Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/community-and-communitarianism/v-1
Reflections on the nature and significance of community have figured prominently in the history of Western ethics and political philosophy, both secular and religious. In ethics and political philosophy the term ‘community’ refers to a form of connection among individuals that is qualitatively stronger and deeper than a mere association. The concept of a community includes at least two elements: (1) individuals belonging to a community have ends that are in a robust sense common, not merely congruent private ends, and that are conceived of and valued as common ends by the members of the group; and (2) for the individuals involved, their awareness of themselves as belonging to the group is a significant constituent of their identity, their sense of who they are.
In the past two decades, an important and influential strand of secular ethical and political thought in the English-speaking countries has emerged under the banner of communitarianism. The term ‘communitarianism’ is applied to the views of a broad range of contemporary thinkers, including Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and sometimes Michael Walzer (MacIntyre 1981; Sandel 1982; Taylor 1979, 1989; Walzer 1983). It is important to note, however, that there is no common creed to which these thinkers all subscribe and that for the most part they avoid the term.
There are two closely related ways to characterize what communitarians have in common; one positive, the other negative. As a positive view, communitarianism is a perspective on ethics and political philosophy that emphasizes the psycho-social and ethical importance of belonging to communities, and which holds that the possibilities for justifying ethical judgments are determined by the fact that ethical reasoning must proceed within the context of a community’s traditions and cultural understandings (Bell 1993: 24–45). As a negative view, communitarianism is a variety of anti-liberalism, one that criticizes liberal thought for failing to appreciate the importance of community.
At present the communitarian critique of liberalism is more developed than is communitarianism as a systematic ethical or political philosophy. Existing communitarian literature lacks anything comparable to Rawls’ theory of justice or Feinberg’s theory of the moral limits of criminal law, both of which are paradigmatic examples of systematic liberal ethical and political theory. For the most part, the positive content of the communitarians’ views must be inferred from their criticisms of liberalism. Thus, to a large extent communitarianism so far is chiefly a way of thinking about ethics and political life that stands in fundamental opposition to liberalism. To some, communitarian thinking seems a healthy antidote to what they take to be excessive individualism and obsessive preoccupation with personal autonomy. To others, communitarianism represents a failure to appreciate the value – and the fragility – of liberal social institutions. The success of communitarianism as an ethical theory depends upon whether an account of ethical reasoning can be developed that emphasizes the importance of social roles and cultural values in the justification of moral judgments without lapsing into an extreme ethical relativism that makes fundamental ethical criticisms of one’s own community impossible. The success of communitarianism as a political theory depends upon whether it can be demonstrated that liberal political institutions cannot provide adequate conditions for the flourishing of community or secure appropriate support for persons’ identities so far as their identities are determined by their membership in communities.
Buchanan, Allen. Community and communitarianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/community-and-communitarianism/v-1.
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