In Dispraise of Communitarianism
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
Communitarians are a diverse group of philosophers and social and political activists who believe that the purpose of society is to uphold and sustain community life. If there is any unity in communitarian thought, it comes from its opposition to classical liberalism’s claim that attaining and maintaining freedom and justice should be the central and primary concern of the political order. Communitarians oppose the strict application of abstract and universal rules to persons who vary widely in their personal and social characteristics and circumstances in favor of personal justice and a legal framework that consists of particular laws and outcome-based justice being applied to specific persons or groups.
Communitarians argue that man basically is not a rights-bearing, property-seeking, individual, but rather is a social being who can only thrive in stable associations and communities. They state that the individual is a construction or invention that appeared late in human history, preceded by the community, without which he cannot exist. They are convinced that liberal public philosophy is destroying the social underpinnings of the “good society” and lament that most modern men fail to acknowledge the existence of, and the obligation to seek, a comprehensive common good that transcends one’s personal interests. They are united by their common fear that the realization that we are bound by shared purposes, values, traditions, and obligations is being replaced with an atomistic, Hobbesian individualism that upholds individual rights at the expense of camaraderie, social cohesion, and the pursuit of the common good. Communitarians complain that modern society has become a place of uncaring individualism, social disintegration, and amoral relativism where men elevate their personal interests above the common good.
Their conclusion tends to be that a return to past forms of community is both possible and morally desirable. Preferring to look backward, they reason that if we can find virtue in the past, then its attainment in the future would then be deemed possible. Heartened by this possibility, they enthusiastically promote an effort to restore the notion of responsibility and to establish a balance between both rights and responsibility and individual and community.
Foundations of Communitarianism
Communitarians draw inspiration from a variety of thinkers. From Plato comes the idea that the political community ranks highest among all communities in this world. For Plato, political community is man’s associative reality and, in its most perfect condition, the mode of community most natural to man. Like Plato, Rousseau makes his main objective the emancipation of man from the conflicts, corruption, and uncertainties of society. He too sees the political community as the best means for effecting such liberation. Rousseau’s community is indistinguishable from the state. His idea of the “general will” is not synonymous with the “will of all”--it is the will of the political organism which he construes as an entity with a life of its own and apart from the individual members of which it is constructed. Rousseau’s general will demand the unqualified obedience of every person in the community. For Rousseau, the state is the most exalted of all forms of community.
Hegel viewed the state as but one of a number of institutions essential to man with its power over individuals channeled through other associations. He viewed society as plural with several natural centers of authority. He therefore recognized the importance of communities and institutions existing between the individual and the state.
Hegel, like present-day communitarians, viewed the free, rational, autonomous, person as a figment of the philosophical imagination. Today’s communitarians, in the tradition of Hegel, promulgate a view of rights and responsibilities that diverges sharply from that of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison. Their perspective is that the community or the state is seen as more real than the individual and that the individual who deviates from the social norms is deemed to be objectively irrational. Hegel’s thought made possible the attribution of a superior value to collective entities over and above the value of the individuals who comprise them.
The communitarian emphasis on positive responsibilities to others, instead of on negative rights and the negative responsibility not to impose costs on others, draws from the traditional Kantian emphasis on duty. Because of Kant, the virtue of attending to one’s own well-being has been stripped of its moral value. Instead, Kantian morality rests on one’s disinterested intuitions which tend to be both altruistic and egalitarian.
Nietzsche would agree with today’s communitarian theorists in arguing that democratic political life is based on pre-rational moral commitments to shared concerns and opinions. Nietzsche, however, did not endorse the communitarian perspective. A critic of democratic community, Nietzsche stated that the morality of such a community depends upon a herd animal mentality. He explained that mere devotion to community has no moral superiority to the instinctive behavior of herd animals.
