Communitarianism: The Best Political Ideology?

Political ideologies have developed over the decades and new political ideologies have been introduced into political theory and philosophy. Communitarianism is a recent development in political ideology that is viewed by many as a criticism of liberalism. It draws on ideas from previous schools of thought. It revolves around the community and the individuals comprising it, rather than the individual being at the center, which is what liberalism emphasizes. Although communitarianism is mainly viewed as a critique of liberalism, it draws similarities from other schools of thought such as conservatism and feminism. This paper will argue that communitarianism is the most suitable ideology for individuals due to its examination of individuals and their freedom through the sense of community in the society. To better show how communitarianism is more suitable, I will examine the context of individuals and communities presented in the communitarian thought and how it differs from the liberal and libertarian sense sense. I will then focus on the libertarian idea of distributive justice and the communitarian critique of it. Lastly, I will examine how communitarianism emphasizes the importance of social responsibility, which other ideologies lack, and how that responsibility achieves freedom and justice for individuals. Lastly, I will show how environmentalism can be advocated through communitarian ideologies. Thus, communitarianism coffers a better and a more improved ideology for individuals compared to other ideologies.

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First, it is important to address the issue of communitarianism being a school of thought. Communitarianism developed as a criticism to liberalism. Just like conservatism, it deals and identifies itself more through criticisms than with its own established ideals. Several people have argued that this is considered a weakness for communitarianism; that “communitarianism fails as an alternative to liberalism,” and that “it doesn’t define itself clearly or sufficiently.” [1] However, as this paper will show, this is not true. Communitarianism is an ideology on its own, since it offers new ideas through its criticisms of liberalism. Furthermore, Mariam seems to draw from the liberal perspective in saying that “there are many forms of communities and it is unclear what form communitarianism promotes.” [2] This is also similar to a dilemma of communitarianism, which Kenny mentions, of whether communitarianism is an “anti-liberal” force or not. [3] But, unlike liberalism, it does not promote a universal ideal that predominates over all. It recognizes the differences in communities and thus depends on a particular society. It is an ideology which depends on particularity, rather than universality. Thus, “communitarianism differentiates itself more on what it disagrees with in liberalism rather than proposing a new theory of political philosophy.” [4]

Communitarianism is defined as a philosophy that “emphasizes the importance of community in the functioning of political life, in the analysis and evaluation of political institutions, and in understanding human identity and well-being.” [5] It integrates individuals into political life through a sense of belonging and commitment to their community and the individuals within this community. Individuals are thus considered to be a part of a wider community and not an independent entity existing by themselves. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a doctrine that “takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics.” [6] Liberals believe that governments should exist for the sole purpose of protecting the individuals from harm by other individuals. That should be the sole purpose for the existence of governments, since liberals are skeptic about any forms of government. This is due to the belief that governments of any sort are in themselves a threat to the people and their freedom, which can only be achieved if intervention was kept to a bare minimum and only for fundamental matters that would help promote and maintain individual freedom.

From this stems a fundamental difference which is subject to debate: individuals and the government. Liberalism detaches the individual from the government and only considers individuals and how they can maintain their freedom. However, communitarianism criticizes this detachment and instead focuses on a sense of community amongst the people. This community allows for the people and the government to interact in a broader sense. Communitarianism not only criticizes this, but it criticizes the fact that “Liberalism, in basing itself on the rights of the individual, has fundamentally misunderstood social life and has produced a political philosophy that is itself the cause of the problems with which we are beset.” [7] Thus, Liberalism does not create any social order or any sense of a society by basing itself solely on the individual. Liberals and Libertarians have mostly argued for this need to look only at the individual.

Right Libertarians (and Nozick in particular) have argued that the government should only use its power to maintain self-ownership rights and to protect individuals’ property. In The Entitlement Theory of Justice, Nozick argues in his theory of justice, that “the holdings of a person are just if he is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acquisition and transfer, or by just rectification of justice.” [8] Hence, he is critical of Rawls’s idea of the redistribution of justice and wealth. [9] Nozick believes that anyone who earns something justly should not be held responsible for other individuals. Thus, if all property, for example, ends up with one person, then that does not call for taxation or any action. Furthermore, by using the Wilt Chamberlain example, Nozick shows how equality results into inequality through freedom. This means that people originally start by having complete freedom to make their own choices, but then they choose to give up that freedom. Thus, to redistribute Chamberlain’s or any justly earned wealth is a “violation of people’s rights.” [10]

