245. "A Moderate Communitarian Proposal," Political Theory,
Vol. 24, No. 2, (May 1996) pp. 155-171.
A MODERATE COMMUNITARIAN PROPOSAL
On some of the long-debated issues between libertarians and communitarians, the two
sides are narrowing - if not "settling" - their differences. Recognizing this progress makes it
possible to focus on the "remaining" issues that contain some rather challenging and less often
discussed topics. Among the issues in which convergence is already progressing are the social
nature of the person (an ontological issue), the relations between a community based definition of
virtue and ones provided by individuals (a normative issue), the need to balance individual rights
with social and personal responsibilities, and the ways to defend against community
majoritarianism. This essay focuses on two of the "remaining" issues, the source of values that
contextuate communities and the implications of one's characterization of human nature for the
issues at hand.
In this essay I circumvent the customary review of the relevant literature on the grounds
that such reviews have been carried out often and very well. Instead, I proceed directly to a
modest suggestion for a moderate communitarian position.
The I&We (The Ontological Issue)
Some communitarians take "community rather than the individual as their basic
theoretical concept" (Daly 1994, ix). Phillips, in his appraisal of the communitarian position,
criticizes Bellah, MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, and others for "ascrib[ing] supreme value to the
community itself rather than to its individual members" (1993, 175). On the other hand,
libertarians tend to ignore community or assign it secondary status as a derivative the result of
an aggregation of individual choices, transactions, or other such deliberate and voluntary acts.
Bentham wrote that "community is a fiction," while others from Sartre to Nozick, consider
"community" (or at least the claims of others) a burden if not a "hell." As Nozick suggests,
"[T]here is no social entity....There are only individual people, different individual people, with
their own individual lives" (1974, 32-33). Note that at issue here is a question of ontology, not
normative issues of what is legitimate, what the combination ought to be.
The opposition between those who consider community a supreme social necessity and
those who argue it is either superfluous or nonexistent is unnecessarily sharp. If one views the
community as merely an aggregation of individuals joined for their convenience, one leaves out
the sociological need for affective (non-rational) bonds as counterweight to centrifugal forces
that seek to disperse communities. One also does not take into account the pivotal role of these
bonds in sustaining common values that in turn provide criteria for community-wide, shared
decisions and policies. "Persons are social beings who for that reason have obligations toward
each other. Autonomy does not exist in a vacuum but is developed, enunciated, and ultimately
exercised in our common life together. To deny the social nexus of autonomy is threatening both
to the social nexus and to autonomy. Persons cannot truly be persons outside their social nexus or
outside their community, and the community cannot exist, develop, thrive, and grow without the
unique contributions of the individuals within it." (Loewy 1994, 123)
If, alternatively, one sees the community as the source of social order and authority, and
seeks to impose its behavioral standards on individuals for the sake of civil order, one leaves an
insufficient basis for individual freedom and individual rights. Such a community would also be
deficient in its innovative and creative capacity, in its response to a changing world, by
constricting the evolution of differing positions, which could in time replace the community's
core values, thereby enhancing its adaptability to a constantly changing world. (It should be
explicitly stated that I draw here on a modified functional theory, arguing that if the said needs
for order, innovation, and so on are not provided for, the society will be deficient. The main
difference between this approach and traditional functional theory is that this approach does not
expect that deficient societies will necessarily self-destruct; they may just function poorly with
the nature of their dysfunctions to be predicted by their deficiencies.)
This polarization of viewpoints would be superseded if one takes as the theoretical
starting point as the primary concept the admittedly more complex concept of a self
congenitally contextuated within a community, a view which accords full status to both
individuals and their shared union. Following Buber's designation of the I and Thou, I use the
notation the I&We, to capture the tensed but also inevitable bond between these two poles of
social existence. The "I" stands for the individual members of the community. The "We"
signifies social, cultural, political, and hence historical and institutional forces which shape the
collective factor the community. The concept of I&We highlights the assumption that
individuals act within a social context, that this context is not reducible to individual acts, and,
most significantly, that the social context is not necessarily imposed or derived from voluntary or
conscious transactions among individuals. Instead, the social context is to a significant extent
perceived as a legitimate and integral part of one's existence, as a "We" rather than a "They."