In the tradition of John Dewey, political communitarians argue for community that is constructed and sustained through participation in public life. Dewey, who believed that shared existence is the essence of community life, argued that public life requires public action and public choice. Following Dewey, political communitarians search for communities built in democratic, pluralistic, spheres. It follows that citizens are bound together not simply because of what they believe in common, but also because of what they do together (e.g., public discourse, shared experiences, mutual sympathy, etc.). For political communitarians, symbolic meanings, attained through ritual and habit, are as powerful as rational dialogues. Dewey, and his descendent political communitarians, calls for active participation in democratic decision making through attending public assemblies, joining in debates over public policy, and choosing positions in which they set the common good over their private interests. Dewey went so far as to explain that the individual act of thinking is a collective phenomenon. He taught that the primary source of social control in schools is the group, rather than the teacher. As such, the student was to be guided by relativism rather than principle and by the changing feelings of the collective of his contemporaries instead of by standards of knowledge and reason. Students would be taught “life adjustment”, social values, and to submit to the tribe rather than to develop their minds.
Essentially, communitarianism most closely resembles Tönnies’ preindustrial Gemeinschaft model in which social relationships were characterized by smallness, long duration, cohesion, emotional intensity, primary and face-to-face relationships, stable values, freely-shared norms, respect for standards, and a low incidence of deviance. On the other hand, Gesellschaft, a product of modernization, referred to a social system in which change prevails – its social relationships were said to be large scale, impersonal, formal, typically antagonistic, uncertain, and subject to change. According to Tönnies, Gesellschaft would lead to ill-defined roles and to anomie, atomization, and alienation. Tönnies and other classical communitarians thus perceive the impact of change as social disaster.
There are a number of prominent contemporary communitarian thinkers including: Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Roberto Unger, and Amitai Etzioni, the movement’s leading spokesman. The following section will take a look at Etzioni’s fundamental teachings.
Amitai Etzioni’s Responsive Community
Amitai Etzioni is the founding father and leading voice of contemporary communitarianism. His goal is to catalyze a national moral revitalization and preserve civil society. Consequently, he barely discusses communitarianism within its philosophical traditions. Instead, his sprawling, inconsistent, and intellectually deficient writings are pragmatic and aimed at an audience of activists and policy-makers rather than intellectuals. Etzioni wants to do for society what the environmental movement seeks to do for nature.
Etzioni states that there are not now, and never were, freestanding individuals. Rather, he explains that people are socially constituted and continually penetrated by culture, social and moral influences, and one another. Etzioni focuses on community as the basis for determining and affirming people’s basic values and as the center of their responsibilities. He argues that people who claim rights must be willing to balance them with responsibilities to help others – people must all sacrifice, take care of their responsibilities, and do their share. According to Etzioni, what we need is a revival of the idea that small sacrifices by individuals can create large benefits for all of us.
Etzioni’s agenda for the Communitarian Movement includes (1) a moratorium on the minting of most new rights; (2) reestablishing the link between rights and responsibilities; (3) recognizing that some responsibilities do not entail rights; and (4) carefully adjusting some rights to changed circumstances. This agenda indicates that Etzioni is primarily an advocate of Apositive@ state-made rights rather than negative rights.
He states that we require a set of social virtues that we as a community endorse and actively affirm. Etzioni explains that growth in virtue is mainly achieved by instilling the proper values in children by the family, schools, and other character-building agents. Etzioni tries to give a normative justification for values by referring to the criteria of (1) consensus-building within and across communities and societies, and (2) the manner in which values promote the basic social virtues which he claims are self-evident. He advocates relying on some traditional values, reformulating others, and creating new ones.
According to Etzioni, the basic shared core values of communitarianism include: (1) democracy; (2) acceptance and respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights; (3) layered loyalties to the many communities that make up our polity; (4) a sense of voluntariness to membership in any given community; (5) tolerance, neutrality, and mutual respect for the beliefs of other subgroups; (6) a limited practice of identity politics in political movements; (7) fair treatment for all without prejudice or discrimination; (8) reconciliation with those estranged from us; (9) teaching the common heritage and values we share in America; and (10) small and large dialogues within and among communities. Etzioni believes that members of a community must feel that they have some core beliefs and values in common that are worth sacrificing for – otherwise, they will not look beyond their narrow partisan interests.
