Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…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’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

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~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016


Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine.

The Value of a Liberal Education, and Two Risks of an Ideologically Narrow One

I grew up in a large, pretty close-knit extended family. There was a lot of dysfunction, as with many families, but a lot of love too. While I was often frustrated by the choices of some relatives (such as the tendency to enable bad behavior by sheltering the ‘sinner’ from consequences, or pretending it wasn’t happening), I was also secure in the knowledge that I belonged to a large, loving circle of people who would never abandon each other.

We were also a very insular family. We mostly hung out with each other and a few close family friends, pretty much all from church and pretty much all holding similar beliefs. Many of us kids, especially the older ones, had little contact with people outside of family and church. Many of us were (and some still are) home-schooled with a very conservative, fundamentalist Catholic curriculum, and many others attended all or mostly religious schools.

Given the state of much of the public school system, at least in the working class neighborhoods where many of us grew up, a part of me sympathizes with this choice. American public schools often leave much to be desired, to say the least. Since we have such a rotten system in America of funding public schools, with funding determined by the local tax base, we create a classist school system where the kids who need the most help don’t get the funding. So much for the non-aristocratic, egalitarian, freedom-of-opportunity ideal of America! But I digress…

But it seemed that the choice to limit our schooling to a strict Catholicism-centric education was usually based less on the concern with education quality as on a concern with raising children to replicate their parent’s beliefs and lifestyles. This makes sense in a certain way: parents want what’s best for their children, and people generally believe their own beliefs are the best, so, it’s logical parents want their children to believe and live as the parents see fit.

But here’s the way in which that doesn’t make sense: children are not replicants of their parents. They have their own thoughts, their own personalities, and their own sets of experiences. The world is full of different beliefs systems and lifestyles, often incompatible with those of the parents, that fulfill people, that suit them and make them happy. Every child, however they were raised, will inevitably confront that fact, and in today’s world of rapid, comprehensive access to data from all over the world, it will not take long.

Many parents recognize these facts, and are comfortable raising their children in a cosmopolitan fashion.

They want to equip their children with all the information they might require to navigate the world successfully in any community they may end up being a part of. To this end, they want children to truly understand not only their own beliefs, but the beliefs of others. While these parents may explain to their children why they think their own beliefs are better, they know that understanding the alternatives strengthens their capacity for critical thought. These patents also understand that their children should be comfortable interacting with people who believe and behave differently than they do, and familiarity with other faiths and cultures is the best way to accomplish this. Last but not least, these parents have the epistemic humility to admit that there’s a possibility that they are wrong, and they want to afford their children the opportunity to discover for themselves if that’s the case.

Such wise parents would agree, as I do, with Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who promotes the idea that a study of world religions should be a basic part of childhood education. Since religion is so central to both private and public life for most inhabitants of the world, he argues, children require this information to be wise and informed citizens. I think the same applies to science, politics, history, literature, and other disciplines relating to how people go about sharing, navigating, and understanding this world together.

For those parents who insist on providing an ideologically narrow education for their children, I’d ask them to consider this questions: when children grow up and confront different beliefs, customs, and lifestyles for the first time, as they inevitably will, what happens? What happens, for example, to the child of Biblical fundamentalists who finds out that almost all scientists, besides the half-dozen quoted in their textbooks, believe the Earth is billions of years old? Or that prayer doesn’t, statistically, prove to be effective in healing people? Or that people of other belief systems often live as harmonious, happy, fulfilled, ‘blessed’ lives as they do? Or even better? What happens to the barely educated woman, married off in her early teens and taught to be submissive to her husband, when she discovers that other women have the opportunity enjoy a rich intellectual life, a successful career, or a partnership with a spouse that respects her as an independent person?
For some children educated in this narrow way, whether their parents’ intentions were benign or otherwise, they will mostly reject alternative beliefs and ideas they come across out of hand. (‘That can’t be true, Dad would never lie to me.’ ‘I feel deep in my heart I know the truth, so I don’t need to question it.’ ‘Those poor Buddhists, they didn’t learn about Jesus. When they do, then they’ll truly be happy.’ ‘That’s the Devil talking, better not listen or I’ll be tortured in hell.’ ‘Liberals don’t believe in anything, but I do, so they must not have anything of value to say.’ ‘Environmentalists should just trust God instead of the government to protect the earth.’) They will grow up to more or less replicate the lives of their parents, happy in the security of knowing that they know the truth, what life’s really all about.
Others (I think very much a minority, but some) will thoroughly question the beliefs they were raised with in light of new ideas they’ve confronted, and in the end retain their parents’ beliefs because, to them, those beliefs ‘held up’ to the scrutiny. They might make some modifications here and there, but overall, stay convinced. These few are among the happiest of people, even happier than the unquestioning believers, I think, because they enjoy not only a sense of security in their beliefs, but intellectual satisfaction.