The I&We synthesis does not entail the kind of nirvana harmony, based on idealized
"fraternal sentiments and fellow feeling" and an absence of the social conflicts associated with
modern life, that some have ascribed to communities (Sandel 1982, 130 and Greenhouse 1994,
184-185). Indeed, the concept of an I&We is predicated upon a deep-seated, unexpungeable,
often productive tension. The tension is the result of the tendencies of at least some individuals to
seek to expand their realm of unprescribed behavior and to change the community to reflect more
fully their values and interests, while the community attempts to extend its social/moral
prescriptions and to reformulate the individual members in line with its values and genuine or
perceived needs. While the tension can be excessive and wearing (having high personal and
social costs) or even lead to wars among families or among clans, up to a point the tension is
creative. The uncommunitized personhood is a source of creativity and change for the
community and fulfillment for the person. The communitized part of the person is a source of
service for shared needs and a source of stability and support for social virtues of the community.
If we enrich this view by examining the relationship in a historical perspective, we note
that communities are continuously adjusting the relationship between the centrifugal inclinations
of their members and the centripetal tendencies of the community. If the communities pull too
far in the centripetal direction (as it did in the U.S.S.R.), the historical role of social critics
(intellectuals, the press, dissenters) is to enhance the centrifugal forces and vice versa. If neither
element gains ascendancy, and if the excesses of one are corrected by shoring up the other, a
balanced, responsive community may be sustained. For this reason communitarians in the United
States, who see excessive individualism in American society, call for a return to community -
not because community is more fundamental but because the I&We is out of balance after
decades in which self-interest and individualism gained undue primacy. Thus, while the I&We
paradigm assigns both the individual and the community the same basic sociological,
philosophical, and moral standing, the historical context indicates which element must be
nourished within a given period and culture.
The discussion so far should not imply that the relation between the individualistic
elements and the collective ones is one of a zero-sum game. An anarchic (or, anomic) social
entity may be lacking in conditions that nourish both individuals and the community. Or, to put it
differently, the relationship between these two core elements is not hydraulic in the sense that as
one pumps up one side, one does not necessarily reduce the other; one may construct a large
vessel the enriches both (or loses on both sides).
The concept of community used here has been criticized by those who equate the concept
of "community" with the social and cultural communal structures of the past and their attendant
characteristics. One stream of thought asserts that communities tend to be monolithic,
conformist, oppressive, intolerant of minorities, and hierarchical, suggesting even that
"[communitarians] want us to live Salem..."(Gutmann 1985, 319). Others accuse communitarians
of seeking a nostalgic return to an imagined past. Phillips attacks communitarian thinking by
outlining the shortcomings of the communities of ancient Athens, the Middle Ages, and the
American colonial era, claiming that "there can be no renewal' or restoration' of
community...[given] the general absence of community in the periods [communitarians]
However, communitarians (at least the more enlightened among them) favor new
communities, in which all members have the same basic moral, social, and political standing. In
these communities, values are reformulated and policies evolve in a free dialogue and exchange
in which ideally all participate, and particular groups do not impose their values. Whereas
traditional communities were often homogeneous, new communities seek a balance between
diversity and unity. As Gardner notes: "To prevent the wholeness from smothering diversity,
there must be a philosophy of pluralism, an open climate for dissent, and an opportunity for
subcommunities to retain their identity and share in the setting of larger group goals" (1991, 11).
