Liberalism Vs Communitarianism : Is There Middle Ground?

Jul 9, 2019 by Vasundhara Mukherjee #Culture & Society ,#LGBT ,#Social Issues

Liberalism and communitarism are two prongs upon which a major chunk of the deliberations and critiques of political theory rests on. While it may be true that other ‘-isms’ have found their rightful place in the society and in political debates around the globe, the liberal communitarian debate is a well documented and detailed one that emphasizes on the quest to present the best solution for a good life.

The purpose of this paper is to analyse the dynamics of this debate and come at a conclusion as to which ism between the two is the answer to have a good life in a society.

The recent form of the liberal-communitarian debate can find its root since the early 1980’s but liberalism as a theory has been in the political theory circle for a long time now. The beginning of the modern age saw the emergence of liberalism as a political and philosophical movement.  The “proto-communitarian” theory on the other hand grew largely out of the theological conceptions of the society. The present communitarian views, which favour religion harp that social affiliations are an urgent need now and it cements the ground for all thinking, valuing and self-awareness.

The conception of the self as a being prior to its ends is a core position that liberalism stands on. And this very position is criticized by communitarians as not the right approach towards leading a good life for a good life can only be within our grasp if we do not valorize our choices and are incapable of adequately conceptualizing or incorporating no chosen commitments.

“Theories of justice have moved on from answers to questions regarding the uncertainty of interests to answers to questions regarding the uncertainty of identity.” Liberalism places a greater importance to the element of ethical diversity and says that diversity by birth is irrelevant and problems of identity. The liberal person acts a chooser to his/her autonomy and treats the community as an object and context of choice.

It is since Rawls’s publication of Theory of Justice in 1971 that the debate between the present liberal-communitarian arose as it tried to replace then-current utilitarian rationales for liberal democratic systems with more recognizably Kantian principles such as impartiality, universalizability, and respect for persons. According to me, I would like to perceive the society that I live in to be a liberal one.

I would state a number of reasons and try to justify why I have come to a conclusion as such. Communitarians harp that we can acquire projects only if we regard community values as “authoritative horizons” that “set goals for us.” and as Sandel says, “self is constituted by its ends; we can reinterpret them but not reject them “.

But liberalism begs to differ from such a statement and says that every competent person must be provided with a sphere of self autonomy and self-determination that is respected by others. We must be given the choice to pursue our own conceptions of good without having to be asked to adhere to a set of rules that the state thinks will help us to lead a good life. Again, it is also left to the choice of the individuals to inquire into other conceptions of good and formulate their own after critically revising their own conception of good.

It is imperative that individuals have the choice to be able to step back and reexamine their choices and reject some of the choices they had previously embarked on and replace them with new ones if they wish to because essentially every individual is free. It is not the discovery of who we are but what we wish to become. Again, as a corollary of the above argument to support a liberal society, I agree that a state should be fundamentally neutral and state perfectionism should be rejected.

A tailor-made set of approved conceptions of good should be dismissed as it is faulty. However, having said that, it needs to be kept in mind that liberalism is not moral neutrality. Racial and gender equality, equality of opportunities of individuals are all within the gamut of liberalism. Liberals hold that people have an equal basic right to primary goods or all-purpose means, which they may use to pursue their conceptions of the good in ways compatible with the basic framework of justice, such as that outlined in Rawls’ two principles of justice.

Having said all this, I believe that liberalism needs to have a “communalisation” too. Certain communities do experience a sense of insecurity and uncertainty. Communitarianism is fertile soil upon which these communities can thrive while liberalism seems to enhance this uncertainty among such communities. In a liberal society where it is a society of separate individuals, we feel the need to be reassured about our existential choices and we lose all sense certainty that they are good choices, also in other people’s eyes.

If they were not good choices, uncertainty would remain about the validity of them and, furthermore, we should feel rejected and excluded from common life. It is here that the political recognition plays a key role in assuring individuals that the choices they have made are meaningful and in their existential projects. Many social groups like Second Wave Feminism, Black Civil Rights Group in the U.S, LGBT movements, and, to a lesser extent, ethnic and national group claims to recognition are based on arguments about injustices done to particular social groups.

These social groups have been historically oppressed and are vulnerable to certain forms of oppression: marginalization, exploitation, cultural imperialism (stereotyping), powerlessness, and group-targeted violence. These five ‘faces’ of oppression tend to mark those whose identities have been historically neglected, suppressed or interpreted by dominant social groups. The liberal mode of political inclusion fails in this aspect. It doesn’t accommodate fully people who identify themselves differently in the social landscape. The liberal political order doesn’t incorporate group rights and this is where I have a problem.

The liberal political order shouldn’t feel threatened and seek to incorporate rights just as it incorporates individual rights and interests. The problem with liberalism is that it treats political demands rooted in interests as individual rights and fundamental interests, such as the interest in autonomy, are accorded the protection of liberal rights, but other interests, such as those emanating from the individual’s connections to particular communities; have to be subject to the give-and-take of democratic politic.

Thus, liberal rights do not recognize justice based demands which arise from groups. It also presupposes a type of person and cannot accommodate the historically denigrated people in the society.

The liberal strategy to such an opposition weak one. Instead of being dependent on a deeper, highly individualistic philosophy of the self, the rights that thesis promotes such as rights to freedom of religion, thought, association and expression, can accommodate different kinds of people and their conceptions of good and protect these groups of people from any kinds of coercion or oppression.

Indeed, a key feature in Rawls’s argument is the assumption of reasonable pluralism. The fact that people have different conceptions of the good, different aims, identities and interests, is a key justificatory plank in Rawls’s argument for liberal principles and rights; these political rules and rights are justified precisely because they are important in protecting people’s diverse aims and interests.