Thought Leader: Michael Walzer

August 27, 2012

As part of the the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke Michael Walzer, one of America's leading political philosophers. He is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and editor of Dissent.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor Walzer, the first question is: What's morally distinct about the age we live in today?

MICHAEL WALZER: I thought about that when I read your list of questions. You mean what is different between our world and, say, the world of the Assyrian Empire or the Greek city-states or the feudal anarchy? I'm inclined to think not.

Thomas Hobbes said, "Man is a wolf to man." He didn't mean to leave out women. I think that was probably the moral problem in ancient Assyria and still today.

I don't think it's the whole story, because man is sometimes a man to man. But inhumanity and cruelty, they were the central ethical problems in the ancient world and they are still the central ethical problems.

DEVIN STEWART: In relative terms, are things getting better or worse compared to—

MICHAEL WALZER: I was born into a world where the Nazis were ruling Germany and Stalin was ruling Russia. I don't think things can get much worse. We aren't living in anything close to the world we would like to live in, but political regimes of that size committed to mass murder don't at this moment exist in the world. So that is a small improvement in human life.

DEVIN STEWART: How about going forward? Are you optimistic?

MICHAEL WALZER: I don't think optimism. I think pessimism is one of the pathologies of old age. I don't see an easy time ahead for my kids and grandkids. I think the world is a very dangerous place. The problems of hunger, inequality, environmental degradation, religious fanaticism—those are not going away and there is no sign right now of political agencies capable of dealing with them.

DEVIN STEWART: Going back to the original question, what would you say is the biggest ethical challenge today?

MICHAEL WALZER: I don't have a rank ordering. I think inequality, which is both caused by human greed but which also has all kinds of other deep structural causes; our unwillingness to control the environmental damage we're doing to the world we inhabit; and our inability to deal with religious craziness.

You know, when I was a graduate student, we all believed in the academic theory of inevitable secularization: the scientific revolution would conquer all irrationalities, the world would learn to get along without the comforts of religion. That's one academic theory that has been radically falsified in the last decades.

Again, the moral problems posed by religious zealotry are very, very serious. They are as serious as the moral problems caused in the 20th century by ideological zealotry. You might say we've replaced the zealotry of Nazis and Stalin as a communist with the zealotry of Islamists and Christian fundamentalists and Hindu nationalists and so on.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a way that religion could play a more positive role?

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, yes. Religions have long histories. Christianity in the 11th century was a jihadist religion, and that wasn't essential to the nature of Christianity. Christianity has also played a highly civilizing role in many other periods. So I don't think that messianic Zionism in the settlements is the essence of Judaism, and I don't think Islamic radicalism in Algeria or Pakistan is the essence of Islam. These are historical phases. Religions will emerge. Counter-tendencies in these religions will eventually triumph. But over what period of time I don't know.

DEVIN STEWART: We've been trying to explore the idea of a global ethic, launched by Michael Ignatieff, and some of our Fellows have responded, looking at this idea. Does the idea of a global ethic resonate with you; and, if so, what does it mean?

MICHAEL WALZER: I'm not sure what the words are meant to imply. We used to talk about universalism in ethics. All of us were universalists to some degree, some of us to a greater degree, some of us to a lesser degree. But my moral universalism is minimalist in character. I've defended a kind of minimalist morality for global society.

I guess the question is whether any form of moral universalism has become significant, has become effective, across the globe. I think probably not, not yet. But there are clear developments in the field of human rights, the laws of war, toward the globalization of some set of moral standards, moral rules.

It's a long process, and we are clearly not all that far advanced.

And there are no serious enforcement mechanisms. Humanitarian intervention could be read as the responsibility to protect or rescue people threatened by massacre. You could think of that as the beginning of a doctrine of law enforcement. But so far it has been accomplished only unilaterally by the Vietnamese in Cambodia or by the Indians in Bangladesh, by NATO in Kosovo, but never by a global agency like the United Nations. The capacity of the United Nations to act in a timely fashion, in an effective way, in the face of massacre, that capacity doesn't yet exist.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say a minimalist approach on universalist thinking, what's the minimal?

