The Liberal-Communitarian Debate
by Thomas E. Wren (from The Blackwell's Dictionary of Business Ethics, 1999)

The liberal-communitarian debate, which took its present form in the early 1980s, can be traced back to the beginning of the modern age, when liberalism emerged as a political and philosophical movement. JOHN LOCKE in 17th-century England and IMMANUEL KANT in 18th-century Prussia developed theoretical views of society and human nature that stressed equality, personal autonomy, individual rights, and universalizable moral principles. Considering the now-familiar preference within liberalism for autonomous reasoning rather than unquestioning acceptance of received opinions, it is not surprising that their own views were at odds with the pre-Enlightenment political philosophies then prevailing, all of which assumed the legitimacy and necessity of traditional political authority and hierarchical social structures. Thus Locke, Kant, and other early liberals can be thought of as reacting against the communitarianism, or proto-ommunitarianism, of their day, which culminated in William Blackstone's outrageously complacent belief that in English law and society "all is as it should be" and echoed ARISTOTLE's ancient notion that the polis is the natural normative base of all human activity. However, that "proto-communitarian" theory grew out of theological conceptions of society (Christendom, the divine right of kings, etc.), whereas today's communitarian views (including those most friendly to religion) begin with the secular, psychological insight that social affiliation is not only a profoundly urgent human need but also the ground for all thinking, valuing, and self-awareness.

Contributors to today's liberal-communitarian debate generally take the publication of JOHN RAWLS's Theory of Justice in 1971 as the starting point of the contemporary discussion, since in that work Rawls attempted to replace then-current utilitarian rationales for liberal democratic systems with more recognizably Kantian principles such as impartiality, universalizability, and respect for persons. Using his heuristic device of an "original position" in which perfectly rational individuals deliberate and choose the most adequate (i.e., most just) institutions for distributing burdens and benefits, Rawls effectively projected his vision of the American political system onto a timeless, acultural intellectual screen.

The most important early reactions to Rawls's book were Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1981) and ALASDAIR MACINTYRE's After Virtue (1984), each of which argued against Rawls's model of an individual moral agent as a solitary, autonomous, utterly rational holder of desires and beliefs, and replaced this model with that of a self which is culturally embedded and socially engaged from its first moments of self-awareness to its most sophisticated achievements of selfhood or personal identity. Over the next several years other important contributors to the communitarian literature emerged, most notably Charles Taylor (1989a, 1989b) and Michael Walzer (1983, 1987). Predictably, this literature has evoked counter replies from Rawls (1993) and other partisans of liberalism, such as Ronald Dworkin (1985), JÜRGEN HABERMAS (1994) and Will Kymlicka (1989). As the debate continues in the 1990s, some convergence seems to be taking place, or at least some softening of the rhetoric. Thus Daniel Bell (1993) and others have begun to use such phrases as "the communalization of liberalism."

The contemporary liberal-communitarian debate operates at several levels. At the level of political theory, it is a debate over the relationship between legal or governmental structures and cultural structures such as religions or ethnic groups. At the level of moral theory, it is a debate over the relationship of values and obligations, or more specifically, over whether conceptions of what is good can logically ground principles about what is right, or vice versa. Finally, at the level of what is sometimes called philosophical psychology, it is a debate over the nature of the self.

Political Theory. At the first level, liberals argue that laws and other social institutions are neutral with respect to individual persons' conceptions of the good or even conceptions of the good that are specific to a cultural group. The liberal position is that these institutions, as well as the political system as a whole, exist to enable each person to pursue the good life as long as doing so does not interfere with that of other persons. Communitarians, on the other hand, argue that political structures are inevitably shaped by conceptions of the good, even though these conceptions are culture-specific: in other words, not only is there nothing wrong with the state giving special support to particular traditions and values (e.g., stamping "In God we trust" on coins), but in some cases doing so is vital to the well-being of the state itself (e.g., preserving a sense of national identity that can hold the country together in times of crisis). Between these two positons is an intermediate one, which has emerged over the last few years in the writings of Taylor and Walzer, viz., that democratic liberalism is itself "a fighting creed" constituting a conception of the good as well as a principle of justice.