Still others will end up with a smorgasbord of beliefs, considering some sacred and unquestionable, discarding others, and adopting new ones. (Conservative Catholics derisively call others ‘cafeteria Catholics’ for engaging in this sort of picking and choosing.)

Many more will engage in ‘doublethink’, holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. To take another example from the religion of my childhood, one might believe that it’s ‘spiritually true’ that the body and blood of Jesus is present in the eucharistic wafer, but also believe it’s scientifically impossible for a thing to have all the qualities of bread while simultaneously being composed of human tissue. (The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, how pervasive it is and the ways we deal with it, is discussed thoroughly and fascinatingly in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me. I highly, highly recommend it.)

But there are two big risks for the hopeful yet, I think, misguided parents who seeks to shelter their children from knowledge that could contradict their own cherished beliefs. And I think parents would do well to consider these risks carefully before embarking on this project of transforming education into something more akin to indoctrination.
Risk #1: Your children might grow up to challenge you on your perceived deception. They will ask: What did you have to hide? Why did you feel you had to shelter me from thinking through these matters in an informed way? If what you taught me was really, evidently true, than why did you go to such lengths to keep me from learning about opposing ideas? And why would you undermine my ability to defend the beliefs you wanted to pass on, by keeping me ignorant of the challenges to those beliefs?
I went through that process myself, resenting my education which as narrow and limited until I took it into my own hands and chose a public college rather then the very conservative one my family would choose for me. Initially, I questioned the motives of my family, and was very angry that I was years behind in many subjects, especially science and history. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it was their tactics, not their motivations, that were at fault. But the damage had been done.

Risk #2: But by fair the largest danger is raising children with the potential to be bigots, even violent ones. While most children brought up to strictly conform to the beliefs of their parents will not turn out that way, of course, too many do. Consider this: what inspires oppression, warfare, and terrorists attacks? They come from the ideologically ‘pure’, from those who think it’s their job to make sure the world conforms to their ideology, from religious dogmatism to racial ideology to political utopianism. And the more isolated people are in their minds from the ideas and beliefs of others, the more sure, the more committed they are, that they are right, so everyone else must be wrong. And if others are wrong, if they are different, they are the enemy.

Since people are rarely convinced to convert to a whole new set of beliefs overnight, the ideologue often resorts to violence as a means of forcibly imposing those beliefs. Ironically, violence, though a popular tool
throughout history for trying to impose change, it’s the least effective, as psychologist Steven Pinker and other researchers reveal. To this day, religiously and politically motivated terror attacks and assassinations continue to make headlines.

Yet despite this, things on that front are getting better all the time. I recently heard Pete Seeger say, pertaining to the environment, that the world will be saved by people working in their communities. I think the world will also be saved by children who grow up in this new era where information about the world is not so easily hidden from them. Despite some parent’s best efforts, children can no longer so easily be sheltered in little bubbles of idealized ignorance, sentimentally dubbed ‘innocence’. Since information flows so freely, children now grow up exposed to media that brings others’ experiences so vividly to life, and are now more comfortable in the presence of people who look and think differently then they do. Familiarity with ‘others’ humanizes them, and communities will come to be determined mostly by shared interests, not by geographic location or ideological isolationism.

So parents, teach your children not only how to be good people, but to be informed citizens of the world. It will be a safer and more wondrous place for them and their progeny, and I bet they’ll thank you for it.

Is the Market Really The Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?

When it comes to just compensation for labor, people disagree on how wages should be determined.

Some say that wages should be allocated according to the value of the work itself, and that this value is based on how beneficial the work is to society. For example, a nurse or a doctor saving lives should be paid much more than a financial speculator or a star athlete. In that sense, pay rates in the US and indeed, almost everywhere, are often grossly unjust.

