Michael Walzer Essay

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Very few academics have influenced the field of political ethics and justice as much as Michael Walzer. With an academic career spanning over 50 years, Walzer has studied and lectured at some of the premier universities in the United States, teaching at Princeton University (1962–66), Harvard University (1966–80), and the Institute for Advanced Study (as of 1980). During this span, Walzer has written 27 books and more than 300 articles, essays, and book reviews on the role of ethics, justice, and morality  in societies. These works span a vast assortment of topics and views, including three that have substantially influenced the field of ethics in criminal justice.

A common theme throughout Walzer’s body of work is that of a communitarian political philosophy. Communitarianism is an ideology that emphasizes the linking of an individual with his or her community. That community may be as simple as a family unit, but can also be understood in a broader sense of personal interaction, geographical location, or a shared group history. With regard to the pursuit of justice, communitarianism emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals, rather than the individuals  themselves or the government. This theme of shared values and beliefs through communal diffusion becomes the centerpiece of Walzer’s prominent views on ethics and the role of justice.

Just and Unjust Wars

The idea of communitarianism and criminal justice ethics is embodied in Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars  (1977),  which  details  the  circumstances under which organized, political violence is considered justifiable. More specifically, he provides a set of moral guidelines that should govern the conduct  of international warfare.  Walzer  contends that among the community of world nations a baseline of fundamental rights exist, and any breach of these rights legitimates the use of community intervention. Thus, a permissible condition of intervention occurs when one state poses direct and proximate threats—for example,  regarding the right to life—to another state, because doing so undermines the quality of interdependent relationships existing within the community.

Walzer also posits that the legitimate use of organized violence is only such when it is directed toward those responsible for the threat. Performing threatening acts or deploying weapons, tactics, or other strategies against those who do not pose a threat—but are nonetheless part of the state—is a morally impermissible act. In other words, acts of defense must be discriminatory in nature. For example, the use of nuclear warfare would not be considered a discriminatory response because such weaponry threatens the entire state, including innocent or noncombatant parties. A failure to deploy discriminatory tactics, Walzer argues, belies the moral reasoning behind legitimate, coercive intervention.

Spheres of Justice

In Spheres of Justice (1983), Walzer extends his idea of discriminatory decision making to the distribution of justice. He posits that in the spheres of social life (e.g., criminal justice, health care, education systems) no single principle of distributive justice exists that is capable of overcoming the inherent  complications (i.e., personal  conflicts) of each sphere. Walzer illustrates this idea by discussing the differential allocation of goods and resources over time and space. For example, in ancient Athens the basic needs of the poor were all but ignored, while conversely in medieval Jewish communities the distribution of goods according to need was integral to the community’s collective identity. Walzer adopts a relativist position to this timeless debate as to whether the concept of justice is universal or contextual.

From an ethical standpoint, Walzer contends that the differential  allocation of justice across various spheres is permissible, so long as a basic standard of care is maintained. Within the criminal justice system, for instance, legal resources are unequally distributed for a host of reasons, such as increased calls for police service in particularly impoverished, crime-ridden areas. Walzer would argue that as long as a basic standard of legal integrity is upheld, and as long as other areas are afforded some means of legal recourse, the social sphere is viable.

Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad

In an effort to reconcile his contending philosophies on foreign intervention in defense of human rights and the claim that the topic of justice is best debated without invoking rights at all, Walzer in Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (1994) attempts to split the concept of societal morality into two forms. In the first form, he explains,  society adheres to a “thin” set of values, universal in validity but minimal in content. These thin moral codes are recognized by all but only constitute the weakest standards of decent behavior. The second form, or “thick” moral code, refers to the culturally specific moralities that isolate particular groups based on these unique doctrines.

Walzer argues that while thick principles have more influence in guiding the discussions and decisions of groups or nations, the thin principles are what keep the international community cohesive and in line. Having a thin moral consensus allows acceptance of the existence of other societies, groups, or nations as long as they do not depart  from the boundary of minimum  morality. This point drives home his ethical philosophy that tolerance of other value systems is essential, as long as these value systems do not violate the minimum standard of the moral code set by the community. When these value systems do conflict with the universal standard of moral behavior, then intervention is necessary on the part of the group to end the threat to the moral code.


  1. Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
  2. Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books,
  3. Walzer, Michael. Thick and Thin: Moral Arguments at Home and Abroad. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

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