Etzioni promotes the idea of a supra-community or “community of communities” in which citizens would engage in “megalogues” to determine their shared values and discuss national issues. He is searching for a secular Utopia to be constructed through (1) megalogues circumscribed by “rules of engagement” designed so as to avoid debate about metaphysical fundamentals and through (2) indoctrination, beginning in childhood, in shared values. These rules and values are apparently to be determined by a self-appointed elite of communitarians. As a result, Etzioni’s communitarianism is an example of secular intellectuals’ on-going will-to-power.
Etzioni endorses a variety of social structures to inculcate values and virtues including families, schools, communities (such as voluntary associations, churches, and public spaces), and the “community of communities”. These represent the social basis for the moral voice. Although small size characterizes three of his four social formations, Etzioni focuses an inordinate amount of his attention on the fourth – the community of communities.
He is inconsistent and ambivalent about wanting to turn the clock back to an imagined past. On the one hand, Etzioni finds some types of community as more valid than others – he especially prefers families and neighborhoods over the voluntary forms of community. On the other hand, he states that he does not want to return to traditional communities with their authoritarian power structures, rigid stratification, and discriminatory practices against women and minorities. He also says that he wants to create new, non-geographical communities to fulfill many of the moral and social functions of traditional communities. Etzioni is open to recognize virtual communities, feminist communities, and gay and lesbian communities. However, displaying his bias against economic institutions, he does not include corporations as communities.
Etzioni says that he is reluctant to write morality into the law since autonomy is basic to communitarianism. For example, instead of censorship, he favors informal social mechanisms to curb inflammatory or obscene speech. Those who say things communitarians don’t like or agree with will be kept in line by means of ostracism and intimidation (i.e., the tyranny of the majority). Etzioni has a difficult task in explaining how miscreants are to be made to conform if their behavior is simply anti-social and not illegal. This is especially touchy in light of his espoused core value of tolerance, neutrality, and mutual respect for the beliefs of others.
Revealing a belief in the non-absolute nature of a person’s negative rights, Etzioni says that the common good of the United States is the relevant community limiting individual autonomy. He argues that some persons may be inconvenienced by some measures, but the greater good of the community will be served. In his communitarian view, people must feel they are part of something larger than themselves – they must be willing to sacrifice for the welfare of others and for society as a whole. In his opinion, only with such a feeling will people respond to the “gentle prodding” he so frequently refers to.
Etzioni is willing to engage in debate with respect to virtually any domestic policy issue including: the right, usefulness, and constitutionality of police to conduct random checks of motorists’ sobriety; the free speech/hate speech debate; non-elective monitoring of HIV; drug testing; mandatory national service for high school graduates; child-rearing methods; the influence of political action committees; etc.
He personally would want moderate restraints on privacy like sobriety checkpoints and greater testing for HIV. To combat hate speech, he encourages more speech rather than censorship. Etzioni also wants policies that strengthen child care, discourage divorce, promote moral education in the schools, and require high school graduates to perform national service involving participation in agencies such as the Peace Corps and Vista. In addition, he would like to see nationally standardized public school curricula, community courts as an alternative to the official judicial system, public financing of elections, a ban on political action committees, and free broadcast time for candidates. With respect to drugs, he states that they should not be legalized because laws communicate and symbolize the values that the community holds dear.
Etzioni would reject the right of the motorcycle or automobile rider to decide for himself whether or not to wear a helmet or a seat belt. He reasons that if they are injured, the public may have to defray the cost of their injuries. It follows that the riders have a duty to protect themselves so as not to inflict a burden on society through their injuries. Etzioni’s repudiation of the right of the rider to choose with respect to helmets and seat belts is predicated on the supposed existence of another right – that the injured person has the positive right to be cared for at the expense of the public. Etzioni’s claim of that right is thus employed to deny the negative right of the rider to choose for himself. Here, and in other cases, Etzioni and other communitarians want to deny particular negative rights in favor of other positive rights. In other words, he wants to reject negative liberties and assign to society the power to regulate the behavior of individuals in order to lessen society’s potential liability.
