Strength in Numbers

September 01, 2009

Communities can shape our identity as individuals and strengthen adherence to social norms – but how compatible are community values with universal rights? Amitai Etzioni explores this basic duality.

The value of community is far from self-evident to many in the west. Indeed, some have argued that the very term is so vague that it cannot be defined. Others suggest that it is an idea promoted by those who seek to suppress the disadvantaged or that it refers to a generally oppressive societal design – to an old-fashioned, traditional village.

In contrast, communitarians (myself included) hold that community can be clearly defined as a group of individuals in possession of the following two characteristics: a web of affect-laden relationships that often criss-cross and reinforce one another (rather than merely one-on-one or chain-like individual relationships); and some commitment to a core of shared values, norms and meanings, as well as a shared history and identity – in short, to a particularistic normative culture. Many communities are confessional, ethnic or both. They tend to command a strong sense of loyalty and mutual responsibility – like families writ large. Critics often call them ‘tribal’.

Communitarians further hold that community, defined in this way, is basically a major common good in itself, as well as a major source of other common goods. I write ‘basically’ because, like all goods, communities can take on dysfunctional forms, especially if they are excessively thick – in other words, cohesive and homogenous – or if their political structure is oppressive. This is why it is so important to balance communities and the common goods they promote with respect for rights.

Mountains of data, most recently reviewed and augmented by Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama, show that, when communities are thin or absent, people often suffer both physically (they are more prone to have a great variety of major illnesses, including heart attacks, ulcers and high blood pressure, as well as to recover from illness more slowly) and psychologically (they are more prone to be depressed, have low self-esteem or be disoriented). The absence of sufficient communal bonds causes people to feel detached, alienated and powerless.

Such an insufficiency of communal bonds leads some either  to withdraw from society or to act in antisocial ways, from joining gangs and militias (to find some form of community) to abusing drugs and alcohol or one another. Indeed, some have argued that it is the mark of the ‘modern self’ that its development is truncated, that it shows the ill effects of deficient connectedness as well as moral anomie. Others have noted that modern loneliness makes people neurotic, selfish or narcissistic.

The social animal

Communitarians have long shown that individual identity – a core element of the liberal image of the person – is insufficiently explained by liberal philosophy and is profoundly linked to community. As Joseph de Maistre put it: “There is no such thing as man in the world. In the course of my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians; I know, too, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never met him in my life; if he exists, he is unknown to me.”

Michael Sandel notes that we cannot understand ourselves but “as the particular persons we are – as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic”.

Others have argued that our capacity to act as reasoned people – another core element of the liberal image of the person – relies on our being anchored in relatively thick communities. Community-wide conceptions of the good help us find out which shared decision-making processes and public policies are legitimate, thereby preventing strife and gridlock.

Communities, importantly, also provide informal social controls that reinforce the moral commitments of their members and, in turn, help make for a largely voluntary social order. The most effective way to reinforce norms of behaviour is to build on the fact that people have a strong need for continuous approval from others, especially from those with whom they have affective bonds of attachment (members of their communities). Communities can consequently strengthen adherence to social norms. Communitarians see this persuasive power as a key function of communities, in part because it allows the role of the state and its coercive means to be greatly curtailed, replaced by the promotion of the common good based on the informal social controls that communities provide.

In short, communities are a major source of human flourishing. They not only constitute a significant common good in themselves, they also contribute to numerous other common goods – including the formation of individual carriers of rights.

Competing obligations

But where does a community end? Some scholars have advocated a position that sees human obligation on a strictly universal level. They argue that we owe the same to someone halfway around the world as we do to someone in our own community. Peter Singer has famously advocated this strict universalism and its corollary: the moral illegitimacy of communal or ‘particularistic’ obligations. He writes: “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out… It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child 10 yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know 10,000 miles away.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some have denied the very existence of universal moral values and embraced a position that sees room for only particularistic values – in other words, moral relativism. Although he later changed his position, Michael Walzer held that the community itself is the ultimate arbiter of that which is good, arguing that a “given society is just if its substantive life is lived… in a way faithful to the shared understandings of the members”. Others adopted a less radical relativistic position, holding that one is entitled to judge the legitimacy of the policies of others but should make clear that one is merely expressing one’s own culturally conditioned normative position, and that people of other cultures may readily justify rather different positions by drawing on their respective cultures. This approach has been developed, among others, by Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. In Rorty’s words, we should be ‘ironists’ and should “continue to speak with the vulgar while offering a different philosophical gloss on this speech than that offered by the realist tradition” – that is, one that denies the existence of universal claims.

As I see it, both of these positions are philosophically faulty, empirically troubled and morally dangerous. From the cardinal observation that membership in community is essential for human flourishing follows a moral obligation to nurture and sustain community and the particularistic obligations without which community cannot exist. The dichotomy between particularistic and universal obligations, as advocated by both the anti-particularists and the relativists, holds only if we assume that one’s position must be all-encompassing. There is no need to assume such comprehensiveness and, in social reality, people often combine the two. Thus, even if we owe certain obligations to all human beings, we still have additional obligations to members of our own communities, whether local, national or regional.

On the other hand, full-blown moral relativism greatly undermines the essence of moral claims – the call on the other to recognise the value for which one is appealing. Moral judgements become like expressions of taste. I like broccoli and recommend it to you, but I rush to declare that you may have strong reasons to prefer carrots, and I have no standing to complain about such a preference. Such conditional, contingent claims are pale ones, unlikely to sway anyone, or even foster serious deliberations, especially in a world in which many others pose strong, unhedged claims. In contrast, if one maintains that the moral truth of one’s position is rooted in universal values – that one expects everyone to hear the voice that makes the position compelling and that those who do not hear it have not been properly subject to open dialogue – the potency of one’s claim is sustained.

Like most stark dichotomies, the opposition between particularism and universalism is greatly overstated. Societal designs are not limited either to keeping one’s community, identity and culture and ignoring all universal values, or to rejecting community in order to ensure full-blown universalism. Unfortunately, this kind of philosophical monotheism (the idea that either particularism or universalism must be the sole value)  often has a profound impact on policy discussions. For instance, political theorist Lord Bhikhu Parekh chaired the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, which released a widely discussed report concluding that the government should avoid promoting any “fixed conception of national identity and culture”. This, the report claimed, was because the United Kingdom had become a territory that English, Scottish, Welsh, West Indian, Pakistani and other such groups inhabit like tribes resting next to each other with little in common, and because “people living in Britain cannot adhere to the values of one community”. The same simplification is evident among those European and Japanese intellectuals and leaders who believe the only possible responses to immigration are unbounded multiculturalism or full assimilation.

The conception that people’s world view is either that of villagers (or ‘locals’) or cosmopolitan is clearly inaccurate. It is a serious sociological misunderstanding to assume that people follow either local, particularistic values or universal ones, such as those encased in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If one accepts these obligations as compelling, it follows that one cannot maximise either individual rights (and in their name destroy particularistic values and the communities on which they are based) or community (thus ignoring our obligations to all human beings). Communitarians like me see the tension between the two as a given; hence, it is best to seek out how commitments to both core values can be combined. For example, banning torture and allowing each person to choose which authority will marry them can be combined with a commitment to communal values, such as expecting all members to learn a shared language, respect shared historical narratives and take responsibility for past and future burdens. There is room for considerable difference as to which rights should be universally respected and which particular values should be considered essential, but the basic duality of community and rights seems incontestable.