Spheres Of Justice

A Defense Of Pluralism And Equality


By Michael Walzer

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The distinguished political philosopher and author of the widely acclaimed Just and Unjust Wars analyzes how society distributes not just wealth and power but other social “goods” like honor, education, work, free time—even love.



Books by the Same Author

The Revolution of the Saints
Political Action
Regicide and Revolution
Just and Unjust Wars
Radical Principles



Michael Walzer



“The memory of the righteous

is a blessing.”


Equality literally understood is an ideal ripe for betrayal. Committed men and women betray it, or seem to do so, as soon as they organize a movement for equality and distribute power, positions, and influence among themselves. Here is an executive secretary who remembers the first names of all the members; here is a press attaché who handles reporters with remarkable skill; here is a popular and inexhaustible speaker who tours the local branches and “builds the base.” Such people are both necessary and unavoidable, and certainly they are something more than the equals of their comrades. Are they traitors? Maybe—but maybe not.

The appeal of equality is not explained by its literal meaning. Living in an autocratic or oligarchic state, we may dream of a society where power is shared, and everyone has exactly the same share. But we know that equality of that sort won’t survive the first meeting of the new members. Someone will be elected chairman; someone will make a strong speech and persuade us all to follow his lead. By the end of the day we will have begun to sort one another out—that’s what meetings are for. Living in a capitalist state, we may dream of a society where everyone has the same amount of money. But we know that money equally distributed at twelve noon of a Sunday will have been unequally redistributed before the week is out. Some people will save it, and others will invest it, and still others will spend it (and they will do so in different ways). Money exists to make these various activities possible; and if it didn’t exist, the barter of material goods would lead, only a little more slowly, to the same results. Living in a feudal state, we may dream of a society where all the members are equally honored and respected. But though we can give everyone the same title, we know that we cannot refuse to recognize—indeed, we want to be able to recognize—the many different sorts and degrees of skill, strength, wisdom, courage, kindness, energy, and grace that distinguish one individual from another.

Nor would many of us who are committed to equality be happy with the regime necessary to sustain its literal meaning: the state as Procrustean bed. “Egalitarianism,” Frank Parkin has written,

seems to require a political system in which the state is able continually to hold in check those social and occupational groups which, by virtue of their skills or education or personal attributes, might otherwise . . . stake claims to a disproportionate share of society’s rewards. The most effective way of holding such groups in check is by denying them the right to organize politically.1

This comes from a friend of equality. Opponents are even quicker to describe the repression it would require and the drab and fearful conformity it would produce. A society of equals, they say, would be a world of false appearances where people who were not in fact the same would be forced to look and act as if they were the same. And the falsehoods would have to be enforced by an elite or a vanguard whose members pretended in turn that they were not really there. It is not an inviting prospect.

But that’s not what we mean by equality. There are egalitarians who have adopted Parkin’s argument and made their peace with political repression, but theirs is a grim creed and, insofar as it is understood, is unlikely to attract many adherents. Even the advocates of what I shall call “simple equality” don’t usually have in mind a leveled and conformist society. But what do they have in mind? What can equality mean if it can’t be taken literally? It is not my immediate purpose to ask the conventional philosophical questions: In what respects are we one another’s equals? And by virtue of what characteristic are we equal in those respects? This entire book is an answer of a complicated sort to the first of these questions; the answer to the second I don’t know, though in my last chapter I shall suggest one relevant characteristic. But surely there is more than one: the second question is more plausibly answered with a list than with a single word or phrase. The answer has to do with our recognition of one another as human beings, members of the same species, and what we recognize are bodies and minds and feelings and hopes and maybe even souls. For the purposes of this book, I assume the recognition. We are very different, and we are also manifestly alike. Now, what (complex) social arrangements follow from the difference and the likeness?

The root meaning of equality is negative; egalitarianism in its origins is an abolitionist politics. It aims at eliminating not all differences but a particular set of differences, and a different set in different times and places. Its targets are always specific: aristocratic privilege, capitalist wealth, bureaucratic power, racial or sexual supremacy. In each of these cases, however, the struggle has something like the same form. What is at stake is the ability of a group of people to dominate their fellows. It’s not the fact that there are rich and poor that generates egalitarian politics but the fact that the rich “grind the faces of the poor,” impose their poverty upon them, command their deferential behavior. Similarly, it’s not the existence of aristocrats and commoners or of office holders and ordinary citizens (and certainly not the existence of different races or sexes) that produces the popular demand for the abolition of social and political difference; it’s what aristocrats do to commoners, what office holders do to ordinary citizens, what people with power do to those without it.

