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Liberals and Communitarianism [May. 18th, 2008|01:17 pm]
Real Philosophy


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This is another essay I've written for my Contemporary Social and Political Thought. Again, it focuses primarily on the theories of John Rawls, but this time around focuses on the interaction between a Communitarian, or other illiberal group, living within a greater liberal society.  I've misplaced the prompt, but one thing to remember is that when Communitarianism is addressed, this is only referential to weak-Communitarianism as strong-Communitarianism is, for all intents and purposes, ultimately wrong.  Well, without any further ado, I give you <i>Liberals and Communitarianism</i>.

Liberals and Communitarianism


            While the strong-Communitarian notion of the embedded-self may ultimately be wrong, as we are capable of revising our ends and from different viewpoints as well, they still get something important right.    In the view of weak-Communitarians we are capable of rational revisability, even if we are not an inherently empty self.  Even if this is an accurate account of how people may relate to their ends, it is still the case that some people may perceive themselves this way.  That is, even if they are capable of rationally revising their ends, and from different view-points, they may not view themselves that way.

            For this reason, there may be Communitarian groups living within an overtly Liberal society that do not value autonomy in the same way that Liberals do.  These often take the form of fundamentalist religious groups and isolated cultural minorities who feel that the Liberal emphasis on autonomy may serve as a threat to their community.  If the members of their community are informed about other ways of life, this may serve to destabilize their community in that their members may choose to live, or even actively seek to change the community.

In these cases, such isolationist groups may choose to raise their children a way in which they devalue autonomy and minimize their capability for rational revisability so as to not pose a threat to the community.  Additionally, they may make it extremely difficult for their young to leave the community, such as certain cases where they deprive them of all worldly possessions upon making the decision to leave.  In this way they are attempting to make the members of the community feel embedded in the group so that they cannot imagine that they could leave, or that if they could then they would not be able to succeed.

While most people would agree that if a non-Liberal minority were to try and force its belief structure upon other groups, then they would be justified in defending themselves from this incursion.  This becomes a more complicated issue when a non-Liberal community wishes to coexist within the same sphere of influence as a larger Liberal community.  Due to the two core values of Liberalism, autonomy and tolerance, a conflict begins to emerge as to force them to accept the autonomy of their individual members would be intolerant of their society.  (Herbert Marcuse reflects upon this in his essay “Repressive Tolerance”[1] in which he argues that we must be intolerant of intolerance, because to do otherwise would be to perpetuate a status quo of intolerance.  One can imagine that a similar argument would work here.)  Due to this, a question arises as to when autonomy will trump tolerance, and vice versa; simply put, is autonomy or tolerance the more important value of a Liberal society.

Because of these problems many theorists, including Rawls, attempted to solve it through the development of “political liberalism” as opposed to comprehensive liberalism which holds autonomy to be the fundamental value.  Though Rawls is still committed to the two principles of justice, as well as the conclusions which result from them, he needs to change the argument for accepting the two principles of justice as well as their conclusions in order to get illiberal communities to agree to them.  The old arguments will still appeal to those who value autonomy while the new ones will appeal to those elements in society which don’t, the result of which will be an overlapping consensus.

In order to make sense of how this might come about, Rawls uses the example of freedom of conscience and the relevant arguments for it both from a Liberal and an illiberal standpoint.  The Liberal argument should be familiar and is based on the idea of rational revisability in that not all of our present beliefs will be rational for us at a given time and may need to be revised.  The second argument, however, comes from an illiberal, though more specifically Communitarian, conception of the embedded self.  Because there will be many such communities within a society that hold this same conception, and each consider theirs to be non-negotiable with the others, it would be within the best interests of the Communitarians to accept a freedom of religion so as to prevent other communities, conceivably larger ones, from coming in and imposing their will upon them.

This may work when concerning tolerance between groups of people; a problem arises because they don’t support the same conclusions for individuals, as under the second reasoning it does not enable individuals living in a Communitarian group to question their beliefs.  For the Liberal argument there are certain things that follow, such as the right to engage in heresy, proselytization, and apostasy as they are essential for the Liberal conception of rational revisability.  However, Communitarians cannot approve of this as people will question their beliefs.  The ideal of an overlapping consensus, as opposed to a strategic compromise, does not work in this sense unless Rawls would be wiling to drop those aforementioned rights.

However, for Rawls, the definition of freedom of conscience has remained the same as it would be under a Liberal system.  It emphasizes the ability for individuals to reflect upon their life and revise their ends if need be, and Rawls’ insistence on this requires that Communitarian groups recognize this fact and accept it.  For Rawls, the reason that such a principle must be accepted by the Communitarians is that it has many positive gains, such as the protection from outside incursion, but it also doesn’t have any drawbacks.  Rawls further argues that once one accepts the existence of a larger pluralistic society, the best and only way that one can protect the community from such an incursion, is to protect them at the individual level.  However, due to certain historical examples, such as the Ottoman millets, we see that one can facilitate tolerance between certain groups without necessarily granting individual rights.

