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Liberalism Versus Community?

The Essential Communitarian Reader, edited by Amitai Etzioni, is a disappointing book. It is not clearly focused. It reads at times more like the platform of a political party than a set of serious essays designed to challenge the dominant Western political paradigm of the last few centuries. Most of its essays do not come close to addressing the fundamental issues that divide classical liberals and communitarians. I will later comment on some of the more thoughtful essays in this volume, but first I would like to make clear just what is at stake in the current liberal—communitarian debate.

Communitarianism is a collection of views from diverse sources that claim to challenge in various ways the central tenet of the liberal political vision. Though the liberal vision is complex and has evolved (or, as in the case of the United States, devolved) over the last century, its fundamental tenet is that liberty should be the central and primary concern of the political order. Communitarianism opposes this liberal tenet. Communitarianism thus derives its general meaning and force from its opposition to liberalism.

What has provided communitar-ianism with its particular meaning and force and has made it interesting in the last few years, however, has been its argumentative strategy. Communitar-ianism has included under its banner the following truths: that human beings are naturally social; that ethical relativism is an inadequate moral theory; that liberty cannot be defined or understood without an ethical commitment; that any theory of rights capable of motivating human conduct must ultimately be based on a conception of the human good; and that rights are not ethically fundamental. Communitarianism has, then, sought to show that liberalism is neither philosophically justifiable nor socially and culturally viable because it is incompatible with these truths. It has argued that because liberalism’s fundamental tenet requires rejecting these truths, this tenet is false. In other words, the argumentative strategy of the communitarians has been what logicians call “modus tollens.” If p, then q; not-q; therefore not-p. If one is to hold that liberty should be the central and primary concern of the political order, then these truths must be denied. Yet these truths cannot be denied. Therefore, it is not true that liberty should be the central and primary concern of the political order.

The first premise of the commu-nitarian argument is not true, however. Liberalism does not require denying these truths. Though there have been liberal theorists who have denied these truths, it is not the case that these truths must be rejected in order to maintain liberalism’s fundamental tenet. There are many liberal theorists, myself included, who accept every one of these truths. Indeed, these truths can even be used in making the case for the political centrality and primacy of liberty. The strategy of communitarianism, therefore, does not succeed.

Further, there is a fundamental confusion that reigns in the current debate between liberals and communitarians. This confusion lies behind the communitarian argumentative strategy and pertains to how liberalism is conceived. Is liberalism a normative theory or a metanormative theory? In other words, is liberalism a theory of ethics that tells us what is inherently good and how we ought to conduct ourselves? Or, is it a political theory whose aim is the creation and maintenance of the political condition under which people might choose ennobling lives?

Liberalism’s Problem

In the current debate between liberals and communitarians, these questions are not asked. Liberalism is viewed as both a normative and metanormative theory. Indeed, for some, liberalism is even considered an overarching philosophy. This confusion results both from contemporary liberals forgetting that liberalism is a political theory whose aim is not the same as that of ethics and also from communitarians (and conservatives) assuming that political theory is simply ethics writ large. This confusion reduces contemporary political discourse to a debate between left-wing versus right-wing social engineers. It is political discourse that is contrary to the essential core of liberalism.

If the liberal—communitarian debate is to go anywhere, one must first realize that the aim of politics and the aim of ethics are not identical and that liberalism is a metanormative theory. Second, one must realize that the metanorm-ativity of liberalism can only be understood in light of a particular problem. This problem is important and difficult, and I shall call it “liberalism’s problem.”

This problem results from trying to reconcile two necessary features of the human good–namely, individuality and natural sociality. Liberalism’s problem may be expressed as follows: How do we allow for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways (in different communities and cultures) without creating moral conflict? How do we find a political/legal context that will in principle not require that the human flourishing of any person or group to be sacrificed to others?

This is a crucial problem, and it is one that the Ancients and Medievals did not adequately address. But it is the problem that liberalism addresses, and it is in terms of this problem that liberalism is to be understood. Indeed, liberalism’s success or failure is to be judged in light of the solution it offers to this problem, not any other.

Liberalism is therefore limited. It does not try to answer all the important questions of life. It is certainly not a normative theory. It does not seek to make people virtuous or fulfilled. It is, then, a mistake to judge a liberal regime by whether it creates virtuous citizens.

Instead, liberalism attempts to provide the political/legal backdrop against which people might have the possibility to pursue their unique forms of the good life in a manner that is consistent with their need to be open to relationships with any person. Liberalism does not assume that natural sociality precludes one from having relationships with those not from one’s community.

Accordingly, the concept of the rights to liberty and property, which many classical liberals used to determine the justification for and scope of governmental action, should also not be viewed as a principle by which people learn how to be good or do their duty. The concept of rights is not meant to replace other moral concepts such as goodness or duty. Rather, the concept is a metanormative principle and thus is to be judged by whether it can provide a solution to liberalism’s problem.

Laws and Morals

Hence, the function of rights is conceptually distinct from the function of other ethical concepts, and the two should not be confused. Commun-itarians (and many conservatives) fall afoul of this distinction because they forget what Thomas Aquinas taught about the nature of abstraction–namely, that to consider something abstractly is not necessarily to falsify. Just because we can think of the form and function of one type of ethical concept without thinking of the form and function of other types of ethical concepts does not show that these other types of ethical concepts do not exist. That is to say, just because we can think of rights without thinking of other ethical concepts does not show that there are no other ethical concepts besides rights that human beings need.

