Communitarianism And Its Critics Pdf File

Communitarianism and its critics pdf file

Modern-day communitarianism began in the upper reaches of Anglo-American academia in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawls' landmark book A Theory of Justice Rawls Drawing primarily upon the insights of Aristotle and Hegel, political philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer disputed Rawls' assumption that the principal task of government is to secure and distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources individuals need to lead freely chosen lives.

These critics of liberal theory never did identify themselves with the communitarian movement the communitarian label was pinned on them by others, usually critics , [ 1 ] much less offer a grand communitarian theory as a systematic alternative to liberalism.

Communitarianism and its critics pdf file

This essay is therefore divided in three parts, and for each part I present the main communitarian claims, followed by an argument in each part that philosophical concerns in the s have largely given way to the political concerns that motivated much of the communitarian critique in the first place. Communitarians have sought to deflate the universal pretensions of liberal theory.

Communitarianism and its Critics

Whereas Rawls seemed to present his theory of justice as universally true, communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context.

Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor argued that moral and political judgment will depend on the language of reasons and the interpretive framework within which agents view their world, hence that it makes no sense to begin the political enterprise by abstracting from the interpretive dimensions of human beliefs, practices, and institutions Taylor , ch.

Communitarianism and its critics pdf file

Michael Walzer developed the additional argument that effective social criticism must derive from and resonate with the habits and traditions of actual people living in specific times and places. In short, liberals who ask what is just by abstracting from particular social contexts are doomed to philosophical incoherence and liberal theorists who adopt this method to persuade people to do the just thing are doomed to political irrelevance.

Rawls has since tried to eliminate the universalist presuppositions from his theory. In Political Liberalism , Rawls he argues in a communitarian vein that his conception of the person as impartial citizen provides the best account of liberal-democratic political culture and that his political aim is only to work out the rules for consensus in political communities where people are willing to try for consensus. Having said that, one still gets the sense that the liberal vision laid out in A Theory of Justice is the best possible political ideal, one that all rational individuals would want if they were able to choose between the available political alternatives.

There may be justifiable non-liberal regimes, but these should be regarded as second best to be tolerated and perhaps respected, not idealized or emulated. Other liberal theorists have taken a harder line against communitarian concessions, arguing that liberal theory can and should present itself as a universally valid ideal.

Barry does recognize that a theory of justice must be anchored in substantive moral considerations, but his normative vision appears to be limited to the values and practices of liberal Western societies.


He seems distinctly uninterested in learning anything worthwhile from non-Western political traditions: for example, his discussion of things Chinese is confined to brief criticisms of the Cultural Revolution and the traditional practice of foot-binding.

One might consider the reaction to a Chinese intellectual who puts forward a universal theory of justice that draws on the Chinese political tradition for inspiration and completely ignores the history and moral argumentation in Western societies, except for brief criticisms of slavery and imperialism. Still, it must be conceded that s communitarian theorists were less-than-successful at putting forward attractive visions of non-liberal societies.

The communitarian case for pluralism for the need to respect and perhaps learn from non-liberal societies that may be as good as, if not better than, the liberal societies of the West may have been unintentionally undermined by their own use of counter examples.

In After Virtue , Alasdair MacIntyre defended the Aristotelian ideal of the intimate, reciprocating local community bound by shared ends, where people simply assume and fulfill socially given roles MacIntyre But this pre-modern Gemeinschaft conception of an all-encompassing community that members unreflectively endorse seemed distinctly ill-suited for complex and conflict-ridden large-scale industrialized societies.

Communitarianism and its critics pdf file

Not surprisingly, few readers were inspired by this example of non-liberal justice not to mention the fact that many contemporary Indian thinkers view the caste system as an unfortunate legacy of the past that Indians should strive hard to overcome.

In short, this use of ill-informed examples may have unintentionally reinforced the view that there are few if any justifiable alternatives to liberalism in modern societies. Communitarians could score some theoretical points by urging liberal thinkers to be cautious about developing universal arguments founded exclusively on the moral argumentation and political experience of Western liberal societies, but few thinkers would really contemplate the possibility of non-liberal practices appropriate for the modern world so long as the alternatives to liberalism consisted of Golden Ages, caste societies, fascism, or actually-existing communism.

For the communitarian critique of liberal universalism to have any lasting credibility, thinkers need to provide compelling counter-examples to modern-day liberal-democratic regimes and s communitarians came up short. By the s, fairly abstract methodological disputes over universalism versus particularism faded from academic prominence, and the debate now centers on the theory and practice of universal human rights.

This is largely due to the increased political salience of human rights since the collapse of communism in the former Soviet bloc. On the liberal side, the new, more political voices for liberal universalism have been represented by the likes of Francis Fukuyama, who famously argued that liberal democracy's triumph over its rivals signifies the end of history Fukuama This view also revived and provoked the second wave communitarian critique of liberal universalism and the debate became much more concrete and political in orientation.


