Communitarianism is a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of shared formulations of the good for the understanding of public life, human identity, and wellbeing. It emerged in the 1980s in response to contemporary liberalism and libertarianism. The philosophy of liberalism is directed to protection and promotion of the autonomy and rights of individuals, in part through acts of government. The central concern of libertarianism is protection of the individual's rights to liberty and property by strictly limiting the powers of government. Advocates of both contemporary liberalism and libertarianism want individuals, not government, to formulate their own conceptions of the good.
John Goodwyn Barmby ( 1820–1881 ), a leader of the Chartist movement in Britain who experimented with communal lifestyles, constructed the term communitarianism in 1841. He applied the term to utopian socialists, but it was seldom used until the 1980s. Communitarian ideas have become significant in public life through their adoption into the political party platforms and policies of European and American leaders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For example, communitarian ideas have been promoted by such prominent politicians as Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands ( in office 2002–2010 ), Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom ( 1997–2007 ), and Presidents Bill Clinton ( 1993–2001 ) and Barack Obama ( since 2009 ) of the United States.
Although the term and philosophies explicitly associated with communitarians are new, communitarian ideas and values are evident in many earlier texts, including the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. (Acts 4:32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” ) Communitarian values are also evident in Islam (in the concept of shûrāa); and in Confucianism (stress on living up to communally defined virtues).
There are several kinds of communitarians. Academic communitarians include a small number of scholars who argue for the importance of the common good. Best known among them are Charles Taylor ( 1989 ) and Michael Sandel ( 1998, 2009 ). Others who are often cited as communitarians in this sense include Shlomo Avineri ( 1992 ), Seyla Benhabib, Avner de-Shalit ( with Avineri, 1992 ), Jean Bethke Elshtain, Amitai Etzioni ( 1993, 1996 ), William A. Galston ( 1991 ), Philip Selznick ( 2002 ), and Michael Walzer.
A rather different kind of communitarianism is championed by public intellectuals and political leaders in East Asia. They employ the term to describe the values of authoritarian states like China, Singapore, and Malaysia, which exalt civic responsibilities but accord little weight to autonomy and rights. They view individuals as cells, who find fulfillment in service to the social whole, rather than as self-interested free agents. Communitarianism of this kind was championed in particular by Bilahari Kausikan, a diplomat from Singapore.
In 1990 Etzioni and Galston founded a “responsive” (or liberal) type of communitarianism. Its members expressed their shared principles in a series of academic and popular books and articles, gaining a measure of political prominence, mainly in the West. Responsive communitarians claim that people confront two major sources of normativity: the common good, and individual autonomy and rights. In principle, neither one should dominate the other.
Communitarianism can be viewed historically as a corrective to individualism. Modern communitarianism is a reaction to excessive individualism, an undue emphasis on individual rights that leads people to become egocentric and thus to atomization and the fraying of the social fabric. Excessive individualism in the United States is the theme of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in 1985 ), a highly regarded communitarian book by the American sociologist Robert Bellah and his associates. Noting a trend toward self-centered behavior, the authors surmised that continual prosperity from the 1950s to the 1980s was connected to decreasing respect for traditional authority and institutions, and increasing materialistic hedonism.
Previous inquiries by prominent sociologists, such as Ferdinand Tönnies ( 1855–1936 ) and Émile Durkheim ( 1858–1917 ), had reported antisocial propensities in the context of modernization, which they interpreted as a profound transition from controlling but nurturing communities (Gemeinschaft) to liberating but anomic societies (Gesellschaft). They emphasized the dangers of an emergent normlessness and alienation in societies encompassing isolated individuals, who had gained their liberty but lost their social moorings. Their concerns were supported by evidence presented by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community ( 2000 ).
Responsive communitarians posit that every society must embrace two core values: the common good, and individual autonomy and rights. They also find that all societies tend to favor one core value over the other, and hence need to be pulled back toward the center to maintain balance. Japan, for instance, emphatically promoted the common good but was much less concerned about the rights of women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. By contrast, leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1980s attached undue importance to individual rights. In response, public leaders such as Blair and Clinton sought to pull their societies back toward devoting greater attention to the common good, but not to neglecting individual rights.
Responsive communitarians have constructed criteria for policy making concerning conflicts between the common good and individual rights, specifically in regard to issues of public health versus individual privacy and national security versus individual liberty. These criteria, which must be applied jointly by all parties to the issues, include the following:
The testing of newborn babies for HIV exemplifies how the criteria of responsive communitarianism can be applied to decision making. These tests are justified if (1) they save lives (e.g., an infant with HIV has a strong probability of not getting AIDS when breastfeeding is avoided and treatment with the drug AZT is provided); and (2) undesirable consequences are limited by prohibiting release of test results to nonmedical persons.
In public parlance there is a strong tendency to focus on the opposition between the private sector (or the market) and the public sector (or the government). Conservatives and liberals argue about the relative merit of the two sectors. Communitarians stress that there is a large third sector, which includes families, communities, voluntary associations, ethnic and racial groups, professional groups, various religious denominations, and many thousands of not-for-profit corporations, including many of the best hospitals, universities, schools, welfare agencies, and cultural institutions.
In this third sector, children first acquire a set of moral values and norms of conduct, and it is in this sector that these are supported through informal social controls. Moreover, communitarians stress that there is a very large volume of transactions—numbering in the billions—that take place every day. It is not possible for government agents—police, border patrol, customs, IRS agents, among others—to ensure that most of these are carried out properly. Hence for a society to function well, communitarians point out, most people most of the time must abide by the norms of conduct because they believe in them and because subtle social pressures foster these norms, including service to the common good. Such service involves people paying taxes due, voting, serving on juries, helping their friends and neighbors, and volunteering—first and foremost because people consider these acts as their duty. They are “enforced” through informal social controls such as showing appreciation to those who discharge their duties and chiding those who do not. The more the government has to step in, the more society experiences a communitarian failure.
SEE ALSO Civil Society ; Common Good ; Community ; Individualism ; Liberalism ; Republicanism .
Avineri, Shlomo, and Avner De-Shalit. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford, UK, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bell, Daniel. Communitarianism and Its Critics. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Chan, J. “A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights for Contemporary China.” In The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, edited by Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, 212–37. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Etzioni, Amitai. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda. New York: Crown, 1993.
Etzioni, Amitai. The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
Fox, Russell Arben. “Confucian and Communitarian Responses to Liberal Democracy.” Review of Politics 59, no. 3 (1997): 561–92.
Galston, William A. Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. http://icps.gwu.edu .
Mulhall, Stephen, and Adam Swift. Liberals and Communitarians. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Responsive Communitarian Platform. Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. http://www.gwu.edu/~ccps/rcplatform.html.
Sandel, Michael J. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009.
Selznick, Philip. The Communitarian Persuasion. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002.
Tam, Henry. Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
George Washington University