Introduction

By Benbaji, Yitzhak | Ethics & International Affairs, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Benbaji, Yitzhak, Ethics & International Affairs


In the summer of 2008, Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (the publisher of this journal) convened a conference to recognize Michael Walzer's enormous contribution to the ethical and political philosophy of the twentieth century. Entitled "Justice, Culture, and Tradition," the three-day event saw more than twenty speakers and commentators offer a unique retrospective of one of America's leading political philosophers. What follows is a symposium comprised of three key articles from that conference, each of which discusses one of the most fundamental aspects of Walzer's philosophy: the moral significance of statehood. (1)

Of course, it is impossible to put forward an overview of Walzer's rich moral and political philosophy in a brief introduction. Yet even a rough and incomplete "table of contents" will help us to understand the importance of the unifying theme of this symposium--a table of contents that I shall divide into five headings:

1. lust War Theory: Walzer's work in this field is his most significant contribution to twentieth-century political thought. His books, most notably lust and Unjust Wars, have reshaped the way in which just war theory is looked upon today, and they have become the focal point of rich and heated discussion over the last three decades. Just and Unjust Wars is read by moral and political philosophers, international lawyers, theorists of war, analysts of international relations, journalists, and (perhaps most significantly) professional soldiers in military academies around the world.

2. Justice: Developed in his Spheres of Justice, Walzer's theory of social justice is foundational to communitarian thought, and is considered by many as the primary alternative to John Rawls's theory of justice as fairness.

3. Metaethics: In further elaborating his theory of justice, Walzer developed an "interpretationist" conception of ethical reasoning and social criticism; and in so doing he defends the controversial claim that the norms that ought to govern the political life of a community are rooted in the practice of the community itself.

4. Multiculturalism and Minority Rights: Walzer argues for the fundamental importance of the right of self-determination of legitimate political societies. However, he recognizes the deep cultural diversity within such societies. "Arguably," Will Kymlicka writes in the following pages," [Walzer is] the first political theorist, at least in the postwar era, to take seriously the issue of minority rights."

5. As the editor of Dissent and an occasional contributor to The New York Times, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books, Walzer has become one of America's best-known social critics, and his writings illustrate his interpretationist conception of ethical reasoning and social criticism.

The articles in this symposium touch on a fundamental theme in Walzer's thought: namely, the moral standing of states. Like other interpreters of customary and positive international law, Walzer notes that the legal system that governs the international community structures the society of states in terms of the "domestic analogy" whereby "nations are regarded as individual flee persons living in a state of nature." (2) States hold a moral right to their autonomy and territorial integrity in the same way that, for Locke, individuals have a natural right to their life, body, and property. Accordingly, a war of aggression (that is, a massive military violation of the territorial integrity of a state) is characterized as the capital crime under international law. States are assigned an inherent right of self-defense. For Walzer, this "legalist paradigm" is "our baseline, our model, the fundamental structure for the moral comprehension of war." (3)

Walzer offers a new reading of the legalist paradigm whereby the basic right of states to their territorial integrity follows from a more fundamental right of the collectives living within these states to self-determination. …

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