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Rawls’s and Walzer’s Methodologies of Political Philosophy


John Rawls and Michael Walzer are notable opposing political philosophers with the former being a liberalist while the latter a communitarian. They are however equally famous for having contrasting ideas of universalistic methodology versus particularistic methodology in proposing their theories of justice.1 This paper aims to examine what appears to be contrasts and differences in their methodologies and to show that there is no genuine difference in the methodologies themselves even though there exists disparity in their content in the form of difference in their understanding of the political sphere.

The second section will present the argument that Rawls’s constructive method is very close to Walzer’s interpretative method in a larger sense, but their positions still differ in the sphere where disparity can be permitted. In the third section, this document aims to prove that there is no reason for Walzer not to accept Rawls’s wide reflective equilibrium by criticizing Norman Daniels’ discussions. In that section, the differences between Rawls and Walzer highlighted by Daniels are not the issue of which way to go on the crossroads between reflective equilibrium and relativism; their disparity comes from their different understandings of political sphere.

In the fourth section, I clarify that Rawls’s overlapping consensus looks in contrast with Warlzer’s tentative agreement in the political sphere, but the former has a thread of connection with the latter’s methods of accepting dominant values in a sphere.

Again, I show that Rawls and Walzer’s apparent differences are originated from their differing understanding of the political sphere. In the fifth section, I display functions of Rawl’s public reason and his critical capabilities and that such abilities exist in Walzer’s methodology as well through his universalism. In addition, both are the same in that they can prove their critical capabilities within their methodology, but they show the disparity in their own universalism. I aim to show that such difference also derives from their differing understanding of the political sphere.

Rawls’s constructive methodology and Walzer’s interpretative methodology

Walzer, in his book titled Interpretation and Social Criticism, proposes that moral philosophy has a three path methodology, that is: discovery, invention, and interpretation. The element of discovery holds support in moral truth and objectively valid moral order and attempts to find them. This path originates from religious revelation. The path of invention is closer to creation by God himself rather than creatures’ attempts to find out God’s revelation.

This path makes humans realize that there is no blueprint granted by God (or metaphysical order) and creates certain just principles through rational processes and reasoning power. The path of interpretation is primarily supported by Walzer and it derives moral conclusions by interpreting social meanings as texts. From Walzer’s perspective, Rawls’s attempts are geared at deducing moral principles through procedural work, which belongs to construction methods. These constructive methods are compared to God’s creation and are in tandem with legislative actions in a government.2 So, does Rawls’s method have such an element? Yes, it seems to at first glance. Major characteristics of Kantian constructivism pointed out by Rawls are as laid down as follows:

The first principles of justice single out

According to John Rawls,

“… what facts citizens in a well-ordered society are to count as reasons of justice. Apart from the procedure of constructing these principles, there are no reasons for justice. Put in another way, whether certain facts are to count as reasons of justice and what their relative force is to be can be ascertained only on the basis of the principles that result from the construction. … There is nothing parallel to this in rational intuitionism.3

This is presented as a suitable trait for Rawls to reveal and it emanates from the concept of rational intuitionism. Rational intuitionists hold that moral principles can be attained by making intuition of principles considered to belong to the objective moral order. Rawls on the other hand asserts that his methodology is aimed at guiding citizens in sorting out justice-related aspects from different facts through procedures of principle formation.

Philosophers capture morally relevant facts using certain frames they create and reach moral decisions4. So far, Rawls’s method of construction and Walzer’s method of interpretation look distant from each other. When we suggest that construction is an excellent creative work by a philosopher and interpretation is performing the revival of existing texts, we cannot help think that the two philosophers have taken spatially different approaches. However, Rawls remarks that the procedure of construction is not a pure creation.

The essential idea is that such procedures must be suitably founded on practical reason, or, more exactly, on notions which characterize persons as reasonable and rational and which are incorporated into how, as such persons, they represent to themselves their free and equal moral personality. Put another way, the first principles of justice must issue from a conception of the person through a suitable representation of that conception as illustrated by the procedure of construction in justice as fairness.5

In this thesis, Rawls uses the concept of Kantian practical reason. However, in Political Liberalism, he tends to part from Kantian constructivism and introduces the idea of free and equal humans as basic intuition widely shared by citizens in society (that is, democratic society). In other words, Rawls’s construction is not valid unless there are basic institutions shared by citizens of our society. Among these basic institutions are “citizens who are free and equal as moral beings” and “a society as a fair system of cooperation.”