However, what Nozick is implying is injustice to the individuals themselves. If one person owns everything, then people will be reduced to slaves and work for that one person who owns all the resources, and they will not be free. Communitarians have criticized this libertarian idea of “distributive justice and individual rights [because it] works to divide the citizens of the modern state against one another, thereby fostering isolation, alienation, and apathy rather than commitment to a common civic enterprise.” [11] Thus, the sense of community and the freedom that it entails for the individuals of the society disappears. Libertarianism only focuses on individual rights as being the most important ones, which does not work, especially in pluralistic societies today, which need both individuals and the government to have responsibilities and rights, and not just a focus on one individual who claims they obtained something justly. It is difficult to assess what is just, which is another limitation to Nozick’s argument. People can easily claim that they obtained something justly, even if they did not. Thus, a community needs to exist where all individual freedoms are guaranteed, instead of questionable individual rights.

Communitarians “draw heavily on conservative ideas about the importance of tradition [and society] in providing a coherent framework of values within which we can live.” [12] Liberalism tends to focus on the individual for the individual and their right, but “this is contingent upon cultural factors.” [13] The society and culture “in which individuals are raised in [are] important when determining their autonomy.” [14] Consequently, Individuals cannot detach themselves from the society, because their individual rights are contingent upon their society and their surroundings. People are bound to society just as they are bound to family. As Finlayson notes of Oakeshott, conservative individuals prefer “the familiar to the unknown;” [15] a society with traditions where people are bound is more familiar than an individualistic society which seeks universalism.

Yet, these traditions and values are not always concrete for people to attach themselves to. One evident criticism of conservatism is the fact that people do not always follow their traditions. People can just as easily detach themselves from certain traditions, which themselves are always changing and never remain the same. Fahad criticizes Scruton’s argument by stating that “one is born with the capacity to run one’s own life, and with free will and volition to choose from an ethical or political framework to adhere to.” [16] The fact that Scruton emphasizes the need for people to follow their society and the traditions as given, leave Scruton “unable to even question the very liberalism that serves as the foundation for his ability to construct a philosophy in the first place.” [17]

Scruton’s arguments for following the norms of the society are extreme. People are not just programmed to accept everything without questioning it or improving it. However, Fahad seems to argue that people can make their own choices and decisions based on their own free will, which is unlikely. As communitarians argue, people are influenced by their societies, and this influence plays greatly onto the choices that people believe they are making out of their own free will. People can have a freedom of choice, as he points out, however this will not emerge out of nothing. Even though people might think that they are making a purely objective decision, there is always some subjectivity that will come into play. Communitarians draw from the conservative thought the importance of traditions; however, people are not obliged to follow these traditions. They exist to unify the people and create a sense of belonging in the society. Furthermore, they affect the way people make decisions and how they essentially live their lives, as some traditions cannot be eliminated from people’s lives.

This draws on Rawls’s use of the veil of ignorance. This is an imaginary veil where people are in an original position where they know nothing about anything that defines who they are [18] . People are supposed to ignore these ideals and values and focus on remaining neutral and objective in order to make decisions that would benefit all the people. These decisions are supposedly right in that people reach them through rational and selfless thinking. Besides it being a difficult practical concept, it is also flawed. People cannot just assume that they know nothing about their lives and forget everything they are connected to. Their society and ideals will come into play at some point and it will influence their decisions. It is false to assume that a rational decision is a right decision just because it is rational. People cannot be fully rational, they will always have something affecting the way they think, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Therefore, communitarianism stresses on the importance of the society in individuals’ lives because the society shapes people and many things within the society can easily have an impact on them. Rawls’s theory of justice through the veil of ignorance is thus inaccurate, because, as communitarians argue, “the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context.” [19] Furthermore, communitarians see the “moral agency” of making decisions always existing “within the context of a particular structure of traditions and practices, manifested in the life of a community.” [20]