In short, the concept of I&We seems to offer a sound middle ground between those who
stress the importance of community (especially affective attachments and shared core values) and
those who see individuals as free standing (even if they consider them able and inclined to form
social unions based on their individuals considerations). The concept assumes that both elements
are congenitally presented (while their relative strength varies) because they are essential to the
human existence and adaptability. The relations between the two basic elements are assumed to
be tensed as a built-in tug of war exists between them. Finally, it is suggested that societies
function best when both elements are well represented and balanced. Analytically speaking one
can refer to the two basic elements separately and compare abstractly their features; in societies
though all we have are different mixes of the two elements.
The I&We (The Normative Issue)
Even if one grants that some measure of We-ness is sociologically required for a civil
society, one still needs to assess its moral standing. This is more than a theoretical exercise
because, as I note above, societies may survive with a relatively low level of normative and
social bonds, but suffer various deficiencies. If commonalities of the kind at issue would be
morally unacceptable, a society may choose to accept the sociological costs. What is the moral
standing of shared virtues, based on shared bonds and commitments to core values rather than
Libertarians argue that communities ought not define what is considered good but that
each individual should do so for themselves. This position is based on two key arguments, briefly
restated: Individuals have different notions of the good life; to choose one vision of the good life
would prejudice the state's treatment of those who don't share it. They would be treated
unequally. Hence, the state must be neutral to all visions of the good life (Dworkin 1977). Put
more strongly, acting on a public consensus about the good life can only result in oppression
because the United States is a highly pluralistic nation. The state needs to be neutral to avoid
brutality and must rely upon the procedural virtues of tolerance, reasonableness, fairness that
secure neutrality. Although there are many nuances in formulations of this position, my purpose
here is to highlight major convergences in the argument and move onto other issues.
Communitarians have countered that neutrality often presupposes an ethical commitment
to one side of the debate. By permitting a practice - say divorce, on the grounds that the state
must be neutral about matters of marital intimacy - the state signals that divorce is morally
acceptable. One may add that libertarian neutrality by failing to recognize the ontological role
of community also fails to see its moral implications. If individuals do not self-select their virtues
but are deeply affected by the way their social environment is constructed, reconstructing it in
line with values the community shares is morally sound.
Moreover, communitarians argue that the state cannot be neutral and that the definitions
of the common good are both needed and not antiliberal. The procedural virtues of tolerance,
fairness, and reasonableness associated with neutrality (and which libertarians do endorse) are
not sufficient to order the life of the republic. They provide a thin theory of the good that cannot
sustain the seedbeds of virtue upon which the republic depends. The state, however carefully,
must ensure that it is pursuing policies that nourish these seedbeds because societies in which
individual liberties are well-defended depend upon strong families, a rich web of voluntary
associations and other mediating structures, a well-educated citizenry, and citizens that recognize
their personal and social responsibilities and not merely their rights. True, this in turn assumes
that communitarians will work to ensure that the shared virtues and the public policies and social
institutions that embody them, will be crafted to protect liberties and not merely order.
Although public policy is important, the common good can best be served in the realm of
civil society. This is a voluntary realm, so libertarians need not be concerned, at least not if they
cease to confuse society and state or to presume that societal consensus spills willy-nilly over
into state coercion. The opposite is true: The more communities are intact, the less the need for
state enforced order. At the same time, this is also a communal realm (in which the values and
the social bonds that undergird them, which concern social conservatives, are found). It is in this
realm that commitments to the common good are seeded, nourished, and allowed to flourish. The
state's role, when it comes to normative matters, is as a last resort not as the first. Thus
America's changed attitude toward drinking and driving was first reflected in moral education
campaign led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and revolved around slogans such as, "Friends
don't let friends drive drunk," and moral duties such as the concept of (and social approbation
for) designated drivers. Those who heed none of these face the last resort in the fight against
drunk driving - a traffic stop, a breathalyzer, and a revocation of privileges - for the common
good (and to protect the rights of all others on the road).
In short, social definitions of virtue do not merely exist but can be morally justified. They
need not lead to intolerance or discrimination; in effect the normative conception of tolerance
and fairness or justice are themselves social virtues. There is not necessarily a contradiction
between social virtues and individual liberties. Their implications for social responsibilities and
individual rights are explored next.
