Saturday, January 26, 2013

76. How much community?

From previous items in this blog I can now piece together my answer to Charles Taylor’s question: How much community should a democracy have?

I agree with him and with (other) communitarian philosophers, that a liberal society that ensures only negative freedom, in minimal interference with individual action, is not enough. As I argued in item 43, on justice, I go along with Martha Nussbaum’s notion of capabilities: society should also provide positive freedom in ensuring minimal access to such capabilities.

In view of the discussion of immorality of groups (item 48), such as recently appeared among bankers, who allow themselves to be caught in prisoners dilemma’s of antisocial behaviour, society should actively restrict their freedom to do so.

But do we, going beyond that, require a shared definition of the good life? Next to laws that aim to ensure negative and positive freedom, should there be a shared ethic, in a shared culture? In item 10, on culture, I declared myself against the notion of some essence in culture, and pleaded for more or less shared or overlapping elements of culture.

I am afraid, and so is Taylor, of anything that might end up in something like Rousseau’s general will to which people must conform and submit. History has demonstrated, in communism for example, how that can lead to totalitarianism.

I do subscribe to a set of shared values, which are not necessarily universal in that they depend on historical conditions and priorities of time and place. Presently what we need is shared values of tolerance, appreciation of diversity, taking responsibility for one’s actions and for society, loyalty to collective interests of society, a modicum of altruism (depending on pressures of survival), and openness to discussion and exchange of ideas between individuals and cultures. These values do not constitute any essence of any single culture but fortunately are shared more or less between different cultures.

The underlying philosophy that I developed in this blog is that people are not autonomous, are limitedly rational, and do not have any given, unitary identity that is to be revealed in ‘authentic expression’. People develop their identity in interaction with other people. Within constraints laid down by the potential embodied in one’s genes and constraints in outside conditions of development, one can develop one’s self. The crucial point is that for this one needs a basis of shared language and ethics, indicated above, as well as opposition from the other person and other cultures. Those yield potential for development of the self because they are different. Even if one is only self-interested one needs the other for the self to develop and to be free also from one’s own moral prejudice, but for that to work one must be open, empathetic and committed to trustworthiness.

Fortunately, the ability to ‘cross cognitive distance’ to others who think differently is also economically advantageous, in favouring innovation (see items 57 and 58).

This opens up the need to develop attitudes and skills of collaboration and trust, which are not only desirable but also viable. See the foregoing items on trust (68-75).      


  1. What are the implications for the relation between the EU and member states?


    1. Anouk, that is a good question. In this blog I claim that cultural identity has no essence but consists of various elements of a shared heritage with corresponding more or less similar ideas, values and actions. Then European identity is weaker than national identity, but it is far from empty. It includes influences from classical Greek and Roman thought, Roman law, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Christian religion, the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romanticism and corresponding philosophy, science, literature, paintings, sculpture and music. There is a lot of shared history, even though that often consisted of fighting each other. We even have something like a shared language in the spread of English. How people can say that there is no European identity I cannot imagine.