These are the concepts that he views as “modeling perspectives.” The two intuitions once again provide a new status to the original position that was viewed as a central element around which Rawls’s principles of justice were formed6. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls is often misunderstood due to his emphases on contract tradition and the procedure of original position7. It seems that only agreements between parties of the original position played a central role in justifying Rawls’s principles of justice8. Most individuals attack the fact that such contracts could not be formed and assert that humans under such conditions are fairly different from their real selves.

Rawls, in his writings after A Theory of Justice, indicates that the concept of the original position is just a “mediating concept” that is necessary to derive his principles of justice. More fundamental concepts are “citizens as free and equal moral beings” and “the society as a fair cooperative system”. The original position is just a mediating concept created to link the first two concepts and to contain them. Pure procedural justice in the original position just expresses related parties’ rational autonomy; it does not express perfect autonomy with which a real human should be equipped.

From Rawls’s point of view, these concepts are very basic intuitive concepts that every citizen shares in a democratic society. Continuous reviews of the principles of justice are performed from the viewpoint of these intuitive concepts. More fundamental elements in Rawls’s principles of justice are not by the original position. However, there are two basic concepts that are being reproduced within the original position and these are the concept of humans as free and equal moral beings and the concept of a society as fair, social entity of cooperation. Rawls draws these concepts from intuitions shared within a democratic society-not from Kantian doctrine.

Walzer does not miss this point. When he introduces methods of the invention, he does so by dividing them into two categories and pointing out that Rawls belongs to the second one. The first category is strong invention. This is a method of invention by a strong argument that the “amoral world we have created behind the veil of ignorance or through dialogue which has been liberated from ideologies is the only world we can create and a world where everyone can live universally”.

He compares Rawls’s condition of original position to a condition where people who have different values and languages and who left their homelands adopt principles of cooperation to live together for a while (Walzer considers that Rawls would deny such comparison while Walzer’s followers would follow it). The second category is a weak invention, which is close to Rawls’s original position. It is a “more plausible method of invention with which the process of moral invention can be considered.”9

Our purpose now is not invention de novo; rather, we need to construct an account or a model of some existing morality that gives us a clear and comprehensive view of the critical force of its own principle, without the intervening confusion of prejudice or self-interest. Hence we do not meet with travelers in outer space but with fellow members in inner or social space. We consult our own moral understandings, our reflective awareness of principle, but we try to filter out, even to bar entirely, any sense of personal ambition or advantage. Our method, once again, is epistemic denial, which functions now, according to Rawls, as a “device of representation.”

So we surrender all knowledge of our position in society and of our private connections and commitments, but not, this time, of the values (like liberty and equality) that we share. […] The inventiveness of the philosopher consists only in turning moral reality into an ideal type. The idealized morality is in origin a social morality […]. The project of modeling or idealizing an existing morality does depend […] upon some prior acknowledgment of the value of that morality. Perhaps its value is simply this: that there is no other starting point for moral speculation. We have to start from where we are.10

Walzer compares the second invention to a blind person’s explanation of an object in his familiar home. “Moral philosophy is here understood as a reflection upon the familiar, a reinvention of our own homes.”11 Walzer attempts to prove that this method is not different from his method of interpretation. He compares discovery, invention, and interpretation to the government’s three functions of administrative, legislative, and judiciary, and likens strong inventions to the enactment of the constitution and weak inventions to legal codification. To Walzer, legal codification is an interpretative work. “Since what they are codifying already exists, […]”12 legal codification becomes close to an interpretative work.

Georgia Warnke, who considers that works by major political philosophers of the modern era are part of hermeneutics, also regards Rawls’s work as hermeneutic like Walzer’s. “[j]ust as Walzer relies on shared social meanings, Rawls sees his task as that of articulating a conception of justice that conforms to the settled convictions and deep self-understanding of a constitutional democracy. For both Walzer and Rawls, the examination of questions of justice is an interpretative enterprise.”13 Then, are Walzer’s and Rawls’s methods the same interpretations? No, they are not the same.

Rawls’s interpretation takes only one part of his invention. The work of making constructive procedures with the concepts of humans and the society that fundamentally exists in intuitions shared by citizens of a democratic society is an interpretative work. After the constructive procedures are made and principles of justice are agreed upon and derived therein, however, the principles should not be inconsistent, although other values are subject to inconsistency. From Walzer’s standpoint, every interpretation is exposed to inconsistency, and in the above process, one interpretation takes a predominant position over others. Moreover, there is no guarantee that this predominance will last. Rawls’s interpretation does not accept this, which is criticized by Walzer and Warnke. Walzer says,

“We may be tempted by discovery or invention when we see how the interpretative enterprise goes on and on, never moving toward definitive closure. Discovery and invention do not produce closure either, of course, […] They fail in part because there is an infinite number of possible discoveries and inventions and an endless succession of eager discoverers and inventors. But they also fail because the acceptance of a particular discovery or invention among a group of people gives rise immediately to arguments about the meaning of what has been accepted. A simple maxim: every discovery and invention (divine law is an obvious example) requires interpretation”14.