Individual Rights and Social Responsibilities
The debate whether one should champion individual rights or dedicate one's self to
promotion of social duties, is another refection of the issues just covered. Here too, the
suggestions that libertarians are too preoccupied with individual rights and communitarians with
social responsibilities unnecessarily polarizes the dialogue. Firstly, rights and responsibilities are
often corollaries, one assuming the other. For instance the right to trial by a jury of one's peers is
unsustainable without a duty of peers to serve on the jury. 
Some have argued that animals and sand have rights, yet none can undertake
responsibilities (Stone and Kaufman 1988, 8-14, and Stone 1974, 17). However, these are
exceptions to the rule. Most social relations assume reciprocity either among the parties (The
right of one person to free speech is based on the claim on others to restrain their desire to
prevent such speech.) or between the person and the community (If citizens have a right to
governmental services, they must assume - as a community - the obligation to pay for them.).
Once the basic complementarity of individual rights and social responsibility is granted,
the discussion can turn to numerous challenging secondary issues that arise within this context.
These range from the question of whether those with long-term disadvantages have entitlements
but are exempt from social responsibilities to the question of under what conditions community
needs (which often prescribe social responsibilities) take priority over some limited individual
rights (e.g., drug testing of those who drive school buses). These issues are not further explored
The basic point, though, remains: individual rights and social responsibilities, just like
individual liberties and social definitions of the common good, are not oppositional but
complementary, at least they can be made to be.
No Majoritarians Here
Communitarians are charged with opening the door to majoritarianism. Critics argue that
by advocating that the community should have a say over what the course of the social entity
ought to take, individual and minority rights will be shortchanged, if not disregarded. Some fear
that the community would, for example, ban books that meet with majority disapproval, from
public and school libraries. Note that the concern is not that some local goon or national tyrant
would take over, but that ordinary citizens would instruct their duly-elected city council or school
board to institute policies that violate basic rights.
Glasser claims, "Communitarian really means majoritarian" (Erlich 1990). In a like
manner, Derber offers that " [c]onsensual' values are, in reality, the voice of one part of the
community usually the majority or an elite minority against the others" (1993, 29). Machan
believes that "[c]ommunitarians wish to place community and individual on a collision course,
saying there is some kind of balance that is needed between the rights of individuals and the
rights of the community. But if we consider that community means simply a lot of other people
other than oneself, this simply makes for majority rule" (1991).
As Sandel writes, "The answer to that majoritarian threat is to try to appeal to a richer
conception of democracy than just adding up votes" (Moyers, 155). American society has both
constitutional and moral safeguards against majoritarianism that communitarians very much
respect. These safeguards basically work through differentiation, that is by defining some areas in
which the majority does not and ought not have a say and those in which it does and should. The
United States is not simply a vote-counting majoritarian democracy, but a constitutional
democracy. That is, some choices, defined by the constitution, are beyond the realm of the
Clearest among these protections is the Bill of Rights, which singles out matters that are
exempt from majority rule and from typical democratic rule-making. The First Amendment, in its
protection of the right of free speech, is a prime example of an area in which individual and
minority rights take precedence. Similarly, the majority may not deny any opposition group the
right to vote; even communists were not disenfranchised in the days when they were most hated
The Constitution and our legal traditions and institutions indicate clearly, however, that
other matters are subject to majority rule. Thus, majorities decide at what rate the government
taxes Americans, on which side of the road to drive, and at what age young adults can vote.
There is neither moral nor legal support for the notion, indeed it is inconceivable, that an
individual could decide for herself how much tax to pay, on which side of the road to drive, and
In short majoritarianism is held at bay by recognizing the constitutional element of our
democratic system and other core values more informally endorsed, that set normative limits on
the course a community may choose.
