Carlos and Libby Debate Liberalism and Communitarianism

based on Chapter 6 in Will Kymlicka
Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction

by Dr. Garrett

Last revised date: November 27, 2006


Today our guests on "What Is To Be Done?" are two outspoken advocates for divergent political philosophies. Libby, well known for her advocacy of the liberal perspective and especially the philosophy of John Rawls, has agreed to join us again. You will remember her conversations on this show with Randy the campus libertarian. Today she faces off not with Randy but with Carlos, who defends the communitarian perspective. Tell me, Carlos, isn't communitarianism a rather novel perspective?


Actually, communitarianism in one form or another has been around at least since the ancient Greeks. We communitarians see Aristotle as our intellectual ancestor. There were communitarian elements in the political views of the Middle Ages too. In the nineteenth century the German post-Kantian philosopher G. W. F. Hegel picks up the communitarian banner. But communitarianism has experienced a revival in recent years, in response to the dominance in political theory of liberal views like those of Rawls and Nozick.


Isn't Nozick usually characterized as a libertarian rather than a liberal?


His emphasis on individual rights is a throwback to the classical liberalism of writers like John Locke.


Locke's political thought was a part of the Enlightenment breakaway from the perspectives that had dominated the middle ages. But tell me, Carlos, how do today's communitarians differ from, say, Thomas Aquinas?


While we believe that shared community values sometimes should trump the individual rights that liberals insist all human beings have, we do not tie the communitarian position in general to a particular theological perspective. While some communitarians may be Catholics, we do not draw from this connection the conclusion that Catholicism should dominate in every community.


Well, all right, tell me what you find wrong with liberalism?


We have a problem with the way liberals like Rawls privilege the virtue of Justice. Actually justice is a "remedial virtue," needed only where noble virtues like benevolence are absent. In a society organized on communitarian lines, such virtues would be cultivated by all the institutions. Justice would have very little role.

A second problem we have with liberalism is its ahistorical nature, its detachment from real communities that have developed in history. Liberals wrongly understand justice as a quasi-eternal criterion, conjured up in the abstract and applied externally to critically evaluate the ways of life of every society. (K 210-11)

A third problem we find in liberalism is its "individualism." Liberalism places most of its emphasis on the rights of individuals and individual autonomy. Liberalism fails to do justice to the social nature of human beings. (Aristotle said "political" but he meant social.) (K 212)

Liberals stress the human capacity for self-determination, but they misunderstand its nature. They neglect the social conditions under which that capacity can be meaningfully used. (K 212)

We take issue with the commitment that liberals make to state neutrality with respect to different conceptions of the good. Many of us communitarians think the state has a proper role in the "shaping" of people's ends. It should not merely devote itself to providing them with a so-called "fair share" of what Rawls calls primary goods. (K 217-219)


By what criterion would the state decide what ends it should promote, what values it should inculcate into people's conceptions of the good.


In a good society, the common good provides a standard by which people's preferences can be evaluated. (K 220)


Why do you say that liberals misunderstand self-determination?


Liberals like Rawls are wrong to say that the self is prior to the ends affirmed by it. The self is always embedded or situated in existing social practices. (K 221)

We can acquire projects only if we regard community values as "authoritative horizons" that "set goals for us." (Taylor in K 223-24)

Self is constituted by its ends; we can reinterpret them but not reject them (Sandel, cited in K 224-25)


This does not seem right to me.


That's partly because of your inadequate conception of practical reasoning. Practical reasoning is essentially discovery of who we already really are; the shared pursuit of a communal goal is possible because of self-discovery by the participants. (Sandel, in K 225-26)


Anything else?


Liberals wrongly hold that freedom to choose our projects is inherently valuable. (Charles Taylor, cited in K 222)


I think this is a misunderstanding on the part of communitarians, as are several other charges raised by Carlos.


In a moment, Libby, you'll get to respond. Anything else for now, Carlos?


