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Dissent or Assent? | The Nation

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Dissent or Assent?

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Michael Walzer's best book is not, unfortunately, his most influential. Spheres of Justice (1983) succeeds brilliantly in imagining "an egalitarianism that is consistent with liberty." In every society, Walzer observes, each social good has a distinctive meaning, which tells us who is entitled to it. Medical care should go to the ill; places in medical school to those most able and eager to heal; political and civil rights to every citizen; political office to the most persuasive; prizes and renown to those who (according to the best judges) excel; love to those who can make themselves loved; money to those who (in Walzer's inspired example) make the best blintzes or provide other goods and services that may be bought and sold. But medical care, medical training, citizenship, political power, honors and love should not be bought and sold, directly or indirectly; they must be earned in some other way, or simply deserved without being earned. Pursued in detail, this insight yields a complete--and completely convincing--theory of distributive justice. In scope, rigor and originality, Spheres of Justice is the equal of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, though it has had only a fraction of the latter's influence.

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars (1977), on the other hand, which is little more than an elegant restatement with minor revisions of the traditional "just war" paradigm, has spawned an entire literature and become required reading at America's military academies. Arguing About War, a collection of essays published in Dissent, The New Republic, Social Research and elsewhere, is Walzer's first book since then about international affairs. Although the book is very uneven in quality--mostly bad, in fact--its topicality and Walzer's reputation make it worth a look.

The best essay in the collection is the least topical: "Governing the Globe." How centralized or decentralized should (future) global governance be? What kinds of organizations should coordinate which spheres of activity? How might the world evolve from where we are toward a balanced regime that promotes collective security, distributive justice, cultural pluralism and individual freedom? In twenty pages (the book's longest essay), Walzer sketches a reasonable approach to these questions--which is as much as anyone could do in twenty pages.

The other essays in Arguing About War are divided between applied (i.e., to terrorism and humanitarian intervention) theory and contemporary cases (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war). Exasperatingly, in this book, as in Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer writes as if the morality of the use of force in international affairs could be usefully discussed with little or no reference to the United Nations Charter. In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer dealt briskly with the question of the Charter's relevance. Defending Israeli reprisals, he declared that because the UN has "clearly not [been] ready or able to enforce the law," its decrees "do not command intellectual or moral respect." States are therefore entitled, he implied, to ignore their obligations under the Charter--at least, he never mentioned any such obligation as binding on any state. His position in Arguing About War is identical. Except for disparaging references to its ineffectuality, the UN scarcely figures.

From a moral theorist, this is wholly inadequate. States are not entitled to disregard their solemn obligations because others do--especially when their own past disregard (as is true, notably though not exclusively, of the United States and Israel) is part of the reason why those others do. The UN Charter is the supreme law of the United States and of most or all other countries who have signed it. It is a pledge to renounce the use of force except as authorized by the Security Council. It does not include a provision releasing states from this pledge whenever they decide that other states aren't living up to it. So a law-abiding state may not, since 1945, make a determination--whether based on just-war theory, on its views about its "national interest" or on anything else--to use force (except in an emergency, very narrowly defined in Article 51).

Though legally sovereign, the UN is indeed ineffective. An honest approach to these matters would admit as much, go on to explore why the collective security system envisioned in the Charter has not worked out as hoped and then try to suggest how habits--and eventually instincts--of restraint, consultation and deference to collective decision-making might be patiently and gradually fostered, especially by the world's strongest and richest states. But this would require acknowledging a great deal of lawless international behavior by the United States and Israel--something Walzer has always, especially in the latter case, been loath to do. As much as anything else, what has undermined the UN's authority has been the manipulation of dependent member-states by the two global superpowers (especially the stronger one); the refusal of the United States to submit its ferocious and protracted aggressive war in Indochina to Security Council decision; the withholding of America's UN dues; the many assertions of unilateral prerogative by American leaders of both political parties; and Israel's unwillingness since 1948 to honor the conditions of its admission to the UN: the return of Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 war and the acceptance of an adjoining Palestinian state, a refusal supported and financed since 1967 by the United States. Though never, as I said, a particularly forthright critic of US foreign policy, Walzer might conceivably have brought himself to address the first several of these causes. But I suspect he would sooner be boiled in oil than acknowledge the final one. So he ignores or dismisses any line of inquiry that might make such an acknowledgment necessary.

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