Title: The notion of complex equality and the beauty of Alcibiades
Authors: Hooghe, Marc # ×
Issue Date: 1999
Publisher: Catholic University of Leuven
Series Title: Ethical Perspectives vol:6 issue:3-4 pages:211-214
Abstract: One of Prof. Walzer's most fascinating contributions to the field of political theory is his introduction of the concept of `complex equality'. In Spheres of Justice, he defines this concept as follows: “In formal terms, complex equality means that no citizen's standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good. Thus, citizen X may be chosen over citizen Y for political office, and then the two of them will be unequal in the sphere of politics. But they will not be unequal generally so long as X's office gives him no advantage over Y in any other sphere – superior medical care, access to better schools for his children, entrepreneurial opportunities, and so on” (Walzer 1983, 19). To achieve a situation of complex equality, Prof. Walzer proposes a system of blocked exchanges: it should be avoided that goods obtained in one sphere are exchanged to obtain goods in another sphere. For instance, the money person X has acquired in the economic sphere should not be used to `buy' power and influence in the political sphere.
Prof. Walzer states that this system of complex equality will lead to a more egalitarian distribution of social goods. Maybe in each sphere distinct inequalities will persist, but given the plurality of spheres, eventually every person will acquire goods in one sphere or another. This line of reasoning reminds us to some extent of the traditional pluralist argument as it was formulated by Robert Dahl (1961). Dahl asserts that in contemporary American society, no single group actually dominates political decision-making, since the power of even very influential groups is limited to a few policy arenas. Even underprivileged groups have enough access to proper channels to let their voice get heard in political decision-making.
The basic argument is that inequalities are acceptable within one sphere, but we cannot permit these inequalities to be cumulative, overlapping or even reinforcing one another. An accumulation of these inequalities can be the result of two different processes. Firstly, the influential position within one sphere can be used to gain access to a similar position in a different sphere. The notion of complex equality is aimed mainly at eradicating the possibility of this kind of exchange. The second possible relation, however, is that power positions within two (or more) different spheres originate from a single, common cause. This would imply that citizen X has one single characteristic, which makes her successful, both in literature, as in politics and in economic entrepreneurship. The theory of complex equality does not explicitly address this possible cause of cumulative inequalities. Prof. Walzer more or less denies the possibility that this kind of distribution can actually occur. He gives the fictive example of a person who is a bold and inventive entrepreneur, who scores amazingly high grades in every exam, who is brave during the war, and who is loved by all who know him. Walzer goes on: “Are there such people? Maybe so, but I have my doubts (...) In any case, there aren't enough such people to constitute a ruling class and dominate the rest of us. Nor can they be successful in every distributive sphere, for there are some spheres in which the idea of success doesn't pertain” (Walzer 1983, 20). Given this plurality of talents and spheres, a system of complex equality effectively prevents processes of exclusion and the formation of an underclass (Walzer 1993). This aspect of the theory has already received quite some critical attention (Miller 1995), but I still wonder whether Prof. Walzer does not underestimate the ubiquity of these processes of cumulative inequality.
ISSN: 1370-0049
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IT
Appears in Collections:Centre for Political Research
× corresponding author
# (joint) last author

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