Saturday, April 16, 2016


257. Liberal communitarianism

There is a usual opposition between liberal individualism and communitarianism. Here I argue for a position in between: liberal communitarianism.

Colin Bird[i] argued that the apparent unity of liberal individualism is a myth. In fact there are two fundamentally different brands: the ‘aggregative service view’ and the ‘associative expressive view’. The service view is utilitarian, looking only at outcomes in terms of utility, regardless of goals or intentions, and the expressivist view is Kantian, deontological, i.e. looks at intentions and goals.

The service view assumes a variety of autonomous agents with a multiplicity of values. It is the task of the state only to provide conditions for the realization of those values, not to interfere with them in any way. For example: the state supplies schooling, and it is up to people to make use of it. Mainstream economists adhere to this view, though mostly implicitly. Here freedom is purely negative: freedom from outside interference.

The expressivist view assumes an ideal individual that should seek to realize corresponding ideal, universal values. It is a task of the state to provide conditions for realizing those values, even if the individual is not aware of them. If people do not utilize schooling because they are not aware of their potential, they are to be made aware. Here freedom is positive: providing access to self-realization.

Both views run into problems. The problem with the service view is that different values or utilities cannot easily be aggregated and often conflict. To safeguard religion one may have to limit freedom of expression. And vice versa. The problem with the expressivist view is this: who determines what the ideal individual is? During the French revolution, the Jacobins and Robespierre enforced their view of the free citizen, with ‘virtuous’ terror.

The communitarian view, in contrast with both liberal views, takes as its point of departure the social constitution of the human being, as argued at length in this blog. Like the liberal service view it adopts a view of diverse individuality, rather than the universal ideal of the expressivist liberal view. Like the expressivist liberal view it recognizes that individual values may have to be shaped to some extent by education or other forms of guidance. However that is a social, not a political activity.  

The problem with communitarianism is that it can fall into the view that there is some collective spirit, rooted in history and expressed in myth, a shared cultural identity inculcated into individuals, which takes over their autonomy, yielding totalitarianism. We see that in forms of nationalism. Colin Bird, who pleads for a form of expressive individualism, also asks, quite rightly, ‘which community’? The family, municipality, nation, race, or what? If it does not fall into totalitarianism, communitarianism falls into relativism. He also notes that social constitution is not always a good thing. One may be misformed into perversity. Hence, according to Bird, the need to adopt and defend the notion of an ideal individual.

One can avoid those problems, up to a point, with the constructivist view of individual identity argued for in this blog. As Colin Bird noted it is an error to think that non-liberal or anti-liberal thought must be non-individualistic. There is an individualistic form of communitarianism, as follows. The individual constructs its mental and spiritual identity on the basis of its unique genetic endowment, from action in specific social, economic and cultural environments, in individual life history. The answer to the question ‘Which community’ is: all of them are part of the environment that provides the ‘input’ of the construction of the self. The self is not autonomous in its social formation but it builds some degree of autonomy, or at least individuality, in its construction of the self. The role of the state includes concern with the means and conditions for such development.

Concerning the underlying ethics, it is neither utilitarian, as in the liberal service view, nor deontological, universalist, as in the liberal expressivist view. In this blog I have proposed virtue ethics as an alternative to both.

I grant that there remains a problem of indoctrination of individuals by the institutional environment they are in, to the point that even victims of it take it for proper and justified, as shown by Michel Foucault, with his work on prisons, clinics, and mental institutions, and power exerted in knowledge systems. In this blog I have discussed the notion of ‘system tragedy’. It is a serious issue how one may escape from such binds. The liberal expressivist will claim that for it one needs some universal ideal of human individuality. I would rather reserve it for the striving of the individual, who may tap from a variety of sources to seek its own ideal. In that, being a communitarian, I am more liberal than the liberal expressivist.    


[i] Colin Bird, The myth of liberal individualism, Cambridge University Press, 1999.