Warnke thinks that Rawls’s interpretative work is inadequate because although we, generally people do not agree with each other on the meanings within our politics and culture or personal values and comprehensive doctrines, we cannot exclude the possibilities of inconsistency.15

I agree that Rawls’s work of invention can also be understood from the viewpoint of interpretative work, but I doubt the position that the political sphere should be exposed to the same degree of diversity and inconsistency as interpretation occurring in different areas. In a political sphere, inconsistencies and interpretations may compete, but it is hard to permit such competition to the same degree as in other areas because of the political areas’ unique characteristics. Rawls and Walzer differently understand the status and traits of the political sphere, so their methodologies do not completely converge.

Rawls’s Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Walzer’s Relativism

Regarding Rawls’s methodologies, what continually appears in both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism as an official opinion is the concept of reflective equilibrium. According to T.M. Scanlon’s reasoning, whereas derivation of principles in the original position is theoretical and deductive, the method of reflective equilibrium is intuitive and inductive.16 The latter appears inductive because we start from contemplated judgment and existing beliefs, then create principles and obtain final conclusions. However, the method of reflective equilibrium is not the simple sum of beliefs or reflection of intuitions.

Contemplated judgments that we commonly hold may be in danger of distortions, and Rawls’s theory of justice cannot reflect ordinary judgments (a sense of justice) with such possibility intact. According to him, therefore, we should reach an equilibrium by comparing the judgments that we originally have and the principles derived from the original position, coming and going from the two.

When this method is analyzed by an individual between principles and judgments, it is found to have relative implications.17 It also meets criticism in the sense that it can be a methodology of justification in a genuine sense because individuals may feel they have reached equilibrium by revising principles, so that they become consistent with judgments they originally held. However, Rawls’s moral philosophy focuses more on the second characteristic of the two traits of reflective equilibrium18.

The first trait is to draw principles closer to ordinary judgments contemplated by us, and the second one is to draw ordinary judgments contemplated by us closer to the principles we obtained through rational procedures. “[I]n the case a person’s sense of justice may or may not undergo a radical shift. Cleary is the second kind of reflective equilibrium that one is concerned with within moral philosophy.”19 From this assertion it is evident that Rawls is suggesting that his reflective equilibrium does not describe individuals’ subjective acceptance but performs critical functions that reflect the reality according to fixed principles.

Daniels builds on Rawls’s wide reflective equilibrium in order to prove objectivity and offer criticism of the methodology of the concept. He adds “a set of relevant background theories” to reflective equilibrium, which Rawls explained only with a set of principles and contemplated judgment, thereby clarifying the content of the wide reflective equilibrium that Rawls mentioned.20 According to Daniels, this third element plays the role of giving some moral principles more support than others, regardless of the consistency between moral principles and contemplated judgments.

To Daniels, in fact, inconsistency between utilitarianism and Rawls’s contract theory results from differences between such background theories. Such differences in background theories have merits in that they can be established more easily than the differences in the two former elements. In addition, such background theories have a requirement of “independent constraints,” which means that contemplated judgments used for such background theories should be disconnected from those of a set of principles.

Thus Daniel argues that we are not dominated by contemplated judgments that may appear subjective, and that objectivity can be obtained in the theory of ethics. Thanks to Daniels’ interpretation, Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium was able to strongly handle later assertions that his method was relativism or conservatism.

Meanwhile, Daniels suggests that Walzer’s strong internalism, which he is assumed to have, inevitably leads him into relativism. “Something will be a reason for an agent to do something only if it motivates him to do it because of its connection to desires that the agent already has.”21

From Daniels’ perspective, his strong internalism does not fit with our moral experiences. If strong internalism is correct, “we could not really have reasons for revising our conceptions of the good, our plans of life.”22 According to his strong allegiance to internalism, works of modifying values we ordinarily experience are just “unexplainable conversions,” and this does not fit with our moral experiences at all.

Daniels seems to believe that Rawls’s reflective equilibrium, clarified by himself, is a model that is more suited to our moral experiences. Meanwhile, he makes criticism that, in Walzer’s theory, deep-rooted, strong internalism forces him to abruptly fall into relativism. However, Daniel’s conclusion that it is relativism derived from the premise of strong internalism applies to Rawls’ theory as well. The conclusion of relativism is “because we cannot justify the principle of distribution to those who are lacking proper, shared meanings, we cannot impose the reason to select such principle on them.” Rawls also begins from values inherent in a shared culture of a democratic society (views of political men and political society).