A Challenge: Contextuating Values
The preceding discussion rests on an assumption that not all communitarians have made
as clearly as possible: Communities are free to follow whatever value consensus they achieve but
only as long as it does not violate a particular set of overarching values. These values - most
clearly reflected in the Constitution - and other society-wide, shared values not reflected in the
Constitution, such as a commitment to stewardship over the environment, do not answer the
difficult question: What is the legitimacy of these values? This question is sometimes phrased in
terms as to what is the "source" of these values; one should read this query not geographically
but metaphysically. What is the standing, the basis for the moral claim, of these values? How is
one to differentiate between those that have a valid claim on us and those that do not?
Some find the answer in religion; others in natural law. But these are sources that others
do not find compelling and that require further justification. Some look for the answer in
empirical, social scientific findings that these values, such as thou shalt not kill, are universally
respected. However, this answer also provides questionable and unsecured ground because many
values are not universally accepted, and offers a rather meager defense. (Surely burning books,
and even killing their authors, is quite valued in some communities, e.g., in contemporary Iran.)
One answer may be found in a deontological position. This is often referred to in this
context as referring to classical liberals and their contemporaries (which I refer to as libertarians
for reasons discussed in endnote 2) who base their positions on universal individual rights, which
is seen as contradictory to the communitarian position which is said to see values as anchored in
particular communities. I focus here on another facet of the deontological ethical position,
namely, the notion that actions are morally right when they reflect principles that appear to us as
morally binding. Deontology stresses that the moral status of an act should not be judged by its
consequences, but by the "intentions" of the agent. For example, a person who sets out to defame
another is acting immorally, whether or not the person succeeds in actually damaging the one he
or she seeks to defame. More significant, in this view certain moral values present themselves to
us as compelling, as if they do not require extensive debate or deliberations. For instance, should
we expect, morally speaking, that people under most circumstances tell the truth rather than lie;
avoid sexual harassment; not discriminate on racial grounds and so on? For instance, no morally
reflective individual would seriously contend that lying is morally superior to truth-telling,
except possibly in some unusual ("limited") circumstances. Likewise, no moral person would
deny that treating others with respect is a compelling moral value, though the particular
behaviors derived from this principle differ from person to person.
Some may find this response no more satisfactory - or, perhaps, less so - than those
offered by religion or natural law. However, without some accounting for the reasons one holds
one set of core values as compelling versus others, the communitarian position is not fully
anchored and is left open to the charge of majoritarianism and even more to the danger of
relativism: whatever the community favors is moral. Such a position is untenable.
The ultimate source of the values that provide the normative context for communities
may spring from religion, natural laws, or deontological normative factors. A communitarian
philosophy is woefully incomplete unless it at least addresses the question: how is the
commitment to core values justified in moral terms.
A Cardinal Challenge: Human Nature
As Wolfe indicates in his article "Human Nature and the Quest for Community," every
social theory and philosophy contains an implicit or explicit theory of human nature (1995).
Libertarians, as different as Hayek and Rawls, assume that people are basically benign and
rational, and hence urge the government not to interfere with their choices and to allow
individuals to set the personal and collective courses on their own. Libertarians typically blame
the social structure for deviant or criminal behavior. Their most recommended treatment is to roll
back the corrupting state or to change society, rather than to blame the individual. Individuals
need to be informed and empowered - because they are inherently inclined to do what is right
In contrast, many social conservatives, from Hobbes to Hauerwas, assume that people are,
if not nasty and brutish, at least governed by impulses and other irrational forces. While social
conservatives seek to indoctrinate people with values, they tend to assume that human nature
cannot be "perfected," and hence there is a congenital need to "keep the lid on" by the use of
Still other social philosophers and theorists make different assumptions about human
nature, but it is difficult to complete a social philosophical position without an examination of its
implications or explicit assumptions about the fundamental and given qualities of persons and
societies. Communitarians assume that human nature is to a significant extent socially
constituted. However, this position is insufficiently specified.
