Monday, 21 March 2011

CASE 238 - Communitarianism

Communitarianism as a philosophy began in the late 20th century, opposing aspects of liberalism and capitalism while advocating phenomena such as civil society. Not necessarily hostile to liberalism in the contemporary American sense of the word, communitarianism rather has a different emphasis, shifting the focus of interest toward communities and societies and away from the individual. Communitarians believe that the value of community is not sufficiently recognized in liberal theories of justice. The question of priority (individual or community) often has the largest impact in the most pressing ethical questions: health care, abortion, multiculturalism, hate speech, and so on. The term is primarily used in two senses:

1) Philosophical Communitarianism considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals.

2) Ideological Communitarianism is an ideology that emphasises the rights of the majority to make decisions affecting the minority. Generally marked by leftism on economic issues and conservatism on social issues, it is the direct opposite of libertarianism.

A possible third use is the term Responsive Communitarianism as practiced by Amitai Etzioni of the Israeli kibbutz movement, which sometimes positions itself as the radical middle between traditional Right and Left by simultaneously affirming communal rights and individual responsibilities.

Though the term communitarianism is of 20th-century origin, many communitarians trace their philosophy to earlier thinkers, with some claiming roots as far back as Aristotle.

Philosophical Communitarianism

Communitarian philosophers are primarily concerned with ontological and epistemological issues, which must be separated from policy issues. The communitarian response to A Theory of Justice reflects a dissatisfaction with the image Rawls presents of humans as atomistic individuals. Although Rawls allows some space for benevolence, for example, he views it merely as one of many values that exist within a single person's head.

Communitarians claim values and beliefs to exist in public space, in which debate takes place. They ague that to become an individual is to take a stance on the issues that circulate in the public space. For example, within the American debate on gun control, there are a number of stances to be taken, but all of these stances are parasitic upon the existence of a gun-control debate in the first place; this is the sense in which the community (at least the linguistic community -- see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) predates individualism. This does not of course mean that we should each always give into the majority, it is merely a point about how language and self-definition operate. In contrast to the liberal constellation of philosophers (Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hume, Rawls and the analytic trend generally), communitarians tend to draw on a set of philosophers that undermines these traditions, for example, Kant (as a hinge figure), Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty: a mix of analytic and continental philosphers, with the analytics tending toward natural language philosophy.

On the American political spectrum, communitarians of the first sort tend to be far to the left on social and economic issues. They reject liberalism, which they see as being too conservative, as well as Marxism, which they believe makes some of the same [[Individualism|individualistic] assumptions as liberalism. Issues of specific interest are the responsibilities that complement rights and the active creation of norms in everyday life

Communitarians and liberals have no persistent differences on matters of democracy, although communitarians are less likely to view democracy as an institution set up to achieve individual desires through collective means. Where the two differ on policy issues, communitarians tend to be further to the left than classical liberals (although this is less true of liberals in the contemporary U.S. sense of the word). For example, whereas liberalism traditionally sees issues such as crime and homelessness as individual problems, communitarians view them as social issues and back welfare programs and prison reform. Also, whereas liberals from Kant to even Rawls show a tendency to rank "primitive" and more advanced societies, communitarians see this as a form of cultural imperialism and urge a better understanding of other life practices. This is not the same as cultural relativism; it is the belief that any universal moral principles must have the support of all peoples.

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