“What reasons do we have to expect a singular and universal justice? Is that not like protecting the plurality of playwrights while insisting that they all write the same play?” -Michael Walzer, "Nation and Universe"

I’ve written, below, in my post on Charles Taylor, a bit on the opposition between stability and justice as fundamental principles of politics. The two are mutually exclusive: if stability is the fundamental or first purpose of government, then on that theory, one has to concede that arrangements which are undesirable on almost any particular theory of the good nevertheless may be justified, and not merely in terms of pragmatics. As a recovering deontologist, I have little sympathy for that position. Justice has to be the first value of politics, though the political implications which flow from any particular injustice will differ. It’s easy, when the debate is put together in this manner, to take the side of anyone with universalist or justice-first sympathies, but there’s also such a thing as too much justice. In any good polity, there are lots of interactions and relationships that are governed by other principles.

The simile above is a bad one. “Nation and Universe” is an interesting lecture-turned-chapter, given that Michael Walzer, oft-times professed defender of self-determination, non-interference, and particularity, makes a defense of universalism and the primacy of justice. The form of universalism is called ‘reiterative,’ that is, a kind of justice that shares its broad form across nations, but without reference back to a single ur-morality. He contrasts this to ‘covering’ universalism, the idea that there exists one form of social life, political organization, and even justice, which it is the task of one particular nation to spread to all others.

Reiterative universalism should be appealing to someone like me, who supports both the idea of universalism and that individual societies are, and should be, free to determine their collective lives in ways they see fit (within limits). How one spins this theory depends on where the focus is placed: emphasize the universal portion and the theory looks more like traditional universalist morality; emphasize the reiterative portion, and it looks more like Walzer’s usual self-determination position.

It is my contention that the simile Walzer employs in the above quote (at the end of §3, p. 193 in Thinking Politically) is mistaken, and is mistaken insomuch as it misidentifies the role of justice in determining social life. To back up about a page, Walzer begins by asking if there is a universal ethic (I do not, for the record, claim to have any particular knowledge of what the universal ethic is, though I would claim there is one). He notes a series of ‘negative injunctions’—”against killing, torturing, oppressing, lying, cheating, and so on” and sees these as a feature of the ‘covering-law’ universalism.

Walzer goes on:

“Justice seems to be universal in character for the same reason that autonomy and attachment are reiterative—out of recognition of and respect for the human agents who create the moral world and who come, by virtue of that creativity, to have lives and countries of their own.”

What we are respecting when morality is formulated in this way is what he calls the ‘brute fact’ and the ‘divine image.’ Human beings have a capacity to create, to make things new, with an almost infinite variation. People recognize this, and it’s why the imago dei plays such an important role in Western thought, even for people like Walzer who are skeptical of its theological basis. He continues:

“The principles and rules of justice have been worked out, over many centuries, so as to protect human agents and set them free for their creative (reiterative) tasks: one set of principles for one set of agents.”

Though he claims that starting with the principle of equal respect for agents, one cannot stop ‘short of a fully elaborated description of a just society.’ But such a full description then imposes limits: “Why should we value human agency if we are unwilling to give it any room for maneuver and invention?”

One can make two answers to this: the first is that, through various human rights documents, many states (and, one might assume, the nations which are a part of those states) have committed themselves to a notion of justice of a character alien to the one Walzer is developing. Maybe those states are mistaken about the nature of morality, or what can reasonably be expected from law or politics, but there’s another conversation going on concerning this precise topic that gets neglected.

The second response would be that there’s no reason to believe a theory of justice must work itself out as fully as Walzer claims, extending, blob-like, over all of a nation’s collective life. One can retain a principle of universalism in justice without believing justice exhausts the description. Walzer has, in fact, already discussed the best candidate: a largely negative theory of justice that focuses on the things that are prohibited. We can recognize when the minimum conditions to respect the agency or autonomy of individuals are not being met (David Miller’s National Responsibility and Global Justice opens with a recognition that this is the case), and find remedial solutions to those problems as they arise, and in fact make this determination without specifying whether it is the job of government of individual citizens to do so. In fact, we should expect that many of these minimal duties will be fulfilled without any appeal to justice or rights ever being necessary. Justice, given too central a place, can be overweening, and look very much like telling the playwrights what the next play should be. But there’s no reason to give it that place.

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