One answer to the question (To what extent is human nature socially constituted versus
given?) is offered by a range of postmodern philosophers who argue that people are fully
"constructed" that is, determined by their culture, or at least that views of human nature reflect
assumptions and values (those drummed into people, or implicit in the culture). It follows that
human nature is rather unstable and malleable. Rorty for example, has called for "a repudiation
of the very idea of anything mind or matter, self or world having an intrinsic nature to be
expressed or represented."(1989, 50) In fact, few postmodern theorists even refer to "human
nature," instead predicting the "death of Man," or the demise of the Western humanist assertion
of the primacy of a thinking individual with an underlying transcendental self. 
In addition, many contemporary, social philosophers and social scientists refuse to accord
human nature any inherent qualities. Some argue that once one assumes that there is a specific
human nature, the next step is to argue that there are particular attributes that differentiate people
by their nature: for instance, that men have a different nature from women (or blacks from
whites). This, in turn, opens the door to various discriminatory positions. For instance, if women
are "natural" mothers but men are not equally "natural" fathers, this may be used to urge that
women should be relegated to parenting and discouraged from working outside the household.
To guard against such a position, feminists have argued that there is nothing "especially natural
about women's relationships with each other, with children or with men" (Jaggar 1983, 130).
The problem with proceeding in this way is that if human nature is conceived to be
infinitely malleable, an assessment of human nature can play no role in social criticism or value-judgments. As Iacobucci argues in another context, "At its crudest expression, one finds the
argument that as there is no objective reality outside the knower, it is impossible to agree on any
objective standards. You have your opinion and I have mine... who's to say who is right and
who is wrong?'"(1992, 12) If this is the case, there is no Archimedean point where one can
criticize social practices such as slavery, racial discrimination, and so on without being
accused of ethnocentrism or insensitivity to the values of other communities.
It is true that the understanding of human nature is hindered because it is encountered
only in specific cultural settings, which most would agree significantly affects what is reflected in
human behavior. (Those who assume that behind each specific behavior lies a specific gene may
reach a fundamentally different position.) However, the fact that conclusions about human nature
can only be reached indirectly does not mean that one cannot glean what it is and draw
conclusions from what one is able to establish.
In my view, it is fruitful to assume that there is a universal set of basic human needs
(which animals do not share) which have attributes of their own that are independent of the social
structure, cultural patterns, or socialization processes. People - men and women, black, brown,
yellow, white, and so on - are all basically the same under all the layers which cultures foster and
impose on persons. To explicate the reasons these are universally found would require another
essay, but briefly if they are not present, a human nature does not developed. A great deal of
evidence demonstrates that people of different eras, societies, and conditions exhibit the same
basic inclinations (Inkeles and Smith 1974). Hence, one cannot find in human nature a
justification for viewing one group of people as inherently inferior to others or to treat them as
such. This notion is well captured in the refrain, "We are all God's children," and in the religious
ideal of condemning the sin but reaching out to the sinner. Some acts are intolerable but not
people. More significantly, it is these basic attributes which yield the productive tension between
the individual and the community.
While one cannot directly observe a basic human nature because it is never encountered
in a raw, unprocessed form, a variety of observations indirectly suggests its qualities. One main
relevant finding is that when socialization and social control mechanisms slacken or breakdown,
behavior tends to slide not randomly, but in predictable directions which indicate the nature of
human nature. Thus, the fact that so many priests in diverse societies and eras in religious
institutions that prohibit sex do indulge in one form of sexual expression or another informs us
about human nature. So does the fact that religion, magic and culture are irrepressible despite
numerous attempts in Nazi Germany and the former U.S.S.R. to suppress them.
Even in totalitarian societies that monopolized control of educational institutions,
suppressed alternative sources of values, and maintained tight control of all forms of media and
communication, combined with iron-fisted social and political control, were unable to sustain
social cultures and institutions that were incompatible with the underlying human nature. Indeed
as these societies persist in maintaining their unresponsive cultures, human nature asserts itself
and contributes to the failure of these regimes.
