Complex Equality

What Were Walzer’s Main Points About Distributive Justice?

Dr. Walzer at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton U

1. Different goods have different social meanings and their distribution must be done in accordance

  • “Different social goods ought to be distributed for different reasons, in accordance with different procedures, by different agents; and that all these differences derive from different understandings of the social goods themselves— the inevitable product of historical and cultural particularism.” (212)

2. Every social good constitutes its own distributive sphere each sphere should be, relatively autonomous. Distributions between different spheres should take place independently of each other

  • If person A is distributed dominance in the political sphere, then it SHOULD NOT result in person A also receiving dominance in the economic sphere.

       Questions to think about:

    • Where in society is this evident??
    • Where in society do you think this concept not exist and should be applied more?

3. It is the history and culture of a particular community that determine the meaning of a social good, so the distributive strategies must be good-specific and culture-specific.

  • “If we understand what it is, what it means to those for whom it is a good, we understand how, by whom, and for what reasons it ought to be distributed.” (214)

What is Simple Equality?

  • The belief that everyone should have the same material level and amount of goods and services.
  • “Imagine a society in which everything is up for sale and every citizen has as much money as every other. I shall call this ‘regime of simple equality’” (218)

Walzer’s Critique on Simple Equality

  • Believes that the coercion of the State, which is necessary in order to maintain the equality of people and to break up the monopolies, would constitute a system that would be unbearable to live in.
  •  “The Simple Regime” is an unstable situation that will quickly deteriorate, through market exchanges, into new inequalities unless unacceptably strong state intervention is used to break up emerging monopolies and forms of dominance in various spheres.

       Questions to think about:

    • Why do you think this theory wont work? Do you agree with Walzer?
    • Are there times when this theory would work?
    • How are his ideas/critique similar to Nozick’s in “The Entitlement Theory? (hint: how liberty to exchange/redistribute goods will upset patterns)

What is Complex Equality?

  • Instead of trying to have everyone have the same amount of stuff, it is ok for there to be inequalities within each sphere as long as there appropriate distributive laws for that sphere, keeping each sphere independent and that
  • Justice requires that each good be distributed in accordance with its own sphere-specific principles, which are discovered through interpretation of its social meaning. A society is tyrannical if one good dominates others, if it violates those meanings.
  • “No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x” (222)


Other Questions to think about:

    • What are the differences between Walzer’s Theory and Rawl’s Theory about equality?
    • What would Walzer’s view of income equality look like?
    • What would Walzer think of the pattern of gender differences in pay and promotion at Wal-Mart?
    • What would Walzer think of the Occupy Wall Street Movement?

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5 Responses to Complex Equality

  1. awhigbee says:

    Really awesome job Katie! This is really helpful in understanding Walzer. I might use him in my final paper regarding Occupy Wall Street. I think he would think that Occupy Wall Street is an interesting movement especially because there is no one leader and it is a general assembly. I think it gives the movement some equality among fellow protestors.

  2. Jordi says:

    This is likely to help anyone interested in writing about Walzer and complex inequality in paper 2.

  3. Let me take a stab at one of these questions you pose, to see if I’m with you:

    Wouldn’t Walzer reject Rawl’s idea that there is one way of conceiving justice, the “original position”. Walzer would say this was unrealistic, that is, if people are truly aware of their identity in the real world. He would say that Rawls sees equality as something someone has, but Walzer doesn’t think that it can be seperated from the context of society, history, etc.

    Thanks, Katie! Really thorough, great work!

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  5. Jordi says:

    Absolutely, Eli.

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