Examining Justice, Culture, and Tradition

A conference in honor of Michael Walzer

The work of one of America’s foremost political thinkers, Michael Walzer, was celebrated at “Justice, Culture, and Tradition,” a three-day conference held in Wolfensohn Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study on June 2–4. Professor Emeritus in the Institute’s School of Social Science,Walzer was recognized for his contributions to the ethical and political philosophy of the twentieth century. Walzer has written extensively on a variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy, and his Just and Unjust Wars (1977) is the classic contemporary text on the morality of war. Walzer joined the Faculty of the Institute in 1980 and was named UPS Foundation Professor in 1986, a title he retained until retiring in 2007.

Thirty-two scholars participated in the conference, which was organized by former School of Social Science Member (2006–07) and Research Assistant (2000–01, 2001–02) Yitzhak Benbaji of Bar-Ilan University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, in conjunction with Danielle Candy of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The academic committee for the conference included Benbaji and former School of Social Science Visitor (1981–82) Amy Gutmann, the President of the University of Pennsylvania, and Avishai Margalit, George F. Kennan Professor in the Institute’s School of Historical Studies. Participants, including Joan Wallach Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science, convened to address pertinent and probing questions relevant to Walzer’s work in a series of panel discussions that featured lively interchange, including commentary from Walzer himself. The sessions, which covered topics ranging from just war to distributive justice to social criticism, were attended by Institute Faculty, Members, and other academic colleagues, the public, and many of Walzer’s friends and family.

Cliff Moore
Professor Emeritus Michael Walzer speaking at the podium

Benbaji noted that while the conference title did not do justice to the range of subjects that would be discussed nor to the range of Walzer’s philosophical interests and contributions to the political thought of the last decades, there was probably no title that could. “Walzer is perhaps the major just-war theorist of the twentieth century,” Benbaji said. “His defense and criticism of the war-convention are often described at the standard articulation of the broadly accepted moral and legal views about war.” Every aspect of Walzer’s theory, based on a strong belief in the right of self determination of communities, nations, and peoples, has been challenged by philosophers. The conference, which was made possible by generous support from the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, the Institute for Advanced Study, Shalom Hartman Institute, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law, and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, hosted some of the leading critics as well as defenders of his views. Excerpts from the conference follow.


“Terrorism” is usually defined as “an organized use of violence to attack noncombatants for political purposes.” Its prevalence not withstanding, this definition of “terrorism” is subject to well-known doubts and objections. One complaint is that the definition is too narrow, in that violence exercised against soldiers (combatants) who justifiably defend their homeland is not classified as terrorism, despite the fact that these soldiers are as morally innocent as civilians, since they are rightfully defending themselves. A second complaint is that the definition is too broad, in that it counts, and implicitly denounces, assassinating “engaged civilians”—e.g., political leaders who initiate a war of aggression and civilians who contribute to the war effort—as terrorism. Together these two complaints imply a moral anomaly: engaged civilians seem more liable than just combatants, yet the definition makes targeting the former, but not the latter, condemnable as terrorism. According to the traditional just-war theory, soldiers are liable to being killed in war, whether or not they fight for a just cause, and civilians are immune to being killed in war whether or not they are culpable for an unjust aggression. It seems, therefore, that terrorism— according to the definition—is a violation of the immunity conferred upon civilians by the traditional war convention.
Yitzhak Benbaji, Professor, Faculty of Law and Department of Philosophy, Bar-Ilan University (former Member and Research Assistant, School of Social Science)

Nonintervention has been a particularly important and occasionally disturbing principle for liberal scholars, such as J. S. Mill and Michael Walzer, and liberal statesmen, such as Bill Clinton, who share a commitment to basic and universal human rights. On the one hand, liberals have provided some of the very strongest reasons to abide by a strict form of the nonintervention doctrine. It was only with a security of national borders that liberals such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill thought that peoples could work out the capacity to govern themselves as free citizens. On the other hand, those very same principles of universal human dignity when applied in different contexts have provided justifications for overriding or disregarding the principle of nonintervention.
—Michael W. Doyle, Harold Brown Professor of International Affairs, Law and Political Science, Columbia University (former Member, School of Social Science)


One of Michael Walzer’s outstanding contributions to political theory is his depiction of the social critic. By following the critical biographies of the personages of the company of critics, Walzer has drawn the contours of this political type and elaborated his unique civic role. . . .The debate surrounding Walzer’s conception of political morality and his mode of social criticism has focused on its epistemological assumptions. Walzer’s version of the social critic, however, assumes also a unique political posture.Walzer’s idea
of social criticism, I will argue, is embedded in a robust conception of politics and of membership. Together they form the circumstances of criticism, making it both necessary
and possible.
—Menachem Lorberbaum, Professor, Department of Jewish Philosophy, Tel Aviv University (former Member and Research Assistant, School of Social Science)

Social Meanings and Complex Identities

When I moved from teaching to administration, a friend told me I would henceforth need only two sentences: “I’m sure you must be right” and “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The context, my friend assured me, would serve to interpret each sentence’s meaning. The same holds for the social meanings that constitute the objects, practices, events, and actions of a particular intersubjective world. These are parts of contexts of beliefs, language, and behavior within which they have their sense. It may be, as Walzer explains, that a table cannot be an intercontinental missile, but, depending upon its context, it can be a desk, an altar, a butcher’s block, and any number of other things. Similarly, raising one’s hand may not be skiing, but it can be voting, asking to speak, volunteering, and any number of other actions. The point is the same in both cases. Social meanings are not sets of noises or basic acts but the repositories of shared understandings; they are constituted not by subjective intentions but by the system of conceptual and practical interconnections within which they are situated.

Georgia Warnke, Professor and Associate Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, University of California, Riverside (former Member, School of Social Science)