Others say that people who work the hardest deserve the most pay. This is perhaps an even more popular view here the the US, where a strong work ethic is a traditional, highly prized virtue. Yet it’s easy to find countless examples of people who work equally hard yet earn vastly different salaries (a day laborer versus a high-powered attorney, for example), so even on this view, too many people’s wages are unjust.

And many others say that the market is the fairest mechanism. This is an especially popular view in the liberty-loving US. After after all, it’s people’s free choices that determine prices, since a price is simply how much people are willing to pay for a thing; and where the prices are high, the wages for its creators are high too. So, for example, if lots of people decide to pay high ticket prices to see a live sports event, then people are voting with their dollars and therefore, it’s democratic and fair that star athletes earn sky-high wages. And if people are only willing to pay a little money for a cheaply made product, well, then it’s fair that people who make it should earn less, at least per unit made. An unfettered market, then, is the most democratic, fair way to determine wages.

For the most part, I think that people tend to hold some kind of combination of these views, even as they lean a little more towards one, and they will consider each job and the justness of the wages it pays on a case-by-case basis. And there are related considerations as well, such as whether the job indirectly creates
societal benefits, whether it’s innovative, whether it’s aesthetically valuable, and so on.

But I’d like to challenge one of these views because it’s based on a false assumption. Can you guess what it is, before you scroll down?………………………………………………………..

………………………………… If you think it’s the assumption that since wages are based on prices, and prices are based on free choices, therefore the market is a democratic way to allocate wages, you’re right. So now why do you think I think this assumption is false?………………………………………………………..

………………………………… So here’s why I think it’s false. I don’t think prices actually reflect people’s democratic choice regarding what people should be paid for their work; prices reflect what people are willing to pay for a particular good or service, and that’s it. When people pay a certain price for a sports game ticket, for example, they’re just indicating how much they’re willing to pay to see the game itself. It’s anybody’s guess what they would vote to pay an athlete if they could write the figure on a piece of paper and slip it in a ballot box. Same goes for a grocery shopper voting on the pay of crop pickers. Do you really think that, just because a person happily pays only $.80 a pound for oranges on special, that they think the people who picked those crops should make very little money? I’m willing to bet that just about anyone, when they think about how hard the labor of the average crop picker is, how invaluable their labor is for sustaining life, and how much a living wage is, just about anyone would write down at least that figure on the slip of paper. In fact, I bet they’d vote for quite a comfortable salary. And I bet they’d lower the wage for most athletes substantially, especially if that meant the money saved there could go to someone doing a more ‘important’ or ‘worthy’ job, whatever we think that is.

I’m not sure myself exactly how we should determine wages, I’m sure I’m like most people and think there should be some sort of multifaceted approach. When I think of a more ideal world, I’d like to see wages have more to do with social utility when it comes to providing necessary goods and services (food production, the medical field, infrastructure), education, law enforcement, public arts, and so on. The market could have more to do with determining wages and prices for ordinary luxury goods and entertainment, within limits, of course.

Anyway, when we debate  wages and wealth distribution, don’t let’s kid ourselves that wages are set by a process that’s at all democratic. If that were the case, ultra wealthy financiers and many CEOs wouldn’t enjoy such vast wages even though they enjoy abysmal approval ratings, and it wouldn’t be so hard to get the minimum wage raised even though most Americans poll in favor of it.

Now in fact, most wages, most of the time, are actually based on how hard it is to replace the worker, more than on any other consideration. Crop pickers, though they do valuable work to society, are easy to replace; brain surgeons are not. So in this way, we see that the market does set the wages, but we also see there’s nothing choice-driven, nothing democratic about it. It all has to do with what it takes to do the job: brute facts abut the world. Some tasks are, by nature, complicated and take incredible skill and learning to perform. Others do not. All, however, are necessary, and all suit people of different personalities and capabilities. So given that this is how wages end up being what they are, do we think that this is how wages should be set?

What do you think?


Inspiration for this little essay is drawn most immediately from ‘Should a Banker Be Paid More Than a Nurse?’, episode 3, from Michael Sandel’s ‘The Public Philosopher’ discussion and debate series, though it’s also based on many other things I’ve read, such as Joseph Heath’s Economics Without Illusions, talks I’ve heard, and many other discussions I’ve engaged in