A final challenge is this. Liberals like Rawls are committed to state neutrality because, they say, without it there is no real possibility for self-determination. But a neutral state cannot adequately protect the social environment needed for self-determination. Limitations on individual self-determination are required to preserve the social environment that promotes the capacity for self-determination. (Taylor, in K 245)

* * * *

Moderator: OK, Libby, would you care to respond?

L: I would love to. To begin with, Carlos says that justice is a remedial virtue, which we would not need if the noble virtues like benevolence hadn't eroded. My response to that is: not so, justice is needed so that there may be benevolence or generosity. If people are not secure in what they have to share, e.g., personal property rights, they could not voluntarily give up what is theirs in an act of benevolence. Justice also serves to guarantee that loving relationships are not corrupted by domination, as has often happened with spouses.

M. The co-dependent spouse?

L. That's what I was thinking of, yes.

M. What of the charge that liberalism appeals to an ahistorical standard?

L. What Carlos seems to mean is that liberalism does not derive the validity of its standards from the factually existing values of particular communities. But to do this would be to endorse ethical relativism (some authors call it cultural relativism), according to which the shared values of a community are the ultimate standards of right and wrong. But cultural relativism violates one of our deepest shared understandings: we should disapprove of slavery because it is wrong, not decide it is wrong because we disapprove of it.

M. Justice as critic, not as mirror?

L. Exactly.

M. You said that Carlos misunderstood liberalism when he accused it of valuing freedom as an end? Please explain.

L. For liberals, freedom is valuable as an indispensable means for the pursuit of the good, however one conceives it. As some liberals put it, what is inherently valuable for each of us are our self-chosen projects and tasks.

M. The real difference between you and Carlos has something to do with self-determination, I think. Explain your view of self-determination.

L. We liberals hold that every competent adult must be provided with a sphere of self-determination or autonomy that is respected by others. Justice requires that respect. Within the sphere of self-determination, individuals are free to pursue their own conception of the good. Just as importantly, they are free to inquire into alternate conceptions of the good, formulate their own, critically evaluate and revise their own conception of the good.

M. When liberals say that the self is prior to its ends, what do they mean?

L. The point is simply that we can always step back from any particular project and ask whether we wish to go on pursuing it. Whatever set of ends a person has at a given point in time, she is able to revise it. We do not deny that the initial values that a child has probably derives from the community in which she is originally brought up.

M. So there is no such thing as a self without any ends at all?

L. We cannot lack ends but we can replace the ones we have now with others. No goal we may have currently is exempt from examination and revision.

M. If we do not judge that it shouldn't be reexamined?

L. Yes, I accept that qualification. People can consciously choose not to reexamine their conception of what's worth pursuing.

M. Then the communitarians are wrong to describe practical reason as discovery of "who we really are"?

L. Exactly. Practical reason involves judging what sort of person we wish to become, not discovery of who we really already are.

M. Why do liberals defend state neutrality?

L. State neutrality is simply the rejection of state perfectionism, according to which the state should provide resources only to, or chiefly to, those who pursue a narrow list of approved conceptions of the good.

M. Surely liberalism is not morally neutral about everything?

L. Not on issues such as the intrinsic moral worth of individuals, not on racial and gender equality, and equality of opportunities, liberties and responsibilities. Liberals hold that people have an equal basic right to primary goods or all-purpose means, which they may use to pursue their conceptions of the good in ways compatible with the basic framework of justice, such as that outlined in Rawls' two principles of justice.

M. What about the communitarian challenge that self-determination can only be nurtured in a certain type of society-the so-called social thesis?

L. I think this is true and needs more attention by liberals, although I don't think it has to be incompatible with liberal views of justice. Many liberals have taken for granted the existence of a tolerant and diverse culture, but this requires faith that communities outside the strictly political public sphere can nurture people's capacity for individual judgment. I don't think we can afford to take for granted that the social preconditions of a liberal or self-determining culture will be provided.