So, the principle of distribution that citizens of a democratic society have cannot be justifiable to those who live in a culture without such values. Rawls, through his later writings, reveals that his theory is aimed at obtaining political justification from citizens living within a democratic, liberalistic tradition, and Daniels knows this fact very well. Thus, he admits that Rawls’s theory is “in principle… open to some form of relativism.”23

However, regarding Rawls, Daniels tries to narrow the scope of this relativism, which is only possible in principle. Rawls advocates that justice does not have relativity in a single national state with a viewpoint of liberal citizenship. Of course, it is true. Rawls hopes the number of viewpoints of justice is just one in one national state. Meanwhile, Walzer still asserts that even in one country, justices may separately exist in diverse areas. Because of it, it looks like relativism all the more.

Why, then, do Rawls and Walzer look so different? Is it because of their different methodologies? I do not think so. Daniels tries to differentiate by pointing out that Rawls follows reflective equilibrium in a larger sense and Walzer in a smaller sense (Walzer’s reflective equilibrium lacks the element of background theories and has only two elements of contemplated judgment and principles); however, such difference in their methodologies does not explain that Rawls risks less in falling into relativism or that Walzer is more exposed to the risk of relativism.

Such methodological differences fail to expound why Rawls leaves room to permit relativism in international relations and does not allow relativism within the boundary of a national state, nor does he allow subjectivism of individuals. Daniels admits that, “this fundamental difference between Walzer and Rawls still leaves a nagging worry that relativism will arise even for Rawls.”24

It is not necessary to conclude that Rawls and Walzer have different kinds of relative equilibrium. Walzer appears to have no reason not to accept wide relative equilibrium. Walzer can reduce a little further the unit of the methodology that Rawls used for displaying one viewpoint of justice with a nation as a unit and make use of it to present one viewpoint of justice shared within a sphere (in a national state). Walzer may attempt to introduce a set of background theories proposed by Daniels to the condition of individuals’ reflective equilibrium in order to resolve the disparity between individuals. It will be more helpful. To draw common values within a sphere, Walzer should also overcome the subjectivism that individuals within it have.

In order to overcome such subjectivism, wide reflective equilibrium, which includes the elements of background theories, may be absolutely necessary. The difference between Rawls and Walzer comes from differences in the scope of the sphere of diversity and the limit of the sphere of consistency, which goes back to the issues of differences in understanding characteristics of political spheres.

Rawls’ overlapping consensus and Walzer’s dominant values

Rawls’s justification of his theory of justice is shown differently in A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. As Daniels points out well, Rawls attempts political justification of the theory of public justice in his later writings. A Theory of Justice mainly performs the work of personal justification, showing to those who encounter Rawls’s theory that the viewpoint of justice as fairness is provided in a consistent and persuasive manner.

On the other hand, political liberalism demands that the theory of justice that should obtain the position as a political theory of a democratic society should not just pass the test of theoretical justification, but also go through the test of security (possibility of maintenance in reality)25. This basically means that it should be something to last with agreements of diverse citizens in a democratic society.

Therefore, a variety of tools for consistent justification of the theory of justice in A Theory of Justice are interpreted in different priorities, are applied in the original position, a more diverse and larger dimension (reflective equilibrium) or give in to a new tool dubbed overlapping consensus (concept of a sense of justice). However, Rawls more deeply inquired into the problem of realistic possibilities, which political theories should have, and made such a change of direction. It should be considered, however, that such change does not translate into completely discarding previous theoretical justification.

Rawls reaches a point where his role as a philosopher is more outstanding than one as an advocate of democracy. He comes up with a theory of justice as a limited form to which people may agree if they are members of a democratic society, even though they do not follow all the methods of theoretical justification he proposed. Therefore, Rawls cannot help being dependent on facts of intuition and basic thoughts shared in a given society that will accept his theory of justice, as compared to his rational work and thoughts as a philosopher. The theory of justice he provides after finishing the test of justification by himself, not based on the above, shall have difficulty in becoming the object of overlapping consensus.

For this to happen, comprehensive doctrines of a given society should at least clarify the society’s shared values, so that he feels that his principles are compatible with the viewpoint of justice as fairness. Rawls owes a lot to the concept of “free and equal citizens” and “a society as a fair system of cooperation,” inherent values of public culture which he thought all citizens of a democratic society would accept.

