Walzer vs Philosophy

by Tom on August 6, 2003

That link that Chris posted to his ‘Imprints’ interview with Michael Walzer was well worth following. Walzer has done some work that I admire the hell out of, (‘Just and Unjust Wars’ especially), and his thoughts about Iraq shoud probably be required reading for those of us who ended up on the other side of the argument.

Still, there are a couple of chunks in that interview that went to the heart of why some of Walzer’s most famous stuff (‘Spheres of Justice’, ‘Thick and Thin’) irritated me so much when I first read it.

Consider this bit:


For myself, I think that one great mistake of contemporary academic philosophers, starting with Rawls himself, is the claim that our natural endowments are ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view’ and should not be allowed to have effects in the social world – or, better, the effects they have should never be philosophically ratified. As Rawls wrote, we have to ‘nullify the accidents of natural endowment.’ This puts philosophy radically at odds with ordinary morality. Sometimes, of course, that is a useful conflict, but in this particular encounter, philosophy does not fare well. Our natural endowments make us what we are, and what we are necessarily has consequences in the social world, and some, at least, of these consequences must be legitimate.

I suppose it’s only fair to note that Walzer is giving an interview rather than a carefully prepared paper, so it’s perhaps not quite cricket to focus in too much forensic detail on the way he formulates his position here.

So I’ll refrain from setting the field for a session of borderline-illegal bowling, and step back a bit. It’s unsurprising to find Walzer to announcing ex cathedra that so far as the debate about ‘moral arbitrariness’ goes, ‘philosophy does not fare well’ in the conflict with ordinary common-sense morality, since he has a habit of thinking that the fight goes that way by default: all the way back to ‘Philosophy and Democracy’ in 1981 we can find Walzer