Etzioni claims that excesses of economic freedom constitutes society’s largest problem. He advocates legal remedies to reform campaign financing, slow down or stop the removal of tariffs and other trade barriers, and create community jobs. He also wants people to agree to work sharing and to live a simpler lifestyle. Etzioni also believes that the privatization of social security would erode the spirit of community and solidarity expressed in social security and replace it with a sense of atomistic individualism.
Etzioni also believes that society has legal and legitimate authority to determine who will own, control, and benefit from the corporations that it creates. He declares that the right to participate in the governance of a corporation should be shared by all stakeholder groups, rather than only by stockholders. He argues that the corporation should be treated as property of those who invest in it including stockholders; employees (especially those who worked loyally for it for a great many years); the local community (to the extent that it provides special treatment to a corporation); creditors who provide start-up, working, and expansion capital; and clients who continue to purchase a company’s products and services when it could either purchase them at better prices or on better terms or buy products of better quality from other businesses.
Etzioni’s communitarianism does not reveal a coherent system of substantive principles. As can be seen, case after case is settled through a combination of common sense observation and pragmatic techniques. His “I vs. We” paradigm is deeply flawed at best.
We should be suspicious of calls for “community” since historically such calls have been accompanied by oppressive sentiments such as nationalism, militarism, racism, and religious and other intolerances. In addition, there have always been potential leaders who claim superior intelligence, insight, and ability to recognize, understand, and articulate the common good and who seek to impose their idea of a good society on others.
By and large, communitarians fail to understand that a community is best viewed as an instrument for helping individuals achieve their chosen goals – it is something that people can freely contract into and withdraw from. Communitarians tend to view it as a good in itself – as a source of value that can make demands upon people.
Perhaps a community can gain allegiance and command sacrifices when it is homogenous, place-bounded, and governed by traditional structures of authority. However, modern society is too complex, dynamic, and diverse to succumb to the idea of such an all-encompassing community. A golden-age vision of shared communities of fate is inapplicable to the problems of contemporary society based on uncertainty and risk. Typically, traditional communities were reluctant to accept innovation and change, inward-directed, and hostile to outsiders. People in such communities were bound together by isolation, unremitting labor, rigid status hierarchies, and patriarchal domination.
Many communitarians suggest that we need to look to the past in order to solve today’s problems. Social reformers tend to blame the current ills of Western society on the loss of community. They frequently refer to an ideal past in which societies were characterized by respect for tradition, shared values, and commitment to the common good. They argue that community needs to reclaim its former role in order to counter the negative effects of individualism.
Derek Phillips provides compelling evidence that the good old days were not as good as portrayed by communitarians whether in ancient Athens, medieval Europe, or in 18th and 19th century America. Phillips thoroughly illustrates the lack of public virtue and common interest in traditional communities. There were many types of citizens who did not share a sense of common purpose, attachment to the community, and civic involvement. Phillips argues that what was thought to be community was likely to be discrimination in practice as groups would exclude or marginalize individuals who would destroy consensus regarding the common good. Community life in the past was largely imposed on people and was very often based on involuntary relationships. Today, people choose their associates.
Robert Owen’s 1825 utopian New Harmony community excluded persons of color and “troublemakers” and forbade women from being part of the managing community. Even then the community failed to unify – its members were just not like-minded enough!
Edward Bellamy, in his 1888 novel Looking Backward, writes longingly of a society where the emphasis is on we rather on me and not on individual rights but on the common good of the community. Ironically, his ideal community is America in the year 2000!
