Justice and Social Value: the Case of Goldman vs Weinberger (1986)

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“A rule isn’t unfair if it applies to everyone.”

This article will discuss the philosophical debate of whether it was correct to grant an exemption in the case of Goldman vs Weinberger (1986). Simcha Goldman is a Jewish US Air Force officer who wears a yarmulke, which is a skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys, while in uniform. He was told that this was a violation of Air Force uniform regulations and ordered to remove it. As the First Amendment of the US constitution guarantees freedom to practice religious beliefs, Goldman has sued the US Government, arguing that the order has violated his rights (United States Supreme Court, 1986). There are two approaches based on the liberal philosophy view on justice that will be applied to the case, (1) ‘difference-blind liberalism’ and (2) the rules and exemptions approach. This essay will conclude with an argument on which side has the strongest case.

According to ‘difference-blind liberalism’ everyone should be treated equally under the law. There are no exceptions on how the laws or rules apply. As it said ‘difference-blind’, the words could be argue that people close their eyes for differences, thus they do not see any differences and everyone is the same. While, liberalism in this case has been described as equality. Therefore ‘difference-blind liberalism’ has established an idea of laws or rules that applied would be equal. The case of Goldman (1986) has shown the application of ‘difference-blind liberalism’ approach as the United States Supreme Court has decided to apply the law equally to all citizens. The law applied to everyone in the Air Force including Goldman without exemptions. However, there are several others different argument against this view as there should be exemptions on how the rules applied.

Several liberals such as Habermas and Aristotle have different view with ‘difference-blind liberalism’. Habermas argued that a commitment to genuine equality may entail special cultural and social rights (Baumeister, 2000), while according to Aristotle, justice means giving people what they deserve and law could not be neutral on questions of the good life (Sandel, 2009). Both views of justice by Aristotle and Habermas have similar view of justice with the rules and exemptions approach. Based on the rules and exemptions approach, an exemption can be granted, as the rules might be affected differently to the several groups of people.

There are three arguments of the rules and exemptions approaches. The first argument is the autonomy argument. The autonomy argument shows that people have the right to do what they want, as the definition of autonomy is self-rule (Pike, 2008). Within this self-rule, people have the right to make their own decision and has strongly related to the liberals value of freedom. In this case, Goldman has the rights to wear his yarmulke as he has freedom to rule himself. The right of Goldman freedom of speech and religious beliefs has also being supported by the United States constitutions (United States Supreme Court, 1986). However, there are weaknesses on this argument. The autonomy argument does not give liberals a reason to deny ‘difference-blind liberalism’, as they do not give any explanation that members of minorities have to be treated differently (Pike, 2008).

The second argument is the unequal impact argument. The unequal impact argument argued that ‘difference-blind liberalism’ theory does not apply equally because the law not always affects everybody in the same way (Pike, 2008). This argument has become one of the strongest argument as people are varies and cultural differences are too big to be ignore. Issues that contain culture differences and religions beliefs have become the main issue. The reason is because each cultures or religions have their own uniqueness, regulation, and distinction. Any rules or laws that applied equally are not going to affects people the same, especially to the minority (Pike, 2008). According to the case, Goldman as a Jewish man does not get the same impact of the law as the majority of the people that are not Jewish. It does not represent equality, as a minority such as Goldman would find it not fair to his life, because it has offending his beliefs. Which conclude that ‘difference-blind liberalism’ does not represent equality, as some people would find it not fair to their life.

Thirdly, the argument by analogy, which is a comparison between two cases that are similar (Pike, 2008), therefore it could be argued as having similarities the issues has to be taken seriously and suggesting a new way of solving the problems. However, there are 2 major weaknesses in this approach. Firstly is that even if two cases are similar, it does not mean that those cases are similar in everyway, which gives us reason to accept the conclusion, but does not establish it for sure (Pike, 2008). Secondly, the arguments by analogy is only good as long as the analogy rest on, when there are dissimilarities found in those 2 cases, the analogy between them will break down (Pike, 2008).

In associated with the case of Goldman, to apply the arguments by analogy, Goldman cased as case A will be compared to the case of Sikhs as case B. According to Pike (2008), in the UK between 1972 and 1976 there was a law written that all people that ride motorcycle has to wear a crash helmets. However, the law was changed with and exemptions in 1976, as Sikhs men argued that they have to wear turbans as their religious beliefs (Pike, 2008). The case of Goldman and Sikhs men have similar situation, as both cases had argued that the law has threaten their liberty. Thus, as case B has changed the law with exemption to the Sikhs men, therefore case A could be argue that the law has to granted exemption for Goldman as well. However, there are limitations to the approach as differences could be found in both cases. Case B has related to basic needs, as using transportation is important for daily life. While in case A, choosing a job is a matter of choice. The dissimilarities between those 2 cases could break down the analogy and resulting the failure of this argument.

Based on this discussion, the side that has stronger argument to the case is the rules and exemptions approach as it has defined justice more than the ‘difference-blind liberalism’. As the laws that applied equally have threaten Goldman rights, an exemptions need to be granted. In conclusion, while ‘difference-blind liberalism’ appears to be a useful principle, it is important that it does not violate basic human rights such as religious freedom. To ensure this does not happen, a rules and exemptions approach has the stronger argument to the Goldman (1986) case.


Baumeister, A. (2000), Liberalism and the ‘Politics of Difference’, Great Britain: Edinburgh University Press.

Brighouse, H. (2004), Justice, Cambridge; Malden: Polity Press.

Miller, D. (2003), Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Pike, J. (2008), Cultural Encounters and Cultural Exemptions, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Sandel, M. (2009), Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do, United States of America: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sandel, M. (1998), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd ed, United States of America: Cambridge University Press.

United States Supreme Court (1986), Goldman v. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, et al., 475 US 503. [Online], Available at <http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=475&page=503> [Accessed 4 December 2013].

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“The end doesn’t justify the means.”

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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