Due to this realization, Rawls needs yet another answer to this dilemma, which lies in a distinction between the public and private lives.  The notion that we can revise our ends is only a political conception for Rawls and is not intended to be offered as a full account of the relationship between the self and its ends in all areas of life.  Even if, in their private life, their religious values are not revisable, Rawls’ only requirement is that they ignore other constitutive ends.  That is, as citizens they should act in their capacity as a citizen rather than acting in their capacity as members of a religious sect.

It is difficult to tell, however, whether or not political liberalism is being addressed as a conception separate from comprehensive liberalism (the idea that rational reflection applies to all areas of human life), or even if such a distinction is necessary to Rawls’ theory.  If Mills’ comprehensive liberalism is correct, then the need to make the distinction is irrelevant and unnecessary as it has no bearing on whether or not someone in a Communitarian group utilizes this capacity.  Kymlicka summarizes this as a part of Rawls’ argument when he says, “The existence of a legal right to question one’s ends does not by itself require or encourage the actual exercise of that right.”[2]

Kymlicka doesn’t believe this approach can work, though his criticism isn’t a particularly reasoned one.  If it is the case that this conception of a political self is implemented within a Liberal society, this will cause a Communitarian group to face severe costs due to an ‘inevitable’ spill-over effect from the public life into the private life.  While there can be no doubt that there is a certain interplay between public and private lives, the reasoning being utilized here is indicative of the same kind of reasoning used by people opposed to the decriminalization or legalization of drugs; particularly on the part of those who believed that marijuana was a “gateway drug.”  Just as the legalization of drugs doesn’t mean that everyone will start doing drugs, so too does the legalization of the individual right to re-evaluate one’s ends not imply that everyone, or even a majority, will do so.  Those with the inclination to do either will do it regardless of the legality of the act.

The only problem here is that both Rawls and has failed to qualify why individual rights truly must be held paramount to all others, and in that, if done appropriately, will lay an inherent criticism of Communitarianism as well.  Such reasoning is already provided for us by Kymlicka when he says, “In a number of places he suggests that without guarantees of ‘equal liberty of conscience’, minority faiths could be persecuted by dominant religious groups (e.g. Rawls 1982b: 25-9; 1989: 251).”[3]  The concern here is an obvious one where consideration is given to a political supra-unit so as to prevent a majority from imposing its will upon a minority.  That is, the society as a whole can be seen as a unit or a supra-unit, depending on how small or large your scope is at the moment, but indistinguishable from its constitutive parts.  Consider for a moment, the United States as a political supra-unit which is then made up of other supra-units called States (or, less commonly, regions which are then further delineated into States), which are then made up of Counties, that are made up of Cities, which are made up of Communities, which are made up of Neighborhoods, which are made up of Households, which are finally made up of Individuals (though in some cases the last two could be synonymous).

One may ask why the buck stops here, and it is a relatively simple one to answer: an individual is the smallest political unit possible; that is, the individual is the Fundamental Political Unit, a Political Atom if you will, as it is the only one which is capable of existing, at least in some sense, without the benefit of the others.  Perhaps more simply put, the individual is the only concrete Political Unit and the rest are all abstractions which absolutely depend on the individual.  The reason that further regression into smaller units is unneeded, and would be absurd to do so follows from the fact that any smaller units wouldn’t be coherent units in any sense of the word as they cannot be independent political actors.

Regardless of how the Communitarians will value autonomy, it is still the case that the entirety of their community is founded on the basis of this autonomy that they claim not to value.  All societies, Liberal or Communitarian, inherently rely on the consent of the governed, as the Fundamental Political Units, regardless of their access to information.  Though, in a sense, one’s choice may be limited by their access to information, the fact remains that this choice is still a very real choice.  These issues become a problem for the Liberal state insofar as they may try to impinge upon a community in order to inform the individual citizens of their rights.

While the issue with children is a particularly sticky one, considering certain rights or obligations that may be owed to them, it becomes much clearer if we are dealing with full and consenting adults.  Undoubtedly, education is an important factor in being able to revise one’s ends, but it does not seem to be the case that we can impose such an education upon them without being intolerant of the fact that they may not value autonomy.  They key, then, seems to lie in a compromise wherein neither they or the state are required to provide members of the community with information, but neither can the community forcibly restrict their access to the information through coercive or violent means.  A problem arises, however, in that implementation and enforcement of such a compromise becomes nigh impossible if they are not first aware of their rights as citizens, and further any such attempts at enforcement would only inevitably lead to any one of a myriad of forms of paternalism.

[1] Marcuse, Herbert.  A Critique of Pure Tolerance.  “Repressive Tolerance.”  Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, pg. 95-137.

[2] Kymlicka, Will.  Contemporary Political Philosophy, pg. 236.  Second Ed. Oxford University Press Inc. New York, 2002.

[3] Kymlicka, Will.  Contemporary Political Philosophy, pg. 234.  Second Ed. Oxford University Press Inc. New York, 2002.