What communitarianism advocates (and conservatism lacks), is open discourse and an emphasis on social responsibility (which liberalism lacks). One way of emphasizing the importance of society for individuals is through the recognition of individuals’ roles towards their society. For communitarians, the “preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect.” [21] This respect would lead to an “appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others.” Individuals will also obtain civic responsibilities and the development of “self-government skills,” as well as “the habit of governing ourselves, and learn to serve others– not just self.” [22] Governments, too, will “have obligations–including the duty to be responsive to their members and to foster participation and deliberation in social and political life.” [23]

The communitarian perspective, in a sense, “mandates attention to what is often ignored in contemporary policy debates: the social side of human nature.” [24] This social side shows how individuals and governments both have responsibilities towards each other. It does not only assume that individual rights are important, because as Scruton points out, “”by enlarging the space around one person it diminishes the space enjoyed by his neighbor.” [25] It can be seen that communitarianism goes further than the conservative idea of following traditions; it emphasizes on the social aspect of the people and what the people want. It also criticizes the narrowness of liberalism by just assuming that only the individual matter and that the government is there to protect it from injustice only. However, it is not only a one way street; individuals have rights and responsibilities, which is important to realize. A focus is made on individual liberty, but that liberty is achieved with the society, not as liberalism promotes it of being just a focus on one individual. [26]

One could argue that the notion of civic responsibilities and virtue is that of republicanism. As Kenny points out, communitarianism “has some distinctly non-liberal antecedents as well.” [27] Also, writers of classical republicanism emphasize ideas such as “the importance of civic virtue and political participation,” [28] amongst other ideas. However, civic republicanism stresses the importance of independence from arbitrary power. Ideologies stress on the importance of the individuals being at the center, and the relationship with the polity in terms of rights and responsibilities between the two. However, republicanism draws on more liberal ideas of civic virtue and a polity made by the people. Communitarianism, on the other hand, focuses more on the importance of traditions and values in order to have civic virtue. It focuses more on individuals and their individual and social responsibility, whereas republicanism focuses on individuals’ responsibility towards other individuals only.

However, both communitarianism and republicanism “stem from an uneasiness with liberalism.” [29] Both ideologies criticize liberalism for being “guilty of an excessive or misguided emphasis on the rights and liberties of the individual that ‘nurtures a socially corrosive form of individualism.’” [30] Yet, as Dagger points out, how liberalism is flawed and how it should be fixed is what “communitarians and republicans disagree – not only with each other, but among themselves.” [31]

According to Kenny, Rawls’s defines the self through the original position as imagined as “the subject of social contract” where the original position would serve to strip it from social and cultural attributes. [32] Communitarians question this individualistic self and how it “can be said to exist prior to or outside social settings and communal attachments.” [33] The existence of these settings leads to the development of the individual and his objectives. It is only a “socially and intersubjectively constituted self [that] can plausibly be said to possess goals.” [34] What liberals promote is a “political society” in which there are “contracts made by sovereign individuals who are accorded a number of basic rights as well as the right of ‘exit’.” [35] This just separates the individual and the state, with all the benefits going to individuals with nothing to the government.

But, individuals, according to liberals, are not free if they do not have the free will to make their own choices, without any effects from the outside. According to Gaus and Courtland, Green mentions that individual is only free if they are self-directed or autonomous. [36] Their actions must be their own and not influenced by anything else. That is why Rawls stresses the importance of not including anything in the original position. This is a negative notion of freedom [37] , where people can pursue their own ends, and thus do not “follow custom.” [38] Another form of liberal freedom is what Vallentyne echoes of Berlin as negative freedom, to pursue one’s interests without harming others through “one’s fundamental purposes.” [39] Thus, it can be argued, that if the self was influenced by society, then this influence can limit if from being free. It can for example, constrain someone through certain traditions which might be false. People will thus be shaped by those traditions and unable, or unwilling, to break free from them and develop their own.

Yet, liberalism’s view of freedom, whether positive or negative, is both problematic. In the negative sense, people are allowed to do anything without any consequences or constraints to their actions. Likewise, in the positive sense, people are expected to know when to limit themselves and it is hard to assume all individuals are able to control infividuals. In the communitarian sense, people would have to include some part of their traditions and values to pursue their goals. Sometimes it is even helpful to have some guidance when making decisions. The self is thus, in the communitarian sense, “both pluralistic and particularistic: many of the features of persons are shaped by the intersubjective values and traditions of the communities into which they are born.” [40] Moreover, if traditions are false, people would draw from the surroundings of their environment to develop new beliefs that they believe is right; their own beliefs do not just exist. To illustrate, a community can exist where everyone smokes as a rule. A person who thinks that this tradition is false would refer to the harm it causes to people to develop his own belief.

