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Spheres of Justice (By Michael Walzer

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Spheres of Justice

By Michael Walzer

(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)

            Spheres of Justice is one of the most important books that most people have not read.  It is especially important if you have a general interest in justice, have a specific interest in economic justice, wonder about current immigration policy, or have an interest in the relationship between politics and religion. In Spheres, Walzer identifies eleven goods—spheres of justice–that get distributed in western culture.  For each sphere, he delineates the criteria and marks out the appropriate boundaries that guide our internal judgments of justice.  These eleven goods of society are as follows: (1) membership in the community, (2) security and welfare, (3) money and commodities, (4) office, (5) hard work—jobs that nobody wants to do in society, (6) free time, (7) education, (8) kinship and love (family), (9) divine grace, (10) recognition, and (11) political power.

            Walzer argues that these goods are determined by the shared understandings of the members of the community (citizens) and justice occurs when the boundaries of these goods are established and preserved.  For example, the boundaries of education require that all children be given access to a basic education—they have a need to be educated in such a way to develop the character necessary to be contributing members of society.  But the boundaries also require that after the basic education, further education is based on the student’s aptitude, desire and skill.  Therefore determining qualifications for post-secondary school is based on complex equality.

            Justice occurs when the members of the community understand the social goods, understand how they relate to one another through these social goods and develop a diversity of criteria that mirrors the diversity of the social goods.  The three criteria that Walzer offers (1) free exchange, (2) desert, and (3) need.  An example of free exchange is in the sphere of kinship and love.  Marriage, for Walzer is a free exchange of love between two people and should not be regulated by any other criteria.  Desert, on the other hand regulates the sphere of recognition.  Positive recognition and penal justice require one to get what one deserves in honor or in punishment.  Finally, need governs the sphere of security and welfare.  Everyone in society needs to have limited protection from the domination of others.

            In Spheres, Walzer is concerned with understanding and controlling social goods in a way that does not stretch or shrink human beings.  He is concerned with recognizing the similarities of individuals while at the same time honoring their differences.  Therefore, Walzer offers his notions of simple and complex equality.  Equality is a tenuous relationship between the different spheres of goods determined by the shared understandings of the members of the community.  Simple equality is the principle that guides those goods that the society determines as “needs” (e.g., basic education, security and welfare, parts of hard work and political power).  Complex equality, on the other hand, governs those spheres that rely on free exchange and desert (e.g., money and commodities, divine grace, office, etc…).

            For Walzer, the sphere of political power is unique because it distributes all the other goods of society.  Thus, political power must have some mechanism to regulate itself.  Thus, he argues for a limited form of democracy as the political structure that best supports a just distribution of the goods of society.


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