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.

Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

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

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016

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Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/episode/incarceration-nation/

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. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-family/parallel-worlds/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel.html

2 thoughts on “Communitarianism, Writ Large

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, John Rawls! | Ordinary Philosophy

  2. Pingback: New Podcast Episode: Communitarianism, Writ Large | Ordinary Philosophy

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