Moral Theory. At the second level, that of ethics or moral philosophy, liberals hold that morality is primarily a matter of procedural rightness, such that it would be immoral to use unfair or otherwise unacceptable procedures in order to attain substantive goods or ends, no matter how worthy these goals are in themselves. This is an essentially deontological (duty-oriented) conception of morality, in contrast to the teleological (goal-oriented) conceptions of communitarianism and, in a quite different sense, classical utilitarianism. As with most if not all deontological conceptions, the central principle of rightness is that of impartiality, or in Kantian terms, the Categorical Imperative. Moral judgments about the rightness of an action are made from a perspective that transcends the perspective of the individual agent, such that their validity can be recognized by any competent reasoner, regardless of his or her historical circumstances and regardless of how he or she would be affected by the action in question. So construed, personal morality is seen as a set of universalizable moral rules, corresponding to the Rights of Man celebrated in the political doctrines of the Enlightenment. Communitarianism, on the other hand, refuses to adopt the detached perspective of the impartial reasoner, insisting instead that all perspectives, including moral perspectives, are inherently historical and hence relative to one's socialization history. For communitarians, moral principles express the community's sense of its own history and its own conception of the good, which can be thought of as the common good or individual flourishing or some combination thereof. Communitarians generally distance themselves from the rather simplistic cultural relativism which was popular in the 1960s, though there are obvious similarities between the two views. Unlike most relativists, many communitarians adopt a hermeneutical theory of moral knowledge, according to which it is possible for someone outside a moral tradition to "fuse horizons" (Gadamer, 1976) and thereby come to a significant, albeit partial, understanding not only of what it is like to have another moral perspective but also of how one's own moral perspective appears to outsiders. However, few liberals would count this as a genuinely middle position between universalism and moral relativism.

Philosophical Psychology. At the third level, that concerned with the moral self, the liberal-communitarian debate turns on the question of whether human personality is best thought of individualistically, which is to say in terms of autonomy and its correlates (freedom, critical thinking, self-realization) or, in contrast, collectively, which is to say in terms of historical embeddedness and its correlates (relationships, cultural identity, loyalty, sense of the common good). Each side is able to mount telling objections against the other's position in terms of abuses all too common in our own lifetime. For instance, liberals point to the conformism characteristic of "authoritarian personalities" whose tendencies toward fascism are now well documented (Adorno et al., 1950), and communitarians decry the rootlessness and anomie of decontextualized individuals as "the malaise of modernity" (Taylor, 1991). However, many contributors to the discussion of moral selfhood actually combine elements of both positions, understanding socialization both as a necessary condition for the possibility of any experience whatever and also as an intrinsically historical process riddled with ethnocentricity and other sorts of contingency. In this middle view, attachments to other persons and groups are seen as prior to choice (I simply find myself as a member of a family, nation, etc.) but those groups and attachments are not thereby immune to criticism. True, such criticism can be launched from without as well as from within: from without, as when one criticizes one's legal system in terms of a "higher law," or from within, as when one criticizes one's legal system in terms of statutes and judicial decisions that are part of the system itself. But however it is launched, it is criticism, and for that reason these contributors dismiss the usual liberal objection that communitarianism is tantamount to mindless conformism and personal stultification.



Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., and Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Aristotle. (1985). Nicomachean ethics, ed. and trans. by T. Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Bell, Daniel. (1993). Communitarianism and its critics. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [A good nontechnical introduction to the whole liberal-communitarian debate, with special sympathy for the communitarian position.]

Blackstone, Sir William. (1979). Commentaries on the laws of England. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Facsimile of 1st edition of 1765-1769.]

Dworkin, Ronald. (1985). A matter of principle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1976). Philosophical hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1994). The new conservativism: Cultural criticism and the historians' debate. In A. Gutmann (Ed.), Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. (1959). Foundations for the metaphysics of morals, ed. and trans. by L.W. Beck. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill. [Originally published in 1785.]

Kymlicka, Will. (1989). Liberalism, community and culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Locke, John. (1924). An essay concerning the true and original extent and end of civil government. Book Two of Two treatises of government. London: Guernsey Press. [Originally published in 1785.]

MacIntyre, Alasdair. (1984). After virtue. South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press.

Rawls, John. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rawls, John. (1993). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sandel, Michael. (1981). Liberalism and the limits of justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles. (1989a). Cross purposes: The liberal-communitarian debate. In N. Rosenblum (Ed.), Liberalism and the moral life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Charles. (1989b). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Charles. (1991). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Originally published in Canada in 1991 under the title The malaise of modernity.)

Walzer, Michael. (1983). Spheres of justice. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Walzer, Michael. (1987). Interpretation and social criticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.