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Balancing the Virtues and Dangers of Communitarianism

Communitarian philosophers believe that the individual develops and can flourish morally and politically only in the context of a community [1].

Just as liberals choose between ideals (such as freedom and equality), Communitarians often make choices between valued forms of communal life.

Communitarian philosophers from Michael Sandler to Michael Walzer criticize vague universalities in American political discourse and propose that shared meanings emerge from our political life vis-à-vis a communal political framework.

Communitarian philosopher Michael J Sandel is of the view that the procedural republic of America is ill-equipped to deal with the political and social anxieties of contemporary American politics.

The fears of losing control of our society — as well as the erosion of the moral fabric of our community are Sandel’s main issues with contemporary American society [2].

Sandel’s is highly critical of John Rawls’s neutral liberal aspirations and hallow theory of justice. Sandel claims that there can be no “neutral” conception of justice — by and large because divisive issues in American political discourse diminish the state’s ability to remain a neutral actor.

Sandel invokes abortion in the context of the 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe V Wade as a timely example of a divisive issue in which neutrality may not be applied successfully.

Michael Walzer takes a similar approach to Sandel’s communitarian ethics and claims that justice is a human construction — therefore, it is difficult to incorporate multiple approaches to the same ethical quandaries.

According to Walzer, when we derive an ethical framework from the ground up to shape our society, each community is creating its own theory of justice. As a result of this, each community’s definitions and conceptions of justice will vary depending on the cultural norms of each community.

To solve this obstacle, Walzer recommends that societies should employ shared meanings that emerge from the political life of a community to determine ethical and moral frameworks.

A fundamental critique of the communitarian approach comes from Will Kymlicka — who claims that communitarianism disadvantages culturally marginalized groups in our society whose beliefs and aspirations are not fully understood by the majority.

Kymlicka see’s these disadvantaged groups as having been deliberately excluded from the mainstream of American society, as a result of the prejudice and insensitivities of the past and present — therefore, they will most likely not contribute to discussions on American Communitarian ethics.

Kymlicka critiques the communitarian approach to political philosophy for its lack of examination of U.S culture. Kymlicka faults communitarian’s for their inability to mention that U.S cultural traditions have been historically defined by a small segment of the population and it does not include a wide array of cultural experiences.

In my view, an alternative to liberalism and communitarianism should gradually arise to lead us out of this moment of cultural and political decay. Liberalism has unleashed upon us our current Trumpian era that tolerates all moral positions except a very small amount that are simply deemed culturally unacceptable [3].

An enormous amount of questions arise when determining matters of morality from the framework of Liberalism, such as the following: Who decides what is acceptable or not acceptable in a society? Will it be an elite class of people? Where will the line be drawn?

A communitarian philosopher like Sandel’s would simply propose that the state take positive moral positions that are not neutral — but are instead based on a shared understanding of Communitarian ethics.

At its peak in the 1980s and up until now, liberalism has been animated by a spirit of hyper-individualism that divides us into two groups: those who supposedly earned their position in the knowledge economy, and the “others” who are now guiding their way through the welfare state.

Communitarianism is the superior system of governance, since it is animated by a desire to enrich community values, civic participation, and it generally encourages a community to search for the good life for all its citizens.

In Walzer’s The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism, he rightfully critiques the selfish nature of liberalism by postulating that, under liberalism, each individual looks at himself as absolutely free, unencumbered, and on his own, therefore, he is entering society accepting its obligations, only in order to minimize his risks and his risks alone [4].

As a result of this, Walzer rightfully postulates that liberal society is an overly individualistic place with fragmentations in practice. Liberals are free to choose and have the right to choose, so, they have a way of making choices that is almost purely selfish and does not serve the needs of the community at large.

Despite Walzer’s prescient critique of liberalism, Kymlicka’s critique hinders the prospect of a cultural inclusive Communitarian approach to morality in U.S society. By emphasizing that a Communitarian approach to U.S political life will likely be Eurocentric in nature — Kymlicka rightfully reiterates that communitarianism will likely be unable to accommodate for the cultural positioning of historically marginalized groups.

The haunting reminders of the legacy of racial inequality in the U.S in Charlottesville on August 2017 perfectly illustrate the problems with the communitarian philosophy. In August 2017, Neo-Nazi’s and White supremacists’ rallies took place to oppose the removal of the statue of U.S civil war confederate commander Robert E. Lee.

In one of the demonstrations, a woman was run over by a car and killed by one of the Neo-Nazi’s for taking part in one of the counterdemonstrations in Charlottesville at the time. Addressing the nation, President Trump took to T.V to claim that “there were good people on both sides.”

In this situation, President Trump was artificially taking a neutral position, while simultaneously taking a racist position that was based on previous U.S culture and values.

The U.S has been exploiting African American’s through slavery and Jim Crow laws for centuries — and this was simply the communal moral consensus of that time period. In other words, the sort of communitarianism that Sandel and Walzer are calling for could have simply already been practiced Vis-à-Vis small-town face-to-face relations in 19th century U.S society.

To conclude, communitarianism is perhaps best applied to civic life and is less suitable when determining complex political and social matters.
A communitarian approach to ethics simply does not account for the various cultural positioning in space and time of each citizen in a diverse, 21st century society.
The community at large is often ill-equipped to make sound universal moral judgements — therefore, a healthy balance between substantial individual liberties and universal human rights should animate the political ethos of modern societies today.

Sources [1] Bell, Daniel. "Communitarianism and its Critics." (1993). [2] Farrelly, Colin, ed. Contemporary political theory: a reader. Sage, 2003. [3] The Anthem Companion Robert N. Bellah [4] Walzer, Michael. "The communitarian critique of liberalism." Political theory 18, no. 1 (1990): 6-23.


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