The Communitarian-Liberal Debate
March 29, 2014
“Communitarianism” was a name bandied about in the early 1980s to refer to a loose
conglomeration of ideas said to be opposed to “liberalism”, especially of the Rawlsian
and Dworkinian varieties. The key writers then called “communitarian” were Michael
Sandel, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, andAlisdair MacIntyre.All four later tried to
shake off the label in tones occasionally reminiscent of testimonies to MacCarthy’s
HUAC in the 1950s: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a communitarian (MacIntyre).
Liberalism was taken to mean, then and now, a philosophy that made individual liberty
primary in some important way. So there was a vague idea that communitarianism and
liberalism were at odds over whether community and communal values or individuals
and individual liberty were primary.
Be that vagueness as it may, the loose association of ideas, many critical of Rawls’A
Theory of Justice, had considerable influence, and appears to have motivated much of
Rawls’subsequent revision of his doctrine (though he scarcely acknowledged that he was
doing anything more than clarifying what had been left unclear before).
Actually the “communitarians” had several different theses, and not all were endorsed or
emphasised by the same theorists.
Broadly speaking, there were two main categories of claims:
A. A socio-metaphysical claim about from where people get their identities, purposes,
goals, values, and thus their “conceptions of the good”, and also their judgments about
what justice requires (Sandel, Taylor, MacIntyre).A different but related claim was made
by Walzer about where principles of justice come from: each culture has its own views
about the different goods that are important in the respective society and how each should
B. A policy claim: The state ought not to be simply neutral between different
“conceptions of the good” (as liberals would wish), but ought actively to foster
communal bonds, “la fraternité” of the famous French revolution slogan (liberté, égalité,
fraternité). On some variants this also included the claim that thae state ought to support
valuable options in society, especially those which are struggling to sustain themselves in
a free market. Thus it also need not be anti-perfectionist (as Rawls, Dworkin, and Nagel
These two levels were not clearly distinguished in the communitarian writings; moreover,
sometimes a socio-metaphysical claim was used to support an advocacy claim, e.g., since
conceptions of the good derived from historically developed cultures and institutions and
were “prior” to (i.e. what determined) people’s basic choices, there was nothing wrong
1 with the state becoming deliberately involved in the influence of these choices, since it
was causally involved in any case.
Or more broadly, the state could not be neutral between different conceptions of the good
even if it wanted to. Liberalism was itself a conception of the good that favoured
voluntary individual choice, and states that attempted to be “neutral” on liberal grounds
were actually fostering a kind of individualism which, moreover, had many pernicious
effects. Liberalism was a conception of the good that derived from a historically specific
individualistic culture, which emphasised individual rights and voluntary exchanges in
market relations. But Western culture also had other strands, in particular nationalism,
which derived from 19 century Romanticism. Society cannot be adequately cohesive if
it relies on a shared conception of individual rights and liberties alone. It also requires
that the state foster cohesiveness by openly admitting and embracing its nationalist and
communitarian historical role.
1. The nature of the self: Much of the discussion about the metaphysical claim focussed
on the nature of the self. Sandel alleged that Rawls’famous thought experiment made no
sense, since the “thin selves” in the Original Position (OP) were incapable of making the
meaningful choices with which they were tasked. Individuals cannot choose principles of
justice apart from their Conceptions of the Good (CG) (which, to recall, are behind the
veil in the OP). CGs provide the values with which one makes choices. There is no thin
or unencumbered self that makes itself – rather, people ‘discover themselves’in making
choices. Selves are ‘embedded’, ‘situated’(Taylor), based on a ‘particular social identity’
(MacIntyre). In reflecting on the good life, you discover your identity rather than make it,
since that identity is a largely pre-formed social identity.
The point was sometimes put (by Sandel, MacIntyre, and Taylor) as a question of what
constitutes one’s identity. The ‘thin self’view that these writers imputed to Rawls,
conceives of the self as standing over and above (or separate from) her chosen ends,
values, and CGs. The contrary view that they urged is that the self is constituted by its
ends: that CGs and the values of the community to a large degree constitute (a major
buzz word in communitarian writings) a person’s identity.