The experience of subordination—of personal subordination, above all—lies behind the vision of equality. Opponents of the vision often claim that the animating passions of egalitarian politics are envy and resentment, and it’s true enough that such passions fester in every subordinate group. To some extent they will shape its politics: thus the “crude communism” that Marx described in his early manuscripts, and which is nothing but the enactment of envy.2 But envy and resentment are uncomfortable passions; no one enjoys them; and I think it is accurate to say that egalitarianism is not so much their acting out as it is a conscious attempt to escape the condition that produces them. Or that makes them deadly—for there is a kind of envy that lies, so to speak, on the surface of social life and has no serious consequences. I may envy my neighbor’s green thumb or his rich baritone voice or even his ability to win the respect of our mutual friends, but none of this will lead me to organize a political movement.

The aim of political egalitarianism is a society free from domination. This is the lively hope named 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. It is not a hope for the elimination of differences; we don’t all have to be the same or have the same amounts of the same things. Men and women are one another’s equals (for all important moral and political purposes) when no one possesses or controls the means of domination. But the means of domination are differently constituted in different societies. Birth and blood, landed wealth, capital, education, divine grace, state power—all these have served at one time or another to enable some people to dominate others. Domination is always mediated by some set of social goods. Though the experience is personal, nothing in the persons themselves determines its character. Hence, again, equality as we have dreamed of it does not require the repression of persons. We have to understand and control social goods; we do not have to stretch or shrink human beings.

My purpose in this book is to describe a society where no social good serves or can serve as a means of domination. I won’t try to describe how we might go about creating such a society. The description is hard enough: egalitarianism without the Procrustean bed; a lively and open egalitarianism that matches not the literal meaning of the word but the richer furnishings of the vision; an egalitarianism that is consistent with liberty. At the same time, it’s not my purpose to sketch a utopia located nowhere or a philosophical ideal applicable everywhere. A society of equals lies within our own reach. It is a practical possibility here and now, latent already, as I shall try to show, in our shared understandings of social goods. Our shared understandings: the vision is relevant to the social world in which it was developed; it is not relevant, or not necessarily, to all social worlds. It fits a certain conception of how human beings relate to one another and how they use the things they make to shape their relations.

My argument is radically particularist. I don’t claim to have achieved any great distance from the social world in which I live. One way to begin the philosophical enterprise—perhaps the original way—is to walk out of the cave, leave the city, climb the mountain, fashion for oneself (what can never be fashioned for ordinary men and women) an objective and universal standpoint. Then one describes the terrain of everyday life from far away, so that it loses its particular contours and takes on a general shape. But I mean to stand in the cave, in the city, on the ground. Another way of doing philosophy is to interpret to one’s fellow citizens the world of meanings that we share. Justice and equality can conceivably be worked out as philosophical artifacts, but a just or an egalitarian society cannot be. If such a society isn’t already here—hidden, as it were, in our concepts and categories—we will never know it concretely or realize it in fact.

In order to suggest the possible reality of (a certain sort of) egalitarianism, I have tried to work my argument through contemporary and historical examples, accounts of distributions in our own society and, by way of contrast, in a range of others. Distributions don’t make for dramatic accounts, and I can rarely tell the stories that I would like to tell, with a beginning, a middle, and an end that points a moral. My examples are rough sketches, sometimes focused on the agents of distribution, sometimes on the procedures, sometimes on the criteria, sometimes on the use and the meaning of the things we share, divide, and exchange. These examples aim to suggest the force of the things themselves or, rather, the force of our conceptions of the things. We make the social world as much in our minds as with our hands, and the particular world that we have made lends itself to egalitarian interpretations. Not, again, to a literal egalitarianism—our conceptions are too complex for that; but they do tend steadily to proscribe the use of things for the purposes of domination.

This proscription has its source, I think, less in a universalist conception of persons than in a pluralist conception of goods. Hence in the pages that follow I shall imitate John Stuart Mill and forego (most of) the advantages that might derive to my argument from the idea of personal—that is, human or natural—rights.3 Some years ago, when I wrote about war, I relied heavily on the idea of rights. For the theory of justice in war can indeed be generated from the two most basic and widely recognized rights of human beings—and in their simplest (negative) form: not to be robbed of life or of liberty.4 What is perhaps more important, these two rights seem to account for the moral judgments that we most commonly make in time of war. They do real work. But they are only of limited help in thinking about distributive justice. I shall invoke them primarily in the chapters on membership and welfare; even there, they won’t take us very far into the substance of the argument. The effort to produce a complete account of justice or a defense of equality by multiplying rights soon makes a farce of what it multiplies. To say of whatever we think people ought to have that they have a right to have it is not to say very much. Men and women do indeed have rights beyond life and liberty, but these do not follow from our common humanity; they follow from shared conceptions of social goods; they are local and particular in character.