Rawls’ new aspect reminds one of Walzer, though their application areas differ. Walzer also affirms that one dominant value exists within one sphere, and the work of making a theory of justice is to interpret social meanings of such realistic value. However, the sphere in Walzer’s mind is not a nation but areas within a nation, which differs from Rawls. Neither Rawls nor Walzer can make public theories of justice that would pass political justification unless they owe their works to dominant values shared by a given society.

Political justification is possible only when it obtains the society members’ consensus or acceptance because if the justification does not start from what they agree upon, their overlapping consensus cannot be derived. Of course, some may refute that under Rawls’s fundamental base, procedural values are easily shared, but under Walzer’s, substantive values are hard to share within a sphere. Indeed, Rawls considers that reasonable comprehensive doctrines that are the subjects of overlapping consensus may accomplish reasonable pluralism if procedural values, such as the burden of judgment, acceptance of others’ reasonableness, and recognition of mutual reciprocity are accepted 26.

On the other hand, Walzer proposes substantive values for each area and argues that they are shared values. Nevertheless, procedural values are still substantive values to those with viewpoints that cannot accept such procedural values. In a society of benevolent interventionism or hierarchy, the burden of judgment may be valued not shared. Without accepting such values, possibilities of harmonious agreements are plausible. For example, there is a sphere or society headed by a spiritual leader with powerful and benevolent charisma. People living in such a society cannot accept the explanation of the “burden of judgment,” without denying the leader’s charisma.

Then, the “burden of judgment” must be a substantive value, which is hard for them to accept. Those values to which we frequently give priority over substantive values because of our belief that they are procedural values may be provided with a higher level status (dispute resolution) only under the circumstances of justice where various values compete with each other. In a society that lacks justice—where problems arise from disputes and disagreements—procedural values may degenerate into other substantive values.

From proceduralists’ points of view, therefore, does Walzer, who adheres to substantive values as dominant values of a sphere, consider the society he faces as one lacking justice (that is, under circumstances of inconsistency or disputes)? Probably not. Walzer most likely knows that in any given society, inconsistencies happen incessantly, and competitive values and interpretations that confront dominant values hold their positions.

In other words, “circumstances of justice“exist. However, we are still not living arbitrarily, interpreting social values and behaviors without any inconsistent direction. Such aspects do not correspond with our moral experiences. We hold on to a dominant value or its alternative value or interpretation and figure out the meanings of social values, even though they may be tentative. In addition, we may stay in a sphere where circumstances of justice are not established and feel satisfied with dominant, substantive values within it.

Both overlapping consensus proposed by Rawls and acceptance of dominant values within a sphere suggested by Walzer means political justification that one viewpoint of justice should be agreed upon and admitted by members of the society who are targeted by the viewpoint. Whether it is based on substantive values or procedural values is not very important. Procedural values, namely the burden of judgment, maybe unfamiliar and awkward in some spheres.

Do Rawls and Walzer share the same position regarding overlapping consensus of the political sphere? They do not. The reason why I regarded Rawls’s overlapping consensus and Walzer’s acceptance of dominant values within a sphere as meaning the same is just that they showed that consensus of the same meaning exists in a place—a nation to Rawls and a sphere to Walzer—where shared values hold true. To emphasize once more, the difference between Rawls and Walzer does not lie in the method with which a consensus is drawn but in their understanding of a political sphere. The following is a comparison between them with a nation set as a unit.

As we have examined so far, Rawls comes up with the method of overlapping consensus. On the other hand, Walzer places the method of tentative agreement, which is opposed by Rawls, as a theory of political space. This issue will also be discussed in the conclusion.

Rawls’ Public Reason and Walzer’s Universalism: Search for Capabilities of Social Criticism

Rawls, through overlapping consensus, concludes that his viewpoint of justice as fairness can be politically justified by citizens with diverse, reasonable, and comprehensive positions. He introduces the concept of public reason based on the content of the viewpoint of public justice justified so by citizens. We need to differentiate the concept of public reason from that of overlapping consensus. Logically, the concept of public reason is one that follows after overlapping consensus and that plays a role of providing public reasons, which both justices of the Supreme Court and citizens should assume as a ground when core items of the constitution and basic problems of justice are at issue.27

The viewpoint of public justice—for example, the viewpoint of justice as fairness—which is the content of overlapping consensus, admits each citizen’s individual reasoning and justification to achieve overlapping consensus. Once it obtains overlapping consensus, it should act as the only ground for public justification when core items of the constitution and basic problems of justice are at issue. According to Rawls, it is our duty as citizens to evaluate political issues through public reason. “This duty can explain how the principles and policies which citizens uphold and cast votes to can be supported by political values of public reason.”28

Public reason to which citizens resort as an authority when they judge political issues naturally obtains such authority from the perspective of public justice and the content of public reason. Public justice obtains such political just because it belongs to an overlapping part to which citizens agree with their reasons.

