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Julian Lamont on Walzer - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 233
Walzer/Lamont: Of the communitarian philosophers, Michael Walzer (1983)(1) is perhaps the most specific in proposing a methodology for arriving at just distributive principles. For Walzer, criteria for the just distribution of goods in a society are relative both to the particular goods in question and to the particular society's values and understandings of those goods. Walzer argues that goods such as political membership, market commodities, education, health care prestige, political office, professional expertise, or income are always understood and interpreted in a
Gaus I 234
social context.
Concepts/meaning/culture/society/relativism: different societies have different meanings, understandings, and values associated with these goods. The particular meanings of the goods, moreover, determine their proper distribution. So social meanings of goods give rise to distributive principles valid only in a given society, within the sphere of those goods. Injustice occurs
when the distributive criteria for one good are allowed to encroach on the sphere of another
(Walzer, 1983)(1). For example, if a given society's interpretation of health care is that it should be distributed according to need, then injustice occurs when health care becomes inaccessible to the needy ill and available only to those who have money, or talent, or fame. Similarly, if a particular society's interpretation of education is that it should be distributed equally or according to merit, then injustice occurs when it is in fact distributed according to wealth or social connection (Gutmann, 1980)(2).
Relativism: however, no argument for the injustice of such distributions of health care or education can be given independently of a particular society's views, histories, and culture. Walzer's claim is that the philosopher's attempt to derive distributive criteria for abstract goods from abstract reasons is 'undemocratic'.
Democracy: democracy, for Walzer, requires that real people base principles on their actual views,
whatever they are, in deliberation with others. The outcome of the deliberation and democratic struggle will be principles reflecting compromises arising from the actual historical processes of each society, and there is no reason to expect much similarity from culture to culture in the resulting ideals (Fisk, 1989)(3).
Distribution/justice: the right way to distribute the goods will depend only on the requirement that all members of the society actually participate in a manner free of dominance in the development of the principles.
Society: thus, Walzer himself goes so far as to say that even a caste system, where people's positions of birth determine their access to a whole range of social goods, is permissible, so long as the social meanings inherent in the caste system are genuinely shared by the society (Mulhall and Swift, 1996(4): 140). >Relativism/Walzer.

1. Walzer, Michael (1983) Spheres of Justice. Oxford: Martin Robertson.
2. Gutmann, Amy (1980) Liberal Equality. London: Cambridge University Press.
3. Fisk, Milton (1989) The State and Justice: An Essay in Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4. Mulhall, Stephen and Adam Swift, eds (1996) Liberals and Communitarians. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Lamont, Julian 2004. „Distributive Justice“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Lamont, Julian
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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