What is one to make of such a criticism? Did Sandel and colleagues pinpoint a real flaw
in Rawls’method, or in liberal views more generally, or both? While the critique was
presented as metaphysical and methodological, it was related to the policy issue of how
much individuals’free choices should be respected, as opposed to overridden by
considerations of strengthening communal ties or values. (More on this below). So the
methodological issue is related to a question about the supreme value of liberty in liberal
thought, versus the values of community.
Kymlicka has given an elegant reply. However much individuals derive their values,
their identity, and their “ends” from - and are formed or “constituted” by - their
community, they are also capable of revising these, of revising their CG. Humans have
the capacity to reflect on this social formation of themselves, and either to revise one’s
CG or endorse it. One still has the capacity to stand back from one’s socially formed self
and reassess it. Revisibility is the key concept of this liberal rejoinder. It is not necessary
2 to believe either that people invent their identities out of sheer voluntary will, which no
one ever claimed or was committed to, or even that they very often break from their
social background and embark on a radically new path. What is important for liberals is
to recognise that people can reflect on their social formation and decide to live their lives
“from the inside”, that is uncoerced (by the state), however much they may have been
2. Thus there are two distinct issues here: methodological and political policy. On the
policy issue, liberals think we should be free to question our beliefs, and we should be
able to lead our lives from the inside (not be compelled). (Kant had said in Religion
within Reason Alone: ‘woe to the legislator who would try to compel morality’.
Autonomous individuals must be free to make their own moral choices, since doing
something because the law tells you to do it is heteronomous choosing, not autonomous.)
Liberals fear that the communitarian belittling of autonomous choice could lead to an
entrenchment of communal or cultural rights that override individual rights. Charles
Taylor, for instance, had argued that a fundamental understanding of the Franco-Quebec
community is that the state has a vital role to protect the French language and culture. No
Quebec government of any party could ignore this demand. But that meant that the state
could not be neutral between different conceptions of the good, but had to foster the
communal cultural good of helping French flourish.And this at times required the
overriding of what manyAnglophones andAllophones regarded as equally fundamental
individual liberties: the right to send children to schools of the parents’choosing, in
particular, to educate them in the official language of the parents’choice, or the right to
post public signs in any language.
To certain liberals this was dangerous or misconceived. Recall Rawls’repudiation of
teleological theories as misguided for having prioritised the good over the right. They see
some social good – say maximising aggregate happiness – and then derive individual
rights from whatever serves that goal. Rawls’famous complaint was that this failed to
take individuals seriously. But policy-communitarianism similarly appears teleological,
prioritising the good over the right instead of the other way around. So does
communitarianism take individuals seriously enough?
3. Methodology: Sandel makes much ado about the impossibility of “thin selves” being
able to choose principles of justice in the OP, since only from within one’s (largely
socially given) CG can one make such value-based choices. The “ontologically
challenged denizens of the OP”, as the late Jerry Cohen facetiously referred to them,
would be incapable of forming beliefs about how goods should be distributed without
knowledge of their own identities and values.And this methodological issue is seen as
important because it reflects an allegedly erroneous idea that runs all the way to liberal
advocacy of state neutrality at the expense of fostering valuable communal goods.
One might add Michael Walzer’s views here. Different goods have different meanings in
different societies. And different goods have different criteria of distribution according to
these meanings. So how could ‘thin selves’know how to distribute different goods if they
didn’t even know what culture they belonged to, hence the meanings of the different
3 goods in their cultures? Rawls accompanies his stripping down of the OP self to a pure
rational chooser with a lumping of all objects of distribution into a giant grab-bag of
“primary goods” that everyone is supposed to want.
There is reason to think (again, see Kymlicka) that Sandel’s criticism here is off the mark.
Rawls’thought experiment is essentially just that: a mental exercise to encapsulate
fairness. As such, it aims to demarcate what may, and what may not, count as a
consideration in determining principles of just distribution. So the fact that I am a white
male should not count; the fact that I am free and morally equal to everyone else should
count. It is not necessary to think that selves behind the veil of ignorance could really
exist or function; the exercise could be construed as about us actual people in such a
situation where we were barred from using any considerations that were behind the veil
of ignorance. Think of it as a veil of impermissible reasoning, if one prefers.
