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Communitarianism is a political philosophy that often stands in opposition to the principles of liberalism. Communitarians theorize that the community is the most important element of a society or culture. As such, the stability of the community must be enhanced and protected. Within the public sphere, communitarians explicitly argue against individualistic and pragmatic liberalism, citing a loss of moral and civic orientation. Communitarians posit that true ideals in a democracy cannot survive without a cohering center. Some communitarians, such as Robert Spaemann and Alan Bloom, consider that individualistic legacies of Enlightenment thinking have led to the decline of community as a way of life by harming the ability of the moral imagination to find solutions to community problems such as poverty or discrimination. Communitarians such as Markate Daly advance the notion that community is a part of life. As such, every individual is a member of a community and through this membership develops identities, relationships, and attachments with others; the members of a community express their values through their institutions and social needs. Those such as Amitai Etzioni criticize values of autonomy, natural rights, neutrality, universality, and individual interests in favor of values that emphasize traditions, common good, character, solidarity, social practices, and social responsibility. Communitarian goals bring about changes in habits, public policies, and morality that allow a community to work toward a future based on strong community goals and values.
Communitarians also posit that not all communities are moral. Communities that seek to destroy or diminish human life and property would not be allowed within the communitarian rubric. Rather, a true communitarian seeks stability and a community that flourishes. Democracy is seen as communitarian in that it joins community interests and institutions to bring about the will of the people.
Another common tenet of communitarianism is that loyalty is given to the community and group for the greater good of the community. As a political philosophy, resources for moral judgment and action are located in the established mores of the family, the workplace, and the like rather than within the individual; as such, the point and purpose of individual lives is to serve institutional needs and goals rather than vice versa. This system needs persons who can commit themselves to collective behaviors.
Some communitarians theorize that community views should not be challenged. It is more important that community leadership reinforce and strengthen the status quo. For example, the communitarian journalist should reinforce information necessary to maintain community values.
Additionally, communitarian leadership focuses on attaining ideals and keeping the group together, thereby maintaining a hard-earned position in the social structure. The group provides a presentation of a united front possessing power or the illusion of power. Individual members gain self-confidence from merely belonging but also will lose some individual identity. The system is more basic than the rights of individual members, so concepts of justice or fairness are sometimes ignored in favor of preservation of the group. Further, to some communitarians, loyalty to the group transcends the cause of truth.
Within the political realm, the community is usually advancing a cause, thereby seeking strength in numbers. Often the group is formed because of misuse of individual rights in a particular area, creating an attitude of “us versus them.” Often the community remains together even after the goals for forming it are met. Additionally, the group has the ability to banish members who do not follow the rules of the community and individualist members who find a cause or a truth the group would rather not explore. Rules are set by the community, and often examination of the rules is not necessary. Because of a reluctance to examine rules, members are slow to develop their own moral reasoning and rely on the morality of the group.
Noted contemporary communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre find that the individualistic legacies of Enlightenment thinking have been “historically implicated in developments that have led to the decline of community as a way of life” (1984, p. 52). Amitai Etzioni celebrates these individuals who are committed to the community rather than to individual rights by stating that “communitarians are dedicated to working with our fellow citizens to bring about the changes in values, habits, and public policies that will allow us to do for society what the environmental movements seeks to do for nature: to safeguard and enhance our future” (1993, p. 3). Philosopher Markate Daly (1994) believes it is essential that communitarianism become a way of life. In communitarian theory, philosophers assume that community is part of life; as such, every individual is a member of a community and through this develops identities, relationships, and attachments with others. The members of a community express their values through their institutions and social needs, tempered by kindness. She contrasts communitarian with liberal notions as, “instead of such values as individual interests, autonomy, universality, natural rights and neutrality, communitarian philosophy is framed in terms of the common good, social practices and traditions, character, solidarity and social responsibility” (Daly 1994, p. 17).
Jürgen Habermas (1990), a prominent continental philosopher, uses a system of communitarian philosophy in proposing a dialectic that must be open to the community. Within his system, all decisions, particularly problematic decisions, can be made by the collective. Each member who is competent to speak to the subject is given equal time and input into the decision process.
Wendell Berry (1990) reminds that not all communities are moral, and those communities set to destroy or diminish human life and property should not be considered communities. Clifford Christians, John P. Ferre, and P. Mark Fackler confirm Berry’s sentiments, stating that “because a moral community is a condition for personhood, a group is not ipso facto good, and no community can excuse inhumane behavior” (1993, p. 69). Berry and Christians are examples of communitarian thinkers who realize the need for a conception of individual good to balance the supreme good of community stability.
Communalism is a distinct political theory and political practice. It differs from communitarianism in many ways. It generally involves a group of individuals committed to communal living and common ownership. This commitment involves loyalty to the interests of the communal minority or ethnic group rather than to society as a whole. Some forms of communalism work toward abolishing the state, not seizing power but doing away with power and the particular power attached to the business model of capitalism. Often, religion is a driving force in communal living.
A commune is described as the basic living habitat for the communal organization. Most are serious about being self-sustaining in both consumption and production. This means that the group should own enough land to feed itself and have a specialized means of commerce. Examples of successful communal groups are the Hutterites, who were financially successful craftsmen and agriculturalists. Oneida, Amana, and in the twentieth century the Brüderhof are also examples of successful communes.
In practice, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx wrote extensively about the ideals of communist living in general but sometimes specifically about the ideals of communal life. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a pamphlet originally published in 1880 by Engels (2006), delineates the notions of communalism and contrasts it with socialism. Their plan calls for a new society founded on quality of life rather than slavish work. However, it does not give a plan for the ideal community.
Often the term utopia is used in conjunction with communalism, moving the commune to a visionary or an ideally perfect state of society. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia ( 2003) describes an imaginary island with the ideal social, legal, and political system. Humans can strive to create this within a community or globally in an effort to live more civilly. Sometimes utopian is used in a negative way to discredit ideas seen as impossible to realize.
- Barney, Ralph D. 1994. A Dangerous Drift? The Sirens’ Call to Collectivism. Unpublished paper presented at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, Cleveland, OH, February 26, 1994.
- Bohler, Dietrich. 1990. Transcendental Pragmatics and Critical In The Communicative Ethics Controversy, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, 131. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Christians, Clifford G. 1977. Fifty Years of Scholarship in Media Ethics. Journal of Communication 27 (autumn): 19–29.
- Christians, Clifford G., John P. Ferre, and Mark Fackler. 1993. Good News Social Ethics and the Press. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Daly, Markate, ed. 1994. Communitarianism, A New Public Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Engels, Frederick (Friedrich). 2006. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, ed. Andrew Moore. Mondial Press. Originally published May 1, 1880 as “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” in Revue Socialiste.
- Etzioni, Amitai. 1993. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda. New York: Crown.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Discourse Ethics: Notes on Philosophical Justification. In The Communicative Ethics Controversy, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984. After Virtue, 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- More, Thomas. 2003. Utopia, ed. Paul Turner. New York: Penguin Classics.
- Mulhall, Stephen, and Adam Swift. 1996. Liberals and Communitarians, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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