The issue of freedom is also related to multiculturalism. It deals with pluralistic societies, where “the population may come from many different cultural backgrounds; and peoples are increasingly asserting their need for a state that recognizes this differentiation.” [41] Although the self is pluralistic in the communitarian thought, it is hard to claim that these traditions in the community are pluralistic. As Young explains, seeking equality and ignoring differences would allow for the development of “cultural imperialism by allowing norms expressing the point of view and experience of privileged groups to appear neutral and universal.” [42] A view of a group as the “other” would develop. Although this is a critique towards the liberal idea of universalism and its claim of neutrality, it can also be critically examined through a communitarian perspective. Since communitarians emphasize the importance of traditions and values in a society, it can be difficult to agree on these traditions. Besides them being right or wrong, a society is at risk of having the traditions of on group to dominate over it. If, for instance, one community mainly practices one religion, it would be difficult to be neutral or to have the acceptance of the people if the laws and regulations rely on that religion. Thus, there would be no sense of community between the people and the government, but rather a responsibility to abide by laws that were set by a majority. Whether this is intentional by the people or not, it still entails that some would better be able to achieve their capacities than others.

Even though communitarianism criticizes the liberal idea of a universalism and neutrality, Young’s argument entails that some groups in society might not be able to fully participate in the public sphere without abiding by the dominant thought. Since communitarianism does not in itself address the issue of multiculturalism and dominance, I believe that this idea of roles by the people and the society would entail that equality would be considered. As Caney would point out, one critique that communitarians make is that there is a “meta-ethical claim emphasizing political principles should mirror shared understandings.” [43] People should take into account the social responsibilities that they have, since it is not a one-way responsibility from the government, which would ensure that there should be some equality.

However, Young’s argument is a valid one and is a worry to any political ideology, since in any society; there can always be a majority, regardless of whether it follows liberal or conservative ideologies. However, it is very hard to assess how this should be addressed. She argues that there should be a positive discrimination towards the minority groups. Yet, this is difficult in itself for two reasons. The first is that it is hard to choose which group is a minority. There are many factors like numerical and cultural, for example, that can be taken into account. Thus, there are more minority groups than those which exist today because there are people advocating for those minorities. The second is that where should we stop in giving these minorities rights, or to create one public sphere where are differences are recognizes. In the communitarian sense, some accommodations can be made to try and limit differences between groups.

Lastly, the communitarian ideology can offer an argument for environmentalism. As Hayward discusses, environmentalism refers to the “belief that environmental protection is a significant ethical, social and political value.” [44] However, it is often ignored because it is viewed as a “discrete [issue] for policy-makers to deal with.” [45] Yet, from a communitarian perspective, it can be integrated as part of the social responsibility of individuals in relation to ecologism. The ecological argument of “humans as a part of nature” [46] shows how there can be a social responsibility from individuals towards nature because that would ensure that the society they live in is a safe one. However, from a liberal point of view, this responsibility would not exist as individuals would only consider what is best for them, even if that comes at the cost of nature and the environment.

In conclusion, communitarianism was originally a critique of liberalism, but it quickly developed to be an ideology with its own unique ideas that are best towards individuals. It looks at individuals as being at the center, but at the same time, it also looks at the community being in that center. Although many of its critiques are towards liberalism and the idea of the individualistic self existing with universal ideals, communitarianism can be critically examined through different ideologies. It focuses on how Individuals and the government coexist together with both having responsibilities and rights that are preserved through the community. It draws on conservative ideas of having a sense of traditions and values that are maintained through the community. These traditions and what shapes people are important to how individuals make decisions in life, which is not done through the liberal objective sense. It also includes individuals into the political life, like republicanism, but this involvement is through the sense of the community and what is best for the whole community. Communitarianism also focuses on how individuals can obtain freedom through this interaction with the society, and not just by limiting themselves to their individualistic goals. Hence, communitarianism is the most suitable ideology for individuals because it preserves their freedom and offers a sense of community between all individuals in the society.

Word Count: 3730 (with footnotes: 3924).