To sum up, citizens come to consolidate a certain element of public justice with their reasons, and once ideal content is obtained from such agreement, it is accepted as an authoritative public reason with which to judge and resolve political disputes and problems, and forms a public reason. When people resolve political issues, political debates become possible just in case they show their position based only on public reason. Public reason obtains objectivity, universality, and priority in rightfulness, and objectively criticizes political practices performed in disharmony with the content or viewpoint of public justice. Aspects of rationalist political philosophy are revealed in Rawls’s public reason.

Practical reason is not required as a principle to dominate each individual’s life but stays as a principle to dominate the public’s life as a whole. Individuals can live a life with their behavioral principles when they enter their own private areas after they accept the public exercise of public reason whose content is public justice on which an agreement had been reached.

Rawls’s political philosophy that proposes public reason and for which objective status was publicly accepted appears to perform well the function of criticizing a real society. For critical functions to be carried out well, the basis for criticism should not be subjective or arbitrary. Rawls resolves this issue through objectivity and universalism of public reason. In the meantime, what is Walzer’s political philosophy? Can we expect a critical function of political philosophy from Walzer who argues that moral principles should be derived from specific contexts? Can he criticize reality well with the aspect of contextualist justice he proposed in the purport of attacking universalism?

Walzer and other communitarians following him have been continuously accused of their relativism and conservatism. As shown in the introduction of this paper, liberalist (realistic) political philosophy seems to place emphasis on values of reality and has the drawback of having great difficulty in holding a critical standpoint of widely circulated values in reality. Ultimately, it causes concerns that it ends up with a theory of justice that merely discusses the status quo.

Now, however, Walzer decisively provides us with a theory of criticism in the manner of naturalism. He comes up with his own “universalism,” which, to some people, may look like a declaration of retreat from his realism. His universalism plays a part in backing his own critical theory, as Rawls’s universal and objective public reason plays a role in proving the critical ability of his political philosophy. I will look, then, at Walzer’s own universalism, which backs the possibility of criticism in his naturalist political philosophy.

Walzer’s universalism consists of “reiterative universalism” and “concessionary universalism.”29 First, the following is a discussion of reiterative universalism. Walzer distinguished between “covering-law universalism” and “reiterative universalism” and mentioned that he supported the latter.30 Covering-law universalism strongly ascertains that one universal principle pre-exists but admits that the principle may apply to assume diverse appearances in a variety of contexts.

However, reiterative universalism supported by Walzer has a particularist focus and particularizing tendency.31 When diverse principles unique to each context pre-exist and have “overlapping” meanings, one universalism is established. Walzer accepts universalist, minimalist morals as a component of our moral experiences. According to him, however, such morals do not take predominance over particularist, maximal morals at all.

However, the theory of contextualist justice poses the question: “why are all these contextually specific principles of justice?” Regarding this, David Miller responds that an approach by Wittgenstein’s concept of justice can answer without presenting “necessary and sufficient conditions of application.”32 “Where universalists see justice as a measuring rod against which all human distributive practices are to be held up, contextualists regard it as more akin to a toolkit, skill in the use of which involves above all identifying the circumstances that make the use of one or other instrument appropriate.”33

Thanks to such a concept of universalism, Walzer sets up the foundation for criticizing society. In a value-closed society, when an obvious human injustice is occurring, such reiterative universalism may be a ground for criticism. However, what we should have in mind at this point is that such criticism is not the kind that Walzer wants to prioritize. The above criticism can be used by people in other countries when they make political judgments about issues happening in a country. In other words, it is a criticism “aloof critics” can make, and it cannot be done thoroughly.

We may rage at a massacre in war and collectively wage a demonstration on behalf of the victims, but after the demonstration ends we should go back to our individual homeland.34 We cannot intervene in and criticize the country’s specific, particular reality. Criticism in which Walzer has more interest is from inside and “connected criticism”35. For this criticism, understanding “concessionary” universalism is necessary.

“Concessionary” universalism is a kind of fictional universalism. We always doubt the authenticity of dominant values, so we want to be away from such values to look at and criticize them with an attitude of aloofness. According to Walzer, however, we do not need to be away from dominant values to look at them. Of course, dominant groups that disseminate such values would have a hidden intention of particular interest-seeking; however, they do not reveal it in a raw form.