Needless to say, the brief moment of liberal euphoria that followed the collapse of the communism in the Soviet bloc has given way to a sober assessment of the difficulties of implementing liberal practices outside the Western world. It is now widely recognized that brutal ethnic warfare, crippling poverty, environmental degradation, and pervasive corruption, to name some of the more obvious troubles afflicting the developing world, pose serious obstacles to the successful establishment and consolidation of liberal democratic political arrangements.

But these were seen as unfortunate hopefully temporary afflictions that may delay the end of history when liberal democracy has finally triumphed over its rivals. They were not meant to pose a challenge to the ideal of liberal democracy. It was widely assumed that liberal democracy is something that all rational individuals would want if they could get it.

Communitarianism and its critics pdf file

The deeper challenge to Western liberal democracy has emerged from the East Asian region. Asians, they claim, place special emphasis upon family and social harmony, with the implication that those in the chaotic and crumbling societies of the West should think twice about intervening in Asia for the sake of promoting human rights and democracy.

And it looks like Asian values was one casualty of the crisis. The political factors that focused attention on the East Asian challenge remain in place, however. East Asian economies did eventually recover. China in particular looks set to become an economic and political heavyweight with the power to seriously challenge the hegemony of Western liberal democratic values in international fora see Bell Thus, one hears frequent calls for cross-cultural dialogue between the West and the East designed to understand and perhaps learn from the other side.

Failing to take seriously East Asian political perspectives risks widening misunderstandings and setting the stage for hostilities that could have been avoided. From a theoretical point of view, however, it must be conceded that the official debate on Asian values has not provided much of a challenge to dominant Western political outlooks.

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The main problem is that the debate has been led by Asian leaders who seem to be motivated primarily by political considerations, rather than by a sincere desire to make a constructive contribution to the debate on universalism versus particularism.

Thus, it was easy to dismiss—rightly so, in most cases—the Asian challenge as nothing but a self-serving ploy by government leaders to justify their authoritarian rule in the face of increasing demands for democracy at home and abroad. Still, it would be a mistake to assume that nothing of theoretical significance has emerged from East Asia. The debate on Asian values has also prompted critical intellectuals in the region to reflect on how they can locate themselves in a debate on human rights and democracy in which they had not previously played a substantial part.

Neither wholly rejecting nor wholly endorsing the values and practices ordinarily realized through a liberal democratic political regime, these intellectuals are drawing on their own cultural traditions and exploring areas of commonality and difference with the West.

Though often less provocative than the views of their governments in the sense that few argue for the wholesale rejection of Western-style liberal democracy with an East Asian alternative these unofficial East Asian viewpoints may offer more lasting contributions to the debate.

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Let me briefly note three relatively persuasive East Asian arguments for cultural particularism that contrast with traditional Western arguments for liberal universalism see Bell , ch. Cultural factors can affect the prioritizing of rights, and this matters when rights conflict and it must be decided which one to sacrifice. In other words, different societies may rank rights differently, and even if they face a similar set of disagreeable circumstances they may come to different conclusions about the right that needs to be curtailed.

Communitarianism and its Critics

For example, U. In contrast, the Chinese may be more willing to sacrifice a civil or political liberty in cases of conflict with a social or economic right: there may be wide support for restrictions on the right to form independent labor associations if they are necessary to provide the conditions for economic development.

Different priorities assigned to rights can also matter when it must be decided how to spend scarce resources. For example, East Asian societies with a Confucian heritage will place great emphasis upon the value of education, and they may help to explain the large amount of spending on education compared to other societies with similar levels of economic development. Cultural factors can affect the justification of rights.

What is Communitarianism?, Explain Communitarianism, Define Communitarianism

Rather, they should be made from the inside, from specific examples and argumentative strategies that East Asians themselves use in everyday moral and political debate. For example, the moral language shared even by some local critics of authoritarianism tends to appeal to the value of community in East Asia, and this is relevant for social critics concerned with practical effect.

One such communitarian argument is that democratic rights in Singapore can be justified on the grounds that they contribute to strengthening ties to such communities as the family and the nation see below, section III.

Cultural factors can provide moral foundations for distinctive political practices and institutions or at least different from those found in Western-style liberal democracies.

In East Asian societies influenced by Confucianism, for example, it is widely held that children have a profound duty to care for elderly parents, a duty to be forsaken only in the most exceptional circumstances.

Political debate tends to center on the question of whether the right to filial piety is best realized by means of a law that makes it mandatory for children to provide financial support for elderly parents as in mainland China, Japan, and Singapore or whether the state should rely more on indirect methods such as tax breaks and housing benefits that simply make at-home care for the elderly easier, as in Korea and Hong Kong.