The question has been raised whether the preceding observation applies to China. As I see
the history of China, it is but one large sequence of rebellions, uprisings, and repressions, a cycle
that has not yet, one sadly notes, ended. The same holds for numerous other authoritarian and
totalitarian societies. Democracies are inherently more stable, once they themselves are fully
established. For instance, whatever "uprisings" the United States experienced domestically did
not involve a change of those in power on the national level by the use of force, common in
undemocratic societies. (As these observations are post hoc, it might be useful to provide here a
prediction of a series of future events: If the position advanced here is valid, fundamentalist
Muslim regimes, like the one in Iran, too will prove to be unsustainable.) An examination of
these regimes, in comparison to those that did persist, allows one to draw additional insights into
the nature of human nature.
How does this view of human nature bear on the communitarian position? As human
nature has immutable characteristics, the concept anchors the relationship between the individual
and the community. If human nature were pliable, the tension inherent in the concept of the
I&We could be dissolved by wholly merging the individuals into the culture pre-molded by the
A close observation of human nature provides a number of additional implications as
well. There is a strong accumulation of evidence that people have a deep-seated need for social
bonds (or attachments) and that they have a compelling need for normative (or moral) guidance.
The evidence also suggests that they are unable to fulfill any of the conditions various libertarian
models presume (such as capacity to render rational choices, or to separate many of one's
preferences from those that are culturally endorsed and so on).
The observation that human nature has specific attributes does not mean that we need to
approve of them or embrace them. The fact, for instance, that people cannot make even a nearly
rational decision, may either lead one to seek systems that require less rational capacity, or to
develop knowledge technologies that will assist fragile humans, or to argue that decisions should
be made by those who are most rational.
How should we respond to the basic human need for attachment and for values? Both are
mixed blessings but neither needs to be directly confronted. The need for attachment and
normative guidance is at the foundation of families, neighborhoods, voluntary associations,
communities, and many of the institutions that basically enrich human life (and potentially
ennoble it) (Galston 1992, A52). We need to guard against excesses (e.g., conformism, fads,
unjust notions that are implicit in the culture and that deserve critical and normative
examination). However, none of these is severe enough or sufficiently resistant to amelioration
that one should seek to do without a concept of human nature (let alone trying to eradicate its
basic features). In short, the communitarian self - part conformist, part creative and critical - is a
rather empirically well-grounded concept and one on which a communitarian philosophy can
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1. In drafting this essay, I greatly benefitted from the comments of William Galston, Hans Joas, Daniel A. Bell, W. Bradford Wilcox, William Thomas, Dan Doherty, and David E. Carney.
2. The terms “liberals,” “classical liberals,” “contemporary liberals,” and “libertarians” have all been used to characterize the critics of communitarians. These labels are confusing; for instance, many readers do not realize that the labels are not confined to or even necessarily inclusive of those who are called liberals in typical daily parlance. Most importantly, because the defining element of the position is the championing of the individual, “libertarian” seems both the least obfuscating term and the one that is substantively most appropriate.
3. For an overview of various strains of political thought which grapple with the issue of community, see Fowler 1991. See also Avineri and de-Shalit 1992. For detailed accounts of the works of several prominent communitarians, including Sandel, MacIntyre, Taylor and Walzer, see Mulhall and Swift 1992. Also of interest is Bell 1993, particularly the author’s introduction.
4. For a prior discussion of this topic see Etzioni’s The Moral Dimension. Additionally, Tracy Strong proposes some similar analysis in the first chapter of The Idea of Political Theory.
5. Indeed, much of neoclassical economics, psychology, and important segments of other social science literature is reductionist; that is, it maintains that the explanatory factors are individual, and either denies the need for collective concepts or depicts them as the result of aggregations of individual transactions. For a communitarian critique of liberalism on this count see Sandel 1984. For an example of this kind of liberal community, see Gauthier 1992. Others who have faulted liberalism for its failure to acknowledge community include Unger 1975 and Taylor 1989.
