable social meanings in such cases: the ‘social meanings’ of honours, punishments and offices are part of social practices which, when they exist and provided they are just, are binding on those to whom they apply. The same can be said of social meanings of the third kind: systems of ritual gift-giving, the practice of distributing certain goods through a market, are practices which, if just, determine the obligations and legitimate expectations of those living under them.
There need be no disagreement, then, over the fact that variable ‘social meanings’ are often relevant to questions of justice. Both sides can agree that abstract principles of justice do not by themselves determine which outcomes are just and hence that such principles do not require that all societies distribute goods in the same way. The question, however, was whether justice is determined solely by ‘social meanings’, which do not need to satisfy, or draw their authority from, more abstract principles. Walzer’s examples do not settle this question. As Hampshire’s examples also indicate, there are some cases in which an attempt to ground social meanings in abstract principles of justice would be absurd. But this would settle the matter only if we were to suppose – falsely, I believe – that all of the things Walzer calls ‘social meanings’ have their significance in the same way.
The mere fact that a society regards a certain good as a commodity, or as the entitlement of certain privileged families, would not make it simply absurd to call this practice and the distribution resulting from it unjust. But even if such judgments are not absurd, Walzer can object to them on other grounds. First, he thinks that abstract principles are politically idle, since only the values actually held by people in a society have force in that society’s political debates and since the views about justice actually held by most people take the form of ‘social meanings’. It follows that abstract principles will have a role only in theoretical criticism of societies from the outside. Such criticism, Walzer feels, runs contrary to ‘a decent respect for the opinions of mankind’ and fails to respect our equality as ‘culture-producing creatures’. As such creatures, he says, ‘we make and inhabit meaningful worlds. Since there is no way to rank and order these worlds with regard to their understanding of social goods, we do justice to actual men and women by respecting their particular creations.’
But the view that abstract principles of justice are relevant only to criticism of a society from the outside seems to assume a unanimity of values which does not often exist, particulary when the society in question is a modern nation state. (Unanimity is a more plausible assumption for the smaller groups which figured prominently in Walzer’s earlier book, Obligations.) The drive towards abstract principles of justice does not arise only from meddlesome outsiders looking for an excuse to interfere but also, and often, from disputes within a society, particularly from the claims of those who are disadvantaged and oppressed by its established practices. Their dispute with the dominant group may not be about what the shared social meanings of the society are but about whether the practices which these meanings constitute are fair. In order for claims of injustice to have force they must draw on ideas which seem plausible to many members of the society, but in order to be the basis for complaints against established practices these claims are likely to reach beyond currently accepted social meanings. Unless they are lucky, dissenters may not be able to say to the dominant group: ‘Look! Your own principles make it wrong to treat us this way.’ What they then have to say is: ‘We are people too. How would you like to be treated this way?’ Those who wish to defend established social meanings will need to respond in similar terms.
This is illustrated by the discussion of affirmative action in Spheres of Justice. In the chapter called ‘Office’ Walzer argues against quotas and in favour of equal opportunity for all citizens to qualify for offices by meeting the established criteria. He might have argued for this simply by appeal to the ‘social meaning’ of the positions involved, arguing, for example, that because social meanings dictate that the function of a teacher is to educate, it would be unjust to allocate teaching positions on any basis other than teaching ability. As Walzer recognises, this would be too quick. The argument he actually offers goes further by giving reasons why the assignment of offices must be in accord with their established social meanings. ‘Offices are careers,’ he says, ‘... and these sorts of goods cannot be distributed the way money can; they cut too close to the core of individuality and personal integrity.’ By contrast, he says later that it might not be unjust to turn some offices into political ‘spoils’, saying that ‘so long as these are not offices for which people might prepare themselves by months or years of training, and so long as experienced office-holders are not arbitrarily displaced, no one is treated unfairly by the transformation.’ In this argument the moral force of social meanings of the third kind (‘offices’) is supported by appeal to a more abstract notion of fairness: the unfairness of departing from established practices at least when plans and expectations of a particular kind would be disrupted. The costs of such disruption are described first in terms of a social meaning of the first kind (the notion of a career), but their moral significance is then supported by appeal to ‘the core of individuality and personal integrity’, a notion which could be applied equally well to societies in which what we think of as a ‘career’ does not exist.
As this example indicates, actual political argument often involves both ‘abstract’ and ‘historical’ elements. Abstract notions are appealed to, not as a way of overruling ‘merely local’ values by appeal to an ‘outside authority’, but as a further articulation of those values – a way to challenge or to defend the significance and acceptability ‘for us’ of more concrete ‘meanings’. As our arguments abstract from those institutions and ‘meanings’ peculiar to us which are in dispute, the principles and concepts we employ become more ‘universal’, and our conclusions become matters on which, as Hampshire says, a wider range of rational opinion could be expected to converge.
While they go beyond specific social meanings, conclusions reached in this way may hold not for all societies but only for societies which are like in certain general respects. And even this relative universality is not a theoretical objective, but rather the by-product of a response to the problem of political disagreement. Such claims thus represent a more modest position than the one Walzer seems to be attacking. Perhaps it is one he also could accept.