MICHAEL WALZER: Life and liberty. I've always wondered at the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948, which is a wonderful document, but it goes all the way down to vacations with pay and it doesn't seem to be a program that anyone would really want to realize, to coercively enforce on a global scale. But I think the defense of life and liberty ought to be enforced on a global scale insofar as we can find responsible agents to do that.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you mean from a positive perspective or a negative perspective on life and liberty? Do you mean not killing anyone or do you mean we should seek to support life?

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, first it would be a great gain for mankind, for humanity, if we were able to stop mass murder wherever it is occurring—in Cambodia or Darfur or Rwanda or anywhere.

But I do think that there is a responsibility to deal with hunger, with the threat of famine, and to deal in ways that don't just constitute relief in the crisis but which constitute a serious effort to avoid the next crisis. That's a responsibility that I think falls on all states, once again not enforceable at this moment. It's very hard for me to imagine what an agent of enforcement would look like, since I'm not an advocate of a world state. But there could be treaty obligations among states committing some significant resources to the fight against world hunger.

DEVIN STEWART: We're about halfway through the questions, Professor. Are there things that you want me to ask you about specifically?

MICHAEL WALZER: I would like to get a chance to talk more about equality and inequality. But maybe that will come up in the course of your—

DEVIN STEWART: Why don't we just go ahead right to it then?

MICHAEL WALZER: I said before that I thought one of the great moral issues of our time is the extent of human inequality, both across the globe in terms of countries and also in terms of individuals within many, many countries, including our own, where inequality has been growing at a rapid rate. There are two issues here.

One is how do you deal with inequality in a particular country? We have a history of doing that, starting with the rise of unions and of social democratic parties in the 19th century.

But global inequality is a radically new issue. Although it's possible to imagine a global social democracy, it's very hard to figure out where is the political space within which you could fight for a global social democracy. The nation-state is still the only political space that is available to left egalitarian politics. I think the hardest question for leftists like me, is: Where is the political space within which you can organize and mobilize for greater equality across the globe? That's a question I don't have an answer to, but I think it is a central question for those of us who set a high value on human equality.

DEVIN STEWART: If we don't organize and address the problem, then what's at stake?

MICHAEL WALZER: What's at stake is the human misery that comes with inequality: the psychological misery of arrogance on the one side and deference and humiliation on the other; the material effects of inequality, of capitalist firms that seek out the most vulnerable labor force and the countries with the weakest regulatory systems; the race to the bottom, which is a very serious problem, and the longer the race continues the deeper the bottom gets. Those are real problems.

Now, it may be that there will be a series of local solutions. That is to say that there will be a Chinese struggle for independent labor unions and for workers' rights parallel to the struggle that took place in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and that would improve things globally as well as in China because it would curtail the race to the bottom if workers were organizing at the bottom. But so far we've seen some courageous attempts in China but nothing yet like an effective union movement.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there other legal approaches or approaches that are more at hand given the current structures and institutions?

MICHAEL WALZER: The World Trade Organization was supposed to be paralleled by the International Labor Organization, which never developed anything like a comparable strength. But you can imagine minimum wage laws, factory safety laws, child labor laws, adopted by those two organizations working together and enforced by the two of them. That would certainly be a gain for everybody.

DEVIN STEWART: Maybe you've already answered this, but what would you like to see in the next 100 years? You know we're celebrating our Centennial. We don't want to just look back at the past 100 years because that might be too depressing.

MICHAEL WALZER: I have always believed that before globalism we needed to complete the process of forming decent nation-states. The greatest human misery right now in the world is endured by people who don't have a state or who don't have an effective state or who live in a predatory state. Before we give up on the Westphalian system, before we give up on the nation-state as a political formation, we need to make sure that everybody has one.

That means the Kurds and the Palestinians and the Tibetans who don't have any, and then all of the African peoples and some of the Asian peoples who live in states that do not provide them with the physical protection that the state was originally conceived to provide. Hobbes argued a long time ago that the first task of the nation-state is the physical safety of its members. There are many states in the world that do not even guarantee that minimum.

So I would like to see that process completed, everybody having a decent state, a state of their own, that is governing in the interests of its own people.

And then I would like to see new forms of cooperation across all of the boundary lines—regional formations like the EU developing in other parts of the world, cooperative schemes across boundaries to deal with environmental problems, some form of regulation to stop the race to the bottom that we talked about before.