Nor, however, can Mill’s principle of utility function as the ultimate appeal in arguments about equality. “Utility in the largest sense” can function, I suppose, in any way we please. But classical utilitarianism would seem to require a coordinated program, a central plan of a highly specific sort, for the distribution of social goods. And while the plan might produce something like equality, it would not produce equality as I have described it, free from every sort of domination: for the power of the planners would be dominant. If we are to respect social meanings, distributions cannot be coordinated, either with reference to the general happiness or with reference to anything else. Domination is ruled out only if social goods are distributed for distinct and “internal” reasons. I shall explain what that means in my first chapter, and then I shall argue that distributive justice is not—what utilitarianism certainly is—an integrated science, but an art of differentiation.

And equality is simply the outcome of the art—at least for us, working with the materials here at hand. For the rest of the book, then, I shall try to describe those materials, the things we make and distribute, one by one. I shall try to get at what security and welfare, money, office, education, free time, political power, and so on, mean to us; how they figure in our lives; and how we might share, divide, and exchange them if we were free from every sort of domination.

Princeton, New Jersey, 1982


Acknowledgments and citations are a matter of distributive justice, the currency in which we pay our intellectual debts. The payment is important; indeed, there is a saying in the Talmud that when a scholar acknowledges all his sources, he brings the day of redemption a little closer. But it isn’t easy to make that full acknowledgment; we are probably unaware of, or unable to recognize, many of our deepest debts—and so the great day is still far off. Even here, justice is unfinished and imperfect.

In the academic year 1970-71, I taught a course at Harvard University, along with Robert Nozick, on the subject “Capitalism and Socialism.” The course had the form of an argument, and half of that argument can be found in Professor Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York, 1974); this book is the other half. I have not tried to respond to Nozick’s views in any detailed way but have simply developed my own position. I owe more than I can say, however, to our discussions and disagreements.

Several chapters of the book were read and discussed at meetings of the Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy and at seminars sponsored by the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. I am grateful to all the members of the society and to my colleagues at the Institute during the academic years 1980-81 and 1981-82. I want particularly to acknowledge the counsel and criticism of Jonathan Bennett, Marshall Cohen, Jean Elshtain, Charles Fried, Clifford Geertz, Philip Green, Amy Gutmann, Albert Hirschman, Michael McPherson, John Schrecker, Marc Stier, and Charles Taylor. Judith Jarvis Thomson read the whole of the manuscript and pointed out all those places where, though I had every right to say what I said, it would have been better had I made an argument. And I have tried to make the arguments, though not always at the depth that she (and I) would have liked.

Robert Amdur, Don Herzog, Irving Howe, James T. Johnson, Marvin Kohl, Judith Leavitt, Dennis Thompson, and John Womack each read a chapter of the book and offered helpful advice. My wife, Judith Walzer, read much of it, talked with me about all of it, and supported me in my effort to say something, if only sketchily, about kinship and love.

No one writing about justice these days can fail to recognize and admire the achievement of John Rawls. In the text, I have mostly disagreed with A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971). My enterprise is very different from Rawls’s, and it draws upon different academic disciplines (history and anthropology rather than economics and psychology). But it would not have taken shape as it did—it might not have taken shape at all—without his work. Two other contemporary philosophers come closer to my own view of justice than Rawls does. Injustice and the Human Good (Chicago, 1980), William M. Galston argues, as I do, that social goods “are divided into different categories,” and that “each of these categories brings into play a distinctive ensemble of claims.” In Distributive Justice (Indianapolis, 1966), Nicholas Rescher argues, as I do, for a “pluralistic and heterogeneous” account of justice. But, in my view, the pluralism of these two arguments is vitiated by Galston’s Aristotelianism and by Reseller’s utilitarianism. My own argument proceeds without these foundational commitments.

The chapter on membership, in an earlier version, first appeared in Boundaries: National Autonomy and Its Limits, edited by Peter G. Brown and Henry Shue, published by Rowman and Littlefield (Totowa, N. J., 1981). I am grateful to the editors for comments and criticism and to the publisher for permission to reprint the essay here. A section of chapter 12 first appeared in The New Republic (January 3 and 10, 1981). Some of the essays collected in my book Radical Principles (New York, 1980), first published in the magazine Dissent, are early and tentative statements of the theory presented here. I was helped in reformulating them by Brian Barry’s critical review of Radical Principles in Ethics (January 1982). The two lines from W. H. Auden’s “In Time of War” are reprinted from The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (New York, 1978); copyright © 1977 by Edward Mendel-son, William Meredith, and Monroe K. Spears, Executors of the Estate of W.H. Auden; with the kind permission of the publisher, Random House, Inc.

