Local Justice

T.M. Scanlon

  • Morality and Conflict by Stuart Hampshire
    Blackwell, 175 pp, £18.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 13336 4
  • Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality by Michael Walzer
    Blackwell, 343 pp, £15.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 14063 8

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.

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