Instead, they wrap it with a very wide concept and present it to general people because in such a way a lot of individual flocks together under the banner. To draw so many people, these groups succeed in forming a dominant force by hiding their particular interests and rallying those people with a wider concept and hypocritical slogans-in other words, by equipping themselves with fictional universalism.

Here, we witness Walzer’s remarkable insight. Walzer proposes that the dominant force begins to face counter-attacks due to the very universalist values they disseminate.36 The dominant force nurtures the class of intellectuals who refine its ideology and give people moral and knowledge education. This education utilizes the universalist concept, and people who get this education gradually start to sense that there exists a very large gap between the universal slogans and the real aspects of the ruling class, birthing dreams of possibilities of subversion. From such a standpoint, the knowledge obtained is very useful, even though “concessionary” universalism may be hypocritical and fictional.

Walzer admits that “concessionary” universalism lacks authenticity and may have the possibility of being hypocritical, but unconcernedly he makes use of this universalism, not discarding it as a result of his disappointment. While ordinary anti-rationalist, anti-universalist ideas result from the reaction to disappointment at hypocrisy and fictionality, Walzer utilizes it in a very realistic manner and displays his wisdom of capturing the possibility of criticism. This criticism is regarded by Walzer as a more important form and based on maximal values.37 All meaningful critics are those who base their criticism on maximal morals. They interpret and capture deep and large values shared in their society, criticize dominant groups who are different from their values in the actual state of affairs, and obtain objective and universal sympathy.

Strictly speaking, this universality is not something commonly shared pan-universally, because it is universal within the specific society and if it goes beyond it will become a particular value. However, Rawls’s theory is the same. Rawls’ area of application is also confined to the unit of a nation. Regarding the international community, he appears not to demand that his public reason be regarded as the only publicly justified reason.

Rawls’s public reason is also universalism and objectivism within a limit. He imposes authority on such objectivity or universalism considering that it is rationally justified enough. However, Walzer regards it as having authority because it has obtained people’s recognition within a long tradition. In this regard, he is very humanistic. However, if he does not go further, he will inherit the accusation of Hume’s mannerism. Walzer transcends mannerism because to him, the fundamental possibility of criticism exists within the society.

The dominant values proposed by him are exposed to continuous criticism, and their relevance can be proven only if they endure the time period of criticism. Individuals cannot help but wait to know the true result. For now, it is our best effort to participate in diverse, interconnected critical activities and interpretative works. Values dominantly accepted within a society may turn out to have no authenticity (inconsistency in practice) or consist of conflicting meanings. If there is no authenticity, it would be okay for such hypocrisy to be disclosed and for the form to be corrected into its original values or reinterpreted values; traditions or practices composed of conflicting meanings shall have to be collapsed.

Now, we can evaluate Rawls’s universalism and the objectivism his public reason contains, and Walzer’s universalism. Rawls’s universalism is on the premise of realistic, genuine consensus and affirmation. On the other hand, Walzer’s universalism just plays a practical role as a basis for criticism even though it is not necessarily the product of genuine consensus (though, if it is the product of genuine consensus, it would be better).

Walzer’s acceptance of universalism appears very realistic. If it is considered that universal morals come from genuine, rational consensus, in a society without such consensus or where values currently accepted continue to be disputed, people are justified to come up with frameworks to isolate such consensus with methods of exercising reasons interpreted by each. In other words, overlapping consensus itself becomes hard to obtain.

Once it is established, then public reason acts with authority, so that the resolution of disparity becomes easier. On the contrary, in Walzer’s universalism, even without exerting all energy at the stage of attempting to establish genuine rational consensus, the ground for criticizing practices of the present is made. This is because we can target our criticism at the dominant group, which put up the dominant values through the name of those values even though they had been implicitly admitted, not agreed with authenticity.

Conclusion: Difference in Understanding of Political Sphere

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize two points. First, a political space to Rawls is one for national and constitutional activities and of high level where disputes of diverse spheres are settled and minimal consensus is guaranteed. On the other hand, according to Walzer, political space is just one sphere among various areas of distribution. To him, infiltration of one sphere’s distribution principle into another one’s is “tyrannical” and injustice.

At this point, the problem is that the political sphere has dual simultaneous characteristics. To Walzer, the role of the political sphere is to prevent “tyrannical” activities; that is, infiltration into the boundary of each sphere. According to him, it is the very way of protecting citizens’ equality38. Citizens enjoy equality by having their individual predominance recognized in each sphere in a different way; they are equal as culture-creating beings. Then, where should the guarantee of such complex equality be regarded as being realized? As we know, Rawls would answer that a political sphere does the work and Walzer also would respond that it is the role of the political sphere.