Mary Olivier, my secretary at the Institute for Advanced Study, typed the manuscript and then retyped it, again and again, with unfailing accuracy and unflagging patience.

Finally, Martin Kessler and Phoebe Hoss of Basic Books provided the kind of encouragement and editorial advice that, in a perfectly just society, all authors will receive.



Complex Equality


Distributive justice is a large idea. It draws the entire world of goods within the reach of philosophical reflection. Nothing can be omitted; no feature of our common life can escape scrutiny. Human society is a distributive community. That’s not all it is, but it is importantly that: we come together to share, divide, and exchange. We also come together to make the things that are shared, divided, and exchanged; but that very making—work itself—is distributed among us in a division of labor. My place in the economy, my standing in the political order, my reputation among my fellows, my material holdings: all these come to me from other men and women. It can be said that I have what I have rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly; but given the range of distributions and the number of participants, such judgments are never easy.

The idea of distributive justice has as much to do with being and doing as with having, as much to do with production as with consumption, as much to do with identity and status as with land, capital, or personal possessions. Different political arrangements enforce, and different ideologies justify, different distributions of membership, power, honor, ritual eminence, divine grace, kinship and love, knowledge, wealth, physical security, work and leisure, rewards and punishments, and a host of goods more narrowly and materially conceived—food, shelter, clothing, transportation, medical care, commodities of every sort, and all the odd things (paintings, rare books, postage stamps) that human beings collect. And this multiplicity of goods is matched by a multiplicity of distributive procedures, agents, and criteria. There are such things as simple distributive systems—slave galleys, monasteries, insane asylums, kindergartens (though each of these, looked at closely, might show unexpected complexities); but no full-fledged human society has ever avoided the multiplicity. We must study it all, the goods and the distributions, in many different times and places.

There is, however, no single point of access to this world of distributive arrangements and ideologies. There has never been a universal medium of exchange. Since the decline of the barter economy, money has been the most common medium. But the old maxim according to which there are some things that money can’t buy is not only normatively but also factually true. What should and should not be up for sale is something men and women always have to decide and have decided in many different ways. Throughout history, the market has been one of the most important mechanisms for the distribution of social goods; but it has never been, it nowhere is today, a complete distributive system.

Similarly, there has never been either a single decision point from which all distributions are controlled or a single set of agents making decisions. No state power has ever been so pervasive as to regulate all the patterns of sharing, dividing, and exchanging out of which a society takes shape. Things slip away from the state’s grasp; new patterns are worked out—familial networks, black markets, bureaucratic alliances, clandestine political and religious organizations. State officials can tax, conscript, allocate, regulate, appoint, reward, punish, but they cannot capture the full range of goods or substitute themselves for every other agent of distribution. Nor can anyone else do that: there are market coups and cornerings, but there has never been a fully successful distributive conspiracy.

And finally, there has never been a single criterion, or a single set of interconnected criteria, for all distributions. Desert, qualification, birth and blood, friendship, need, free exchange, political loyalty, democratic decision: each has had its place, along with many others, uneasily coexisting, invoked by competing groups, confused with one another.

In the matter of distributive justice, history displays a great variety of arrangements and ideologies. But the first impulse of the philosopher is to resist the displays of history, the world of appearances, and to search for some underlying unity: a short list of basic goods, quickly abstracted to a single good; a single distributive criterion or an interconnected set; and the philosopher himself standing, symbolically at least, at a single decision point. I shall argue that to search for unity is to misunderstand the subject matter of distributive justice. Nevertheless, in some sense the philosophical impulse is unavoidable. Even if we choose pluralism, as I shall do, that choice still requires a coherent defense. There must be principles that justify the choice and set limits to it, for pluralism does not require us to endorse every proposed distributive criteria or to accept every would-be agent. Conceivably, there is a single principle and a single legitimate kind of pluralism. But this would still be a pluralism that encompassed a wide range of distributions. By contrast, the deepest assumption of most of the philosophers who have written about justice, from Plato onward, is that there is one, and only one, distributive system that philosophy can rightly encompass.

Today this system is commonly described as the one that ideally rational men and women would choose if they were forced to choose impartially, knowing nothing of their own situation, barred from making particularist claims, confronting an abstract set of goods.1


On Sale
Aug 5, 2008
Page Count
364 pages
Basic Books

Michael Walzer

About the Author

Michael Walzer is professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, and the author of many widely heralded books, including Spheres of Injustice, Exodus and Revolution, and The Company of Critics.

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