6. See Buber 1937.
7. For a review of early communitarian ideas, see Iacobucci 1992; Price 1977, who argues that thinkers of the past, from Burke, to Tocqueville, to Durkheim, have stressed that no society will thrive in the absence of vital social bonds and ends.
8. This notion of balance is supported by a notation that often accompanies statements about John Locke, Adam Smith and other classical liberals, that they were writing in a period in which community was overpowering and, hence, dissent focused on individualism.
9. See Bellah 1985 and articles recently published in the communitarian quarterly, The Responsive Community.
10. Linda McClain joins the refrain observing that in “the new communitarian appeal to tradition, communities of ‘mutual aid and memory,’ and the Founders, there is a problematic inattention to the less attractive, unjust features of tradition” (McClain 1994, 1030).
11. See John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice 1971. Rawls’ writings are very opaque and his thinking has developed over time on this issue. There is a small industry trying to interpret his position on the issue at hand. No attempt is made here to review to nuances of positions attributed to him.
12. For a further discussion of this topic, see Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice
13. Etzioni’s The Moral Dimension presents a more detailed analysis of this topic.
14. David Hollenbach’s “Civil Society: Beyond the Public-Private Dichotomy” in The Responsive Community, Winter 1994/95, provides an analysis of this topic.
15. For an example of the confusion of society and state, see “The Politics of Restoration” in The Economist December 24, 1994 and the authors subsequent letter to the editor published in The Economist January 21, 1995.
16. In the highly individualistic period of the recent past, Americans have often claimed this right while rejecting the responsibility (Janovitz 1983, 8). For a more general discussion see Oaks 1991 and Glendon 1991. For a popular, non-academic treatment of the subject, see Etzioni 1993.
17. For further exploration of the topic, see Etzioni 1991, Etzioni 1993, particularly 163-191, and Glendon 1991.
18. For a more extensive treatment of the problem of majoritarianism, please see Etzioni 1993, especially 49-52.
19. For example, some communitarians have afforded individual rights insufficient legitimacy, raising the specter of oppressive communities in conflict with basic rights. MacIntyre claims that “[n]atural or human rights...are fictions” and that “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed” (1984, 70, 69). Individual rights are left unprotected in Michael Walzer’s theory of justice, as his treatment of personal autonomy (representing one type of individual rights) demonstrates. “Justice,” Walzer contends, “is relative to social meanings.... Every substantive account of distributive justice is a local account” (1983, 312). Bound to the particular social meanings of the community, then, individuals may be unable to evaluate the moral standing of their community, which may deserve criticism.
20. See also Rawls 1980 and Rawls 1992. Deontology is a major school of ethics, akin to utilitarianism in its scope, encompassing different sub-schools (e.g., act- vs. rule-deontology), and has its share of internal differences (Beauchamp 1982). To do justice to but one of its leaders, Immanuel Kant, would take us far afield. Instead of engaging here in a major digression on ethics, the discussion focuses on the one element of deontology used here (personal communication with Charles Taylor).
21. There is also a substantial school of thought, which addresses this issue, known as virtue ethics. For an examination of this position, the works of Martha Nussbaum and Bernard Williams provide an excellent presentation.
22. Postmodernists take as their point of origin Nietzsche, who criticized philosophers because they “involuntarily think of ‘man’ as an aeterna veritas, as something that remains constantly in the midst of flux, as a sure measure of things” (1986, s.2).
23. For a fuller explanation and excellent summary of the socialist feminist position on human nature, see Jaggar 1983, 123-167. Also, see Regan 1993.
24. In “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism,” Martha Nussbaum formulates an account of human functioning which she calls the “‘thick vague theory of the good.’” She begins her theory with two facts. First, “[W]e do recognize others as human across many divisions of time and space....Second, we do have a broadly shared general consensus about the features whose absence means the end of a human form of life.”(214-5)
25. It must be noted here that the universality of basic values does not apply to secondary values, which can be created and maintained through socialization.
26. For a discussion of the issue and references to the literature see Etzioni