So, first, boundaries that enclose everybody in decent space, and then an effort to turn those boundaries, those lines on the map, into dotted lines where all kinds of agents of cooperative projects can move back and forth.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like a great vision. You were advocating a minimalist universalism.


DEVIN STEWART: Is that your vision?

MICHAEL WALZER: That's my minimalist view. There were so many people who dream about world states and the UN that is actually a world government. First, I think it's a fantasy, but I also think it's not necessarily a fantasy of desire.

If there is ever a global state, I believe it will take shape in the same way as the nation-state took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries, through enlightened despotism or global despotism.

The fight for democracy came after the despots established the state. I suspect that's the way it would also have to work at the global level, and I don't see any reason to rush to that, to push that project forward before we have exhausted the possibilities of cooperation among a plurality of political entities.

DEVIN STEWART: A couple more questions. Again, I'm very open-ended.

What does moral leadership mean?

MICHAEL WALZER: I guess it means something different for every human vocation.

In the political world, it would mean a willingness to explain to your own people the costs of doing good in the world, which might involve sacrifices for them; a willingness to use force to stop a massacre, say; an unwillingness to use force to control natural resources.

In the business world, it would mean a willingness to resist the market imperative of racing to the bottom; a willingness to stay where you are and to run your factory paying workers the wages they need to live where they are and where you are.

In religion, moral leadership would mean a willingness to recognize the conscience of the others, of all the others.

Oliver Cromwell said once to a group of Presbyterian ministers who came to him asking for some very repressive set of laws, "Think ye in the bowels of Christ that ye may be wrong." [Editor's note: exact quote is, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."] That's not where I think, but that to me is religious leadership.

Among intellectuals, I guess—I hate the cliché—to talk truth to power. That's what we're supposed to do, and not many of us do it in a consistent way.

So I don't think there is a moral leadership in abstract. There are good things to do in all the fields of human activity.

DEVIN STEWART: Two more questions. Great answers, by the way. Thank you.

Can we get to a state of world peace, one of your areas of research? Is there such a thing?

MICHAEL WALZER: I think we can prevent some wars that we should prevent. I think there are wars that we shouldn't prevent, like I was in favor of a forcible intervention in Rwanda.

I don't think it makes sense to say those aren't wars. During Korea, there was this effort by some international lawyers to say that the northern invasion of South Korea was a criminal act and the UN's response was a police action, it wasn't a war. But that's just playing with words. All the histories of Korea call it the "Korean war," and that was what it was in the actual experience. It was an experience of war. I think wars like that may be necessary in the future to meet aggression.

The real danger these days is civil war. We have not figured out a way for benevolent outsiders to intervene in a civil war. Some of the worst wars in the last 20, 30 year have been civil wars, like the one now going on in Syria.

I don't think we will see world peace. But I do believe in the reality of preventable wars, unnecessary and preventable wars.

DEVIN STEWART: Last question. I think you've answered this already, but just in case you want to change the scope. For all these issues you've talked about today, who is ultimately accountable or responsible?

MICHAEL WALZER: All of us in place, all of us where we are. Responsibilities shift depending on where we are.

The greatest responsibilities fall on the people with the most power to act. But if we live in democracies, then we are the people who choose the people with the most power to act. We also are agents, and we have to ask the right questions when we are voting.

I guess the questions have changed somewhat. This may be another way of answering your earlier question about what's distinctive.

Rousseau says somewhere that when citizens vote they should not ask, "What's good for my group?" "What's good for the steelworkers?" "What's good for the state of Maine?" "What's good for the Jews?" "What's good for the Catholics?" They shouldn't ask those questions, but they should ask, "What's good for the country?" That should be the question that guides them in voting.

Maybe now you have to add to that not only "What's good for the country?" but, "What's good for the globe and what's good for the next generation of inhabitants of the globe, what's good for our and everyone else's grandchildren?"

DEVIN STEWART: Why should we ask that now?

MICHAEL WALZER: Because we have inherited a world which we are obligated to pass on in as decent shape as we can manage to the next and the next generations. That's an obligation you take on by having children. So that's a universal obligation—universal but not global yet. But we all have it and we don't all yet act on it.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Professor.

Do you have any other areas you want to talk about?


DEVIN STEWART: It was very concise. Thank you so much. Thank you for humoring us with these unreasonable questions.