Indeed, all of the communitarian complaints about liberalism’s failure to generate moral concepts sufficient to guide human life are simply beside the point. They assume without argument that the aim of government is to create virtuous citizenry. Yet to say that x-ing is morally right or good and ought to be done does not, in and of itself, imply that x-ing ought to be legally required. Nor does saying that x-ing is morally wrong or bad and ought not to be done, in and of itself, imply that x-ing ought to be legally prohibited. As Aquinas distinguished, there are demands of justice that are morally binding, and there are demands of justice that are morally and legally binding. Something being right or wrong does not, by itself, carry any implications about what should be a concern of the political/legal order.

One needs to consider what it is that makes something a political/legal concern. It takes more than knowing that something is morally good or bad. The issue of universality must be addressed because human sociality is not limited to any select group; and the issue of individuality must be addressed, too, because the human good is not some Platonic Form. Yet to do this is but to consider liberalism’s problem. Once we see the realities that give rise to this problem, then it is communitarianism that is an instance of a conception that divorces rather than distinguishes.

Communitarians do, of course, both reject the liberal attempt to distinguish politics from ethics and accuse liberalism of trying to separate the two. We find this argumentative strategy in Phillip Selznick’s essay, “Foundations of Communitarian Liberalism.” He observes that “politics and government cannot be divorced from fundamental values.” Indeed, this is right. Political principles cannot be divorced from ethical principles; there must be a connection. That is not to say that they are identical or exist in an isomorphic relation. In fact, there can be an ethical basis for why there needs to be political principles concerned with peace and order, as defined by the rights to liberty and property, without thereby making the human good or fulfillment of moral obligations the aim of government.

The Destruction of the Moral Life

Selznick further argues that it is the common good of the political community that connects politics to ethics, but then he argues that this common good cannot be procedural or understood in terms of a framework of laws grounded on basic rights. This would be what he calls “a meager common good.” Rather, something more substantive is required, and that is determined by “abandoning our special interests and perspectives.”

Yet the whole point of ethics, at least as Aristotle saw it, is to allow us to see how the human good is manifested in the particularities of our own lives and to act accordingly. The human good is in reality neither abstract nor universal, and each of us needs to be practically wise in fashioning this good into its singly proper form. Indeed, the virtuous life demands that we not ignore what is uniquely our moral integrity nor sacrifice it for something else. For example, we should not try to transcend our special interests in our family or friends for the sake of “humanity.” We can and should have an interest in others, but this pull must be based in something concrete, not abstract and universal.

Ultimately, what Selznick calls for is the democratization of the moral life. However, this is nothing more than its very destruction, and it illustrates well the confusion of normativity with metanormativity. Further, it represents a failure to see the reality of liberalism’s problem, because it blithely assumes that the pluralistic character of the human good is something that not only can but ought to be ignored.

Thomas A. Spragens, Jr.’s essay, “The Limitations of Libertarianism,” continues the argumentative strategy noted above. He argues, among other things, that political liberty requires some connection with morality. It cannot be defined as simply doing as one pleases (or as merely the lack of external impediment) and still remain a meaningful political ideal. This is of course true, but it does not follow from this that liberalism is false or that liberty is thereby to be understood as simply “when we are governed by laws of our own making.” This understanding only returns us to where we started, for what is (are) the principle(s) to be employed in the creation of a political/legal order? The liberal answer is, of course, liberty, but liberty understood in terms of what would solve liberalism’s problem.

It is sometimes said that liberty is “liberty to do as we ought to do,” and this is most generally understood as a nonliberal view. However, if we keep liberalism’s problem in mind and understand “ought” in terms of what would solve this difficulty, then the “ought” in the above statement can be interpreted as directed toward what a polity’s legal system ought to protect and sanction, not how individuals should conduct their lives. Basic rights would then define what liberty is, and liberty would be achieved through the creation of political/legal order based on rights. Understood in this way, law and liberty are fundamentally interdependent. There is no inherent opposition.

The central issue that faces liberalism is whether the rights to liberty and property do provide a solution to liberalism’s problem. Or, less idealistically, do these rights come closer than any other set of principles to solving this problem? These rights provide guidance in the creation of a political context for social life in which anyone and everyone might have the possibility of choosing for themselves how they should live their lives. What these rights seek to protect, then, is not the human flourishing of every person but only its possible pursuit by individuals in a social context. More precisely, these rights only protect the possibility of self-direction by requiring the political order to legally prohibit and punish the nonconsensual use by persons and groups of the lives and resources of others. It should be realized that these rights do not even guarantee that people would choose, let alone choose as they should, but they do nonetheless provide a link between–though not an identification of–politics and ethics. They do offer the hope of solving liberalism’s problem.

There are a few other essays of note in this volume. Bell’s, Taylor’s, and Glendon’s have insights, but none of these really gets to the basic issues that divide liberals and communitarians. The central problem with the essays in this volume is that they assume that economists represent liberal theory almost entirely. The philosophical literature on behalf of liberty and liberalism of the last twenty years is barely touched. The complexities and ambiguities of liberalism do indeed need to be explored, especially if the communitarian challenge is to be appreciated, but this volume does not do that.