As Walzer admits, this is because one role of political spheres is to prevent the infiltration of boundaries. Therefore, political spheres should be of a higher level than other spheres as long as we grant political spheres authority to prevent activities from infiltrating boundaries. The nature Walzer gave political spheres is as if a country is in an equal position as another country, shields activities of invasion into its border and gets it right. Walzer can grant political sphere a role of protecting equality without conceptual contradiction only after he recognizes the priority and superiority of the political sphere.

Second, Rawls and Walzer have a different understanding of the concept of justice. Whereas Rawls regards prevention of infiltration of boundaries itself as justice, Walzer thinks of justice as unique principles within a sphere. Walzer explains that in each context justice is displayed differently. However, to Rawls, it is just society’s dominant values, not justice. Rawls believes that preventing mutual infiltration of those dominant values is justice and values of the highest level.

To Walzer, such high-level values seem to be what is called equality, not justice. Justice is the distribution principle of each sphere, and equality is embodied by maintaining justice in the sphere and admitting positions of individual spheres. If we do the activities of preventing territory invasion, namely despotism, they are activities of justice to Rawls and those of equality to Walzer. Therefore, to Walzer, justice is not a principle unique to the political sphere.

However, we do not need to think that their real positions are different due to such disparity in their idea of justice. Whether Walzer calls equality what Rawls named justice, it is obviously a high-level value and should play its role in a high-level sphere. This is an unchanging fact. Walzer, then, needs to present the sphere in such a role, whether he names it “political sphere,” or “bureau of equality management,” by differentiating its level from other spheres’ levels. However, a high-level sphere that plays such a role does not independently exist (it is just within the political sphere, a sphere of the same level).

Walzer may think that the political sphere Rawls came up with is a sphere with too many particular contents for it to play a high-level role and instead be mere prevention of territory invasion. Members of a democratic society may just want decentralization of territory, demanding not so many political roles. In other words, we may want to live under the dominance of each sphere rather than being dominated by political sphere resulting from its predominance over other spheres; as if people want to live within a national state rather than living under the dominance of a world government. The question of which understanding of the nature of the political sphere is more proper needs further study, but that issue goes beyond the scope of this paper.

Works Cited

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Miller, David, “Two ways to think about justice.” Politics, Philosophy & Economics, vol. 1. London: Sage Publication Ltd, 2002. Print.

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Rawls, John. A theory of justice. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Print.

Rawls, John. The independence of moral theory. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974. Print.

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Walzer, Michael. Thick and thin: moral argument at home and abroad. Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1994. Print.

Walzer, Michael. Pluralism, justice, and equality, Eds. David Miller and Michael Walzer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Walzer, Michael. The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century. 2nd edition. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Walzer, Michael. Politics and Passion: Toward a more egalitarian liberalism. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

Warnke, Georgia. Justice and interpretation. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1993. Print.


  1. Mulhall & Swift (1996), pp. 127~156.
  2. Walzer (2002), p. 3.
  3. Rawls (1980), p. 351.
  4. Rawls (1974), pp. 3-26.
  5. Rawls (1980), p. 346.
  6. O’nell (2003), pp. 23-29.
  7. Rawls (1971), p. 15.
  8. Dworkin (1985), p. 145.
  9. Walzer (2002), pp. 16~17.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Walzer (2002), pp. 19~20.
  13. Warnke (1993), p. 39.
  14. Walzer (1993), p. 26.
  15. Warnke (1993), p.41.
  16. Scanlon (2003), p.139.
  17. Scanlon (2003), pp.151-153.
  18. Baynes (1992), p. 32.
  19. Rawls (1999), p.43.
  20. Daniels (1979), p.258.
  21. Daniels (1996), pp.112~113.
  22. Daniels (1996), p.113.
  23. Daniels (1996), p.116.
  24. Daniels (1996), pp. 116~117.
  25. Walzer (2004), pp. 11-45.
  26. Walzer (1983), pp. 26-53.
  27. Rawls (1993), pp.213~216.
  28. Rawls (1993), p.217.
  29. “Reiterative universalism” is the term Walzer uses in “Nation and Universe.” “Concessionary” came from Gramsci’s term which appeared in Walzer’s article. Walzer (1989), pp. 43.
  30. Walzer (1989), p.513.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Miller (2002), p. 19.
  33. Miller (2002), p. 24.
  34. Walzer (1994), pp. 1~2.
  35. Walzer (2002), pp.33~66.
  36. Walzer (2002), pp.40~42.
  37. Walzer (1994), pp.1~20.
  38. Walzer (1995), 54.
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