Communitarians say that if we lose the traditions of family, locality, and religion, then we lose the identities and civic values that they provide. They argue that individual lives only make sense when they are involved in joint ventures and that, as a result, community often takes precedence over individual choices. They fail to see the harm in community remedies that oftentimes involve coercion (e.g., divorce reforms and curfews).
Communitarians not only proclaim that the self is socially constructed, they also demand a moral homogeneity that endangers the human spirit. A morally homogeneous society would bypass the dialectic of moral development which is fostered by a society of multiple perspectives that educate the person through rewards, punishments, praise, shame, joy, and pain.
It is not entirely evident that the bonds of civic life have eroded to the extent that many communitarians charge. Although many traditional institutions of civic life have declined or disappeared, many new ones have arisen to succeed them.
Today’s voluntary communities recognize the open-ended character of human sociality. Communities of choice based on work, friendship, or some other common interest are certainly preferable to the bondage of old-fashioned community. A true community is not a geographically or socially fixed one. Rather, it is what is formed through the collection of relationships in which people live and work out their individual identities. In a free society people are permitted to recognize the subtleties of all types of social exchange and are able to question the desirability of all kinds of traditional affiliations. The ability to form and participate in freely chosen communities is a manifestation and celebration of human agency.
Many communitarians dislike and distrust voluntary communities. Some even believe that the only true community is one created and controlled by democratic political processes. Such communitarians are not proponents of true community, but are collectivists and statists or want people to serve society or humanity.
In practice, serving society or humanity translates into serving institutions such as the state. We need to fight the idea that it is praiseworthy and appropriate to serve society and its institutions. The excellence and goodness of man’s life lies in its own integrity and quality rather than in services performed for society. Individual human beings should not be sacrificed for the sake of an abstract concept such as the public interest or the common good. In actual communities, these tend to be the interests or goods of persons in power or majorities of their members.
Communitarians blame the loss of community they perceive on the market and its voluntary institutions such as the corporation – they do not even count the corporation as a form of community! People participate in organizations such as the corporation for a variety of reasons. They join in shared organizational practices and activities in order to serve their diverse and oftentimes conflicting ends. When the overall good of the survival and profitability of the corporation is met then the stockholders obtain profits, employees get wages, customers receive goods and services, etc.
Voluntary communities and associations occupy the space of civil society which should be framed but not dominated by the state. In a free society, people look to civil society rather than to political society to solve problems such as poverty and unemployment. The legitimate role of the state is juridical in nature and involves the establishment and maintenance of an institutional and legal framework of abstract, evolved rules of conduct that are essential to an ordering process through which people pursue their own aims.
Communitarians prefer a society where laws take into account the particular characteristics and circumstances of each person. They believe that a society governed by general, impersonal, and universal rules is unjust. They fail to see that their desire for personal justice is the antithesis of the rule of law, irreconcilable with a free society’s complex spontaneous order, and destructive of the legal foundations of a free society. They simply do not understand the consequences of abandoning abstract, universal justice and replacing it with specific and personalized laws.
Many communitarians highly value political participation and believe that the common good can be attained through the process of debating its meaning. Such dialogue does not help in determining the rules needed for the functioning of a free society. In a free society, realizing the common good requires the rule of law and the abandonment of the desire for personal justice. All we need to have in common in a free society are certain shared abstract rules that allow for the peaceful reconciliation of mutually conflicting purposes. The result is an ethical individualism through which people follow their chosen goals as long as they do not infringe on natural rights of others.
The proper role of law is to forbid and punish wrongs of violence, fraud, or negligence and protect rights of person, property, and contract. The law should not be used to send messages regarding the shared moral values that have emerged from communitarian dialogues. The absence of a law regarding a given behavior does not mean that the behavior is endorsed or promoted. Such laws would reflect moralistic views imposed by the tyranny of the majority. Disapproval of state attempts to forbid self-destructive or imprudent behavior does not mean approval of that behavior. It is preferable for a legal framework to be based on more inclusive and impartial values such as metanormative justice and natural rights that support the interests and goals of all citizens.