249. "Balancing Individual Rights and the Common Good," Tikkun, Vol.12, No.1, (January/February 1997), pp. 66-67.


Some people have thought that communitarianism resembles conservativism in placing a focus on the need for greater individual responsibility toward the community, and in its critique of the excesses of a rights-oriented society. In fact, communitarians really seek to establish a New Golden Rule, one that seeks a balance between the still valued needs of individuals and the larger society. If we were living in a totalitarian society, that golden rule would lead us, as dissenters, to challenge the misuse of communitarian language, and to insist on greater individual liberty. In Western democratic societies, where the pendulum has shifted toward extremes of individual self-indulgence and a lack of community responsibility, communitarianism often takes the form of a critique of this excess. Yet what we seek is actually a new kind of balance.

To illustrate communitarianism's approach to balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of the community, I have selected the issue of privacy as an example of the New Golden Rule's applicability to public policy.

On first glance, it appears that our society has undergone a steady erosion of individual privacy. Neighbors listen in on your cellular phone. The boss taps into employees' E-mail and medical records. A reporter at his home computer accesses a record of the videos you've rented, your credit card purchases, and personal information about your companion on your trip to Acapulco. No wonder increasing numbers of Americans demand new laws to protect themselves from data rape.

But, from a communitarian point of view, giving up some measure of privacy serves the common good. Keeping computerized data on physicians who have had their hospital privileges revoked shadows them long after they paid their dues for the original infractions. But would you rather return to the world in which doctors who killed several patients in New Jersey could cross the state lines and repeat their performance?

Child-care centers can now find out if prospective employees have been convicted of child abuse. While that may seem like a civil libertarian's nightmare, would you rather have your child in a facility like the one in Orlando, Florida, whose management learned only after a guard made sexual advances on boys that he had previously been convicted of raping a fourteen-year-old?

Would you prefer to maintain banks' discretion to hide the movements of large amounts of cash, or institute monitoring mechanisms that would allow authorities to curb drug lords' transactions? Would you rather receive an antibiotic to which you are allergic as you are wheeled into an emergency room, or submit your personal medical history to a universally accessible computerized health registry that would ensure you'd get the right treatment?

Take a tough case: Should we fingerprint welfare recipients? Such a practice makes the poor feel like criminals, civil libertarians complain. But would you rather continue to have a small group of sociopaths give legitimate welfare beneficiaries a bad name by double-dipping and otherwise ripping off the system?

Will these new knowledge technologies lead to a police state, as civil libertarians warn us? As I see it, the shortest way to tyranny runs the other way: If we do not significantly improve our ability to reduce violent crime, sexual abuse, and stem epidemics, an ever-larger number of Americans will demand strong-armed authorities to restore law and order. Let us allow the new capabilities of cyberspace to help restore civil order, which is at the foundation of liberty.

Once we accept that privacy is not an absolute value, we must look for the criteria that will guide us in making trade-offs in the name of the common good. These include the following: tolerate new limitations on privacy only when there is a compelling need (e.g., to reduce the spread of contagious disease); minimize the entailed intrusion (e.g., measure the temperature of a urine sample for drug tests, rather than observe as it is being produced); double check that there is no other way of serving the same purpose; and, minimize the side effects (e.g., insist that we be allowed to refuse junk mail).

The last thing a communitarian calls for is to abolish any right, let alone privacy. But no right is absolute and all must be balanced against the common good.

Applying these communitarian principles to other policy areas, we can envision these reforms according to the New Golden Rule:

Marriage -- Several states, spurred by conservative initiatives, seek to restore "fault" divorce. In contrast, the New Golden Rule approach to strengthening marriage would be to provide couples with premarital counseling; the remaining elements of a tax penalty on those who are married should be removed; give new parents a year's paid leave. Those who wish to foster marriage should provide incentives and enable couples to have stronger bonds, rather than to employ legal coercion. And above all, we should celebrate those who have a peer marriage, in which both partners have the same rights and the same responsibilities.

H.I.V. -- Conservatives have called for quarantining all H.I.V. carriers (as they do in Cuba), mandatory testing of all people in high-risk areas, and outlawing of homosexual activities. Some libertarians argue against any campaigns to require H.I.V. testing that would entail identifying sexual partners or intravenous drug users, even if the objective is to stem the spread of the disease. They argue that requirements for disclosure to former and prospective contacts will discourage people from being tested, are unnecessary because everybody should engage in safer sex anyhow, and tests are useless because by the time the results are in, the person may have acquired the illness.

The New Golden Rule suggests that individuals whose blood is tested anyhow for other purposes should be asked to agree to have their blood also screened for H.I.V. and that they should be expected, as an act of moral commitment to others and the community, to inform prior and prospective contacts. The information would spur individuals to be more cautious than they would be otherwise, and people can and do refrain from new contacts until test results are in. Above all, doing all one can to stem the spread of this horrible plague is a communal obligation. Penalties on those who use information about individuals who have H.I.V. or AIDS in a discriminatory way in housing, work, or otherwise should be increased.

Identity politics -- All groups, including feminists, labor unions, and minorities, should continue to fight for their interests and viewpoints, but with one hand tied behind their back. Like partners who seek both to gain their due share but keep the partnership going, each group should be mindful of their place in the larger progressive community and not only of its share.

Environmentalism -- Recognizing our commitment to the environment as a common good, rather than basing environmental policies only or mainly on the benefits they generate (e.g., by allowing each of us to breathe cleaner air) or because they generate jobs, is a major communitarian argument.

Organ donation -- Thousands of lives could be saved each year if we assumed that most people wish to do their moral duty and donate organs. For those who for religious or other reasons cannot do so could receive an exemption form, but medical authorities would not have to wait for forgetful and neglectful individuals to mark their drivers' licences or carry donor cards.

Meanings and values -- The New Golden Rule shares with the politics of meaning the recognition that while economic and political factors are important, so are patterns of meaning, shared understanding, and moral commitments. These arise and are nourished in what I call "moral dialogues," in which people resolve value differences, not through rationalistic deliberations that try to keep values at bay, or through culture wars, in which those of different moral position confront each other, often leading to violence.

This is the New Golden Rule - on one foot.

Amitai Etzioni is author, most recently, of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (Basic Books, January 1997).

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