03 September 2003

Communitarians

Recently I've been receiving in my campus mail box information from The Communitarian Network, founded by Amitai Etzioni and others. Who are the communitarians? The following is from their website:

In the late 1980s, a growing number of academicians and social commentators began to notice a breakdown in the moral fabric of society. Attributing this condition to an excessive emphasis on individualism in the public sphere, they recognized the need for a social philosophy that at once protected individual rights and attended to corresponding responsibilities to the community. Transcending the stalemate between left and right, this new "responsive communitarian" philosophy articulated a middle way between the politics of radical individualism and excessive statism.

Its founding document is the Responsive Communitarian Platform, which emphasizes, among other things, the following:

A communitarian perspective recognizes that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect; where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others; where we develop the skills of self-government as well as the habit of governing ourselves, and learn to serve others -- not just self.

The primary argument of the communitarians is against a fragmenting individualism that too easily emphasizes rights at the expense of responsibilities. Their quarterly journal is, appropriately enough, called The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities.

Etzioni runs his own weblog, which tackles some of the more weighty issues of the day, including the same-sex marriage controversy.

The communitarians bear watching. I find myself in considerable sympathy with their aims. Yet I wonder whether their approach really constitutes a genuine alternative to the predominant liberalism of North America or whether it represents little more than a modification of liberalism while maintaining liberal first principles. It is not immediately apparent that they are working with a normative approach that is sufficiently different from the liberalism whose effects they wish to combat.

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