But the argument that there is a pressing need to secure this duty in East Asia is not a matter of political controversy. Thinkers influenced by East Asian cultural traditions such Confucianism have also argued for distinctive as-yet-unrealized political practices and institutions that draw on widely-held cultural values for inspiration.

Communitarianism and Its Critics

Korean scholars Hahm Chaihark and Jongryn Mo argue for the need to revive and adapt for the contemporary era such Choson dynasty institutions as policy lectures and the Confucian censorate, traditional institutions that played the role of monitoring the dealings of the Emperor Hahm , Mo , Bell , ch. In contrast to s communitarian thinkers, East Asian critics of liberal universalism have succeeded in pointing to particular non-liberal practices and institutions that may be appropriate for the contemporary world.

Some of these may be appropriate only for societies with a Confucian heritage, others may also offer insights for mitigating the excesses of liberal modernity in the West. What cannot be denied is that they have carried forward the debate beyond the implausible alternatives to liberalism offered by s communitarian thinkers. It is worth emphasizing, however, that contemporary communitarians have not been merely defending parochial attachments to particular non-liberal moralities.

Far from arguing that the universalist discourse on human rights should be entirely displaced with particular, tradition-sensitive political language, they have criticized liberals for not taking universality seriously enough, for failing to do what must be done to make human rights a truly universal ideal.

In fact, there is little debate over the desirability of a core set of human rights, such as prohibitions against slavery, genocide, murder, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, and systematic racial discrimination. These rights have become part of international customary law, and they are not contested in the public rhetoric of the international arena.

Of course many gross violations occur off the record, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have the task of exposing the gap between public allegiance to rights and the sad reality of ongoing abuse. This is largely practical work, however. There is not much point writing about or deliberating about the desirability of practices that everyone condemns at the level of principle.

This gray area of debate includes criminal law, family law, women's rights, social and economic rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the attempt to universalize Western-style democratic practices. The question is: how can the current thin list of universal human rights be expanded to include some of these contested rights?

Charles Taylor has put forward the following proposal Taylor He imagines a cross-cultural dialogue between representatives of different traditions. Rather than argue for the universal validity of their views, however, he suggests that participants should allow for the possibility that their own beliefs may be mistaken. There will come a point, however, when differences cannot be reconciled.

Taylor explicitly recognizes that different groups, countries, religious communities, and civilizations hold incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, and human nature.

While Taylor's proposal moves the debate on universal human rights forward, it still faces certain difficulties. For one thing, it may not be realistic to expect that people will be willing to abstract from the values they care deeply about during the course of a global dialogue on human rights.

Even if people agree to abstract from culturally specific ways of justifying and implementing norms, the likely outcome is a withdrawal to a highly general, abstract realm of agreement that fails to resolve actual disputes over contested rights. For example, participants in a cross-cultural dialogue can agree on the right not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment while radically disagreeing upon what this means in practice—a committed Muslim can argue that theft can justifiably be punished by amputation of the right hand, [ 8 ] whereas a Western liberal will want to label this an example of cruel and unusual punishment.

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As we have seen, the debate on universalism versus particularism has moved from fairly abstract methodological disputes between Anglo-American philosophers to relatively concrete international political disputes between philosophers, social scientists, government officials, and NGO activists. The distinctive communitarian contribution has been to cast doubt on universal theories grounded exclusively in the liberal moralities of the Western world, on the grounds that cultural particularity should both make one sensitive to the possibility of justifiable areas of difference between the West and the rest and to the need for more cross-cultural dialogue for the purpose of improving the current thin human rights regime.

Various contributions from East Asia and elsewhere have given some meat to these challenges to liberal universalism. In any case, let us now turn to the second main area of controversy between liberals and communitarians—the debate over the self that has similarly moved from philosophy to politics. Communitarian thinkers in the s such as Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor argued that Rawlsian liberalism rests on an overly individualistic conception of the self.

Whereas Rawls argues that we have a supreme interest in shaping, pursuing, and revising our own life-plans, he neglects the fact that our selves tend to be defined or constituted by various communal attachments e. This insight led to the view that politics should not be concerned solely with securing the conditions for individuals to exercise their powers of autonomous choice, as we also need to sustain and promote the social attachments crucial to our sense of well-being and respect, many of which have been involuntarily picked up during the course of our upbringing.

First, however, let us review the ontological or metaphysical debate over the self that led to this political conclusion.

Communitarianism and its critics pdf file

Moreover, this atomistic view of the self can undermine liberal society, because it fails to grasp the extent to which liberalism presumes a context where individuals are members of, and committed to, a society that promotes particular values such as freedom and individual diversity.

Fortunately, most people in liberal societies do not really view themselves as atomistic selves. But do liberal thinkers actually defend the idea that the self is created ex-nihilo , outside of any social context and that humans can exist and flourish independently of all social contexts? In fact, Taylor's essay was directed at the libertarian thinker Robert Nozick.