Communitarian basics

The communitarian response to liberalism presents some of the most difficult objections which challenge the trinity of basic liberal beliefs, namely will, autonomy, and choice. The communitarian conceives of individuals as intimately linked with the community, and holds that the modern atomistic idea of the individual hinders his ability to obtain the good life and further distorts his obligations and responsibilities to the community. While Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Sandel offer convincing reasons that liberalism is deficient, they ultimately fail to present a case that is unassailable. Moreover, the liberal answers to their objections offer good reasons as to why the triad of liberalism ought to be preferred.

Alasdair MacIntyre is a good start for the basic communitarian case against liberalism. He maintains that the fundamental question that divides the two ideologies is: what is the nature of man? What does the good, moral life consist of? And lastly: what is the status of man in relation to the community? The differences between liberalism and communitarianism, then, are the result of the various answers that could be provided in response to these questions which would dictate political philosophy.

MacIntyre first argues against the notions of distinctiveness that characterize contemporary liberalism, most notably the distinction between the private and public spheres, the corporate and the personal, etc. He then asks us to think about what consists of the good for one man individually, and what consists of the good for man in general. The answer to this, of course, will place one firmly in one camp or the other. Knowing this, MacIntyre develops his theory of the good by stating that the good life is the pursuit of virtues. From MacIntyre’s perspective, these virtues are incapable of fulfillment by an individual as strictly an individual. They require community. But since there are a potentially infinite number of communities, MacIntyre has to quickly clarify his position, in order to avoid moral subjectivism. While the good life is unique in every community, the objectivity arises out of adhering to the standard of telos fulfillment, that is, the end or purpose.

That is the central moral imperative, according to MacIntyre. He mentions that the good life in one place and in one time period is far different than what is now conceived to be good life. The fact that individuals possess different social identities within their society shows exactly what their rights, duties, and responsibilities are. The good for an individual is what is good for the various social roles than individual finds himself in. Therefore, MacIntyre writes, we inherent a variety of obligations from our families, cities, etc. MacIntyre, in anticipating knee-jerk reactions to his arguments, admits that this conception appears foreign and strange to the modern liberal, who views these roles as mere contingencies to be affirmed or denied explicitly through consent. He then illustrates or attempts to illustrates that we are indeed bound and responsible through our various identities (which are essential to us) for various actions that have been committed by others through our nations, our ethnicities, our biological parents, etc. because of the benefits we receive as a result of those previous actions.

But it would seem strange, according to MacIntyre, to accept those benefits, while simultaneously rejecting obligations and responsibilities which are attached, as well. The self cannot be detached from its social, ethnic, or historical roles. Identity is derived from the community. Existence as a brute fact, while familiar to Sartre, is completely foreign to MacIntyre’s thought. The self also inherits its sense of morality from the community, namely its allowances and limitations. For MacIntyre, the Kantian idea of autonomy, which has served as a foundation of liberalism, is a painful illusion.

Michael Sandel, of the same communitarian tradition, criticizes John Rawls for conceiving of the community as a mere feeling. Sandel states that members of a society are bound together not because they share the same values of communitarianism, but because their identity is defined, at least in part, by the community to which they belong. It is not a voluntary association, and it does not simply state what individuals have; it states what they are, that is, their identity. Sandel claims that Rawls simply does not take his own view to its logical conclusion, since Rawls continues to use vocabulary that moves far beyond his own limitations as a liberal. A much stronger version of community is required for the cogency of Rawls’ view. Since Rawls switches, or appears to switch, between strong and weak communitarian language in order to afford the individual with autonomy, will, and choice, Sandel maintains that the over-emphasis of the self and of human agency is disastrous.

He states that we can know goods in a community that we cannot know or realize alone, and that this is the foundation of communitarianism. The same arguments that applied to MacIntyre seem to apply here, as well. We ought to have very rigorous reasons for accepting the community as the ontological ultimate. Indeed, what can result from this arrangement is the suppression of individual ends, rather than liberation within context. Moreover, it stifles the possibility of variation within identities and halts the progress that can be made through the abandonment of these identities, which for the liberal, are actually more morally neutral than explicitly good or evil, since they have to be scrutinized by the same standard, morally speaking, to which every common practice or tradition ought to be.