Rebirth of Reason


Flaws of Communitarian Thinkers
by Edward W. Younkins

We should be suspicious of calls for “community” because 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 eighteenth- and nineteenth-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 that 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 that 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 are 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.

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