4. Walzer’s Spheres of Justice: there are two issues that he runs together that require
separation. First is the idea of different “spheres of justice” or distributive criteria for
different sorts of goods. Medicine: should be distributed according to need. Primary
education: universally. Tertiary education: merit. Political office: merit. Material wealth:
perhaps merit and entitlement. Etc.
Secondly is the idea of cultural meanings. Here Walzer is joining the socio-metaphysical
communitarian vogue and asserting a sort of cultural relativity with respect to how goods
should be distributed. But one could accept the previous point about different spheres
while rejecting the cultural relativity claim. Take medicine. In our culture, Walzer says,
we think that medicine should be distributed according to need, and that’s why it should
be so distributed in our culture. But suppose some other culture thinks it should be
distributed according to wealth, power, and connections? Does that mean that that is how
it should be distributed in that society? Unlikely. Rather, the example just shows that that
society is badly misguided with respect to the relevant question of justice. So Walzer’s
point about the relativity of justice to the nature of the particular good can (and I think
should) be accepted without acceptance of the relativity of justice to the dominant
cultural views about how the particular good should be distributed (or cultural relativism,
which I think should be rejected).
Ronald Dworkin made a not unrelated point in 1983 in a review of Spheres of Justice
(followed by Walzer’s rejoinder). Dworkin observed thatAmericans were in fact deeply
divided over how medicine should be distributed. Many believed it should be distributed
according to need, but many others held that one has a right to use one’s wealth, if one
wishes, to purchase the best medical care, if one can afford it. One cannot resolve this
philosophical debate by seeing what the “community” really wants, any more than one
could resolve the issue of abortion in this way. (The point is not merely that opinions are
divided on these issues, but that whether divided or whether there is a consensus, the
opinions may be wrong.)
There are other aspects of the broad “liberal-communitarian debate” that can be briefly
4 C. Are principles of justice universal or particular to each society? There are actually two
issues here: what is the scope of principles of justice (global or society-bound), and if the
latter, are they of a different nature depending on the society (say, one is more egalitarian,
the other is less)? Some communitarians thought justice must be society-bound (the first
point) and relative in nature to the values and kind of society (the second point).
D. Perfectionism versus anti-perfectionist neutrality. Recall that perfectionism is the view
that the state has a right (and duty) to make people moral, or to influence their morals in a
certain way. Communitarians tended to endorse such views on grounds that the
“community” had a right to preserve its values. The right of self-determination was a
collective right to make the public (and sometimes the private) life of the community
conform to the community’s values. Liberals tend to shun such views as dangerous to the
sanctity of individual rights. The state was not permitted to prefer one CG over another,
and that is what such interference amounted to. The only group or collective rights could
be concatenated out of individual rights.
E. Is a strong sense of justice a sufficient “philia” or bond in a society? Recall that Rawls
thought a well-ordered society with a shared public conception of morality would be
stable and generate its own support. There would be a kind of loyalty to the constitution
or the political community. Some communitarians have argued that nationalism or
patriotism is at least in some communities a prerequisite of social cohesion. Some
concede thatAmerican society does seem to revolve around a sort of constitutional
patriotism. “That’s unconstitutional” is a phrase familiar to even youngAmericans. The
question becomes pertinent with respect to school curricula, national holidays and
symbols, and so forth. How much “nation-building” is permissible, and how much is
In Political Liberalism Rawls recasts his project. The key elements:
1. People have comprehensive doctrines (metaphysical, all-encompassing views about the
meaning of life, the good life, morality, such as religious views or secular ideologies).
2. Some comprehensive doctrines are reasonable – they tolerate coexistence with others.
Others are not.
3. The point of political philosophy: to find an overlapping consensus between a plurality
of comprehensive doctrines. This sums up the entire book.
4. The constructive procedure (the whole Original Position thought experiment from the
first book, which yields the lexically ranked two principles of justice) sho