The Ethics of Communitarianism

The Ethics of Communitarianism


In the last three decades, communitarianism has emerged in the western thought as a response to the increased advancement of liberal individualism. The term traced its roots in the 19th century, but it was not until the 20th century that it received popular scholarly interests. In the 1980s, political philosopher, Charles Taylor, Walzer Michael, Michael Sandel among others began questioning the individualistic opposition to the idea of common good proposing the extensive application of communitarian thought in American political ideology. The emergence of the concept received full attention from the political class, and most of the political elites at the time from Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Jan Peter Balkenende, and Barack Obama popularized the communitarian philosophy. At the very basic, communitarianism assumes a common ground across all societies and individuals within the society irrespective of their age, color, economic power, or any other social demographic factor. The fact that communitarianism balances individual rights and social responsibility and promises to create a society that is both fair and just makes the philosophy interesting to both the political class and policymakers.

The Benefits of Communitarianism

The primary benefits of communitarians lie at the intent of the philosophy. Communitarianism seeks to create a common good for society, one that balances individual autonomy promotes security and promotes a sense of community. With communitarianism, individual autonomy is slightly constrained, and a balance between the common good the individual preferences is established through a consultative process. Where communitarianism is applied, the society does not lean towards social anarchy or conformism because the self is neither autonomous nor does he exist in isolation but rather within the values and culture of an overlapping and interdependent community (Cohen, 105). Another benefit of communitarianism is the promotion of social responsibility within communities. Proponents of communitarianism have often argued that the relationship between the communities and the environment are much more important than the relationship between individuals and the environment. Using a communitarian approach to install a sense of community towards the environment is far much easier and feasible than developing a mechanism that will promote individual responsibility to the environment. Where there is a sense of community, the institutions that govern that community act socially responsible and focus on justice in every aspect of the word. The powerless in an individualistic, libertarian society has fewer options, and applying public ethical domains at the personal level is often regarded as regressive and illegitimate. Civic transformation is bound to take place where communitarianism is strong.

The Drawbacks of Communitarianism

Immediately after the popularity application of communitarianism ideas in the western democracies in the 1990 and early parts of the 200s, a number of scholars started to highlight the main concerns with the popular communitarian ideals. Elizabeth Frazer is perhaps of the earliest critic of these scholars, and like other scholars of the time, she argued that the new communitarian position was at the heart of undermining the support for individualism and individual liberties. To others, the concept of communitarianism was insufficiently attentive to the common goods and the dangers of authority as a mainstay of a solid society. Using the concept of communitarianism, politicians preferred a model that focused more on communities and less on individuals. however, this posed a danger as some of the world dictators began using the same concept to assert their authority and justify their course. Cole (170) observes that the association of communitarian position with the ideological positions by some the most stringent authoritarian regimes such as Park Chng Hee, Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Bin Mohamad among others brought a new challenge to the wide application of communitarian concepts. These leaders extolled social obligation citing the importance of the common good, giving less weight to matters of autonomy and individual rights. To them, individual rights were interchangeable to social goods and individuals were not considered as free agents. Evidence suggests that attempts to establish homogenous communities whose purity is guaranteed by strict political control and elimination of those deviant minorities have always led to bloodshed. The Nazis are the most extreme example of this endeavor.

Should communitarianism be used as the basis for determining whether an act is ethical?

There is no doubt human beings are social in nature, and the success of the individual is largely dependent on the community or the society within which they live.  However, with the special import that the concept of communitarianism assign to the social nature of people and thus the informal social controls and communities in maintaining non coercive source of order, two primary question often arise: how are the norms that guide behavior in the community to be organized: will they be morally acceptable and who will judge their standing? These questions are vital when debating the morality of communitarianism because the informal social controls that communitarianism promises as the foundation of communal order are not merely based on communal pressures, but also relies heavily on what the community considers to be morally appropriate. This means, there are invisible yet perpetually active forces that influence the continent and influence the communal pressures that are approved and upheld within a community. Commenting on this aspect, Etzioni (248) argues that the pressures are like pipelines, the stronger they are, the more volume they can carry. To him, the social norms, values, and behavioral specification represent what flows within these pipelines.

Typically, the normative content of informal rules that govern a particular community is constantly edited, reformulated, and formulated through discussions among members of that society. These are done places of worship, dinner tables, community pools, social gatherings, among other communal places. The examples of this effect are many in the contemporary United States. For instance, the gun control that characterizes the contemporary US provides a vivid example of the process of formulating and reformulating the normative content of informal rules that govern coexistence within a community. Such moral conversation may not be considered political, but they are logical, highly reasoned, and in some cases, evidence-driven. Going back to the question of acceptability and governance, the majority opinion often tends to carry the day and like in many democracies of the world; the minority opinion often tends to be ignored irrespective of whether it is right or wrong, morally current or morally wrong. The establishment of these normative values from a communitarian point of view is often biased and in most cases, ignores the rights and civil liberties of the individual.

Of course, communitarians will demonstrate that contrary to a widely held belief that moral dialogues often transgress individual rights, resolutions are often reached and most of the moral dialogue end up resulting to a new shared moral understanding which in turn change behavior, as they are undergirded by informal social controls. Example include the changed attitudes towards gay marriage, women, the environment, and minorities in society. The problem of this position is, however, the fact that moral judgments cannot be solely based on consensus. Even though it might be possible that consensus may arise across communities, a consensus has great programmatic values but little moral justification. Consider a case where motion is presented in a committee of experts in a hospital on whether life support should be shut down in particular instances. The first committee rules 5 to 0 while the second rules 3 to 2. The first committee is much easier to follow, but there is no basis to hold its decision more moral than the decision of the second committee. Thus, while communities can agree on specific rules that govern its operations, consensus cannot be relied to build moral judgment across cultural situations.

An alternative proposition on the subject of using communitarianism as the basis of ethical judgments can be found in the deontological approach to ethics. Deontological ethics are based on moral obligations, duty, and necessity, and thus, there is a recognition that particular moral causes speak more compelling to us than others. A deontologist will content that it is possible for actions to be morally right or even obligatory depending on the facts surrounding them or the nature of the action. In such cases, the ethical judgment of such action can only stand if there is no compelling counteraction. For example, when one says it is better to let thousands of guilty people walk free than hang one innocent person, then the evidence to this effect must be consistent with eh statement. Otherwise, where one of the freed criminals are sure to kill, then the certitude of the initial statement is much less strong than it appears at first glance. Some of the deontologists, like Charles Taylor, emphasize the dual nature of morality, arguing that moral decisions are largely influenced by our instincts and the nature and the status of human beings. Both help form a number of self-evident truths that are foundational in moral judgments (Kenney and Akita, 173). For example, the recognition of life and health as self-evident goods. From a deontological point of view, behind every ethical consideration is a self-evident foundation that serves as the anchoring points for moral decisions. When making a moral judgment, the question is not the source of this self-evident fountain, but the glue that facilitates their presence, the communal sense of their conception. Thus the normative standing of social order and autonomy call for a carefully crafted balance between the two. Social order calls for some constraints on one’s preferences and the presence of self-evident truths. Thus, from a deontological point of view, communitarianism can be used to make ethical judgments. Furthermore, communitarianism in moral judgment helps eliminate the intellectual anarchy of relativism and provide the basis for shared values the members of the society may draw on in rendering moral judgment.

Modern Culture and Communitarian Philosophy

The weakening and in some cases, the collapse of the liberal national state has been the fueling factor in the disjunction between the economy and culture and thus the emergence of communitarianism and transnational economic forces. Communitarian ideology, as discussed above, demand a complete harmony, within a given territory between a form of social organization, political power, and cultural practices. It seeks to create a total society; however, contemporary changes in modern culture stemming from the wide adoption of enlightenment values is increasingly diminishing the relevance of communitarian philosophy. Today, it is difficult to sustain the argument of communitarianism that, according to a strong emotional and ideological standing to one’s own community over others. Moreover, existence in contemporary communities is deeply associated with the values of liberty. Communitarianism tends to bring to mind blind loyalty to the community, and to a large extend subjugation. Globalization is increasingly affecting how communities relate to each other and adopting a narrow sense of communitarianism may be a hindrance to a government that will truly serve its people. Moreover, technological, and economic forces are increasingly becoming transnational, while the institutions that govern communities and the concept of communitarianism as applied in most of the societies remain highly local. Thus, communities are buffeted by forces beyond their control, and even those who have been in the past considered superpowers are finding it difficult to manage their economies, the environment, and even their security appropriately (Etzioni, 258). The changes in contemporary societies call for a super national community, communities that are based on state order and the source of legitimacy far beyond the state in order to develop a layer of coexistence with the scope of the economic and technological changes. Applying communitarianism at a global scale is equally becoming a challenge with the rise of nationalism as anti-immigration sentiments characterize contemporary societies. With these challenges, how to develop a sense of common good that encompasses the enormous challenge that technological and economic changes are posing is a major challenge to communitarians.


Works Cited

Cohen, Andrew J. “Liberalism, Communitarianism, and Asocialism.” Liberalism, 2000, pp. 101-113.

Cole, Phillip. “Communitarianism and Immigration: Walzer on ‘Members and Strangers’.” Liberalism and Social Justice, 2017, pp. 165-185.

Etzioni, Amitai. “Communitarianism revisited.” Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 19, no. 3, 2014, pp. 241-260.

Kenney, Rick, and Kimiko Akita. “Made in Japan: Connecting the Dots through Contemporary Communitarianism’s Intellectual History.” Journal of Media Ethics, vol. 33, no. 4, 2018, pp. 170-180.


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