Saturday, January 2, 2010

Can communitarians and libertarians agree about the good society?

Since Michael Walzer is often identified as a leading communitarian thinker I did not expect to agree with his views about the good society. I thought it might be interesting to read his short article, ‘What is “The Good Society”? (Dissent, Winter 2009) just to see how much his views differed from my own (See, for example, ‘Is the good society a useful concept?). I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much difference.



Walzer begins his article by asking how there could be one good society, given the immense variety of human cultures. He then proceeds to talk himself around to the position that the good society ‘is constituted by the peaceful co-existence of all the societies that aim at goodness’.


Walzer argues that this view of the good society involves focusing our hopes for goodness on ‘more local, more particularized “societies” rather that a single society in which all members share a single goal. What he has in mind is the possibility that a single individual could take part in many different good societies (movements, associations and communities uniting for a common purpose) organized at different levels of social life and over different geographic areas (p78).


This reminds me of similar views expressed by Friedrich Hayek: ‘It would be a sad misunderstanding of the basic principles of a free society if it were to be concluded that, because they must deprive the small group of all coercive powers, they do not attach great value to the voluntary action of small groups. ... The true liberal must on the contrary desire as many as possible of those “particular societies within the state” ... Liberalism is not individualistic in the “everybody for himself sense”. A few paragraphs further on he wrote: “It is the great merit of the spontaneous order concerned only with means that it makes possible the existence of a large number of distinct and voluntary value communities serving such values as science, the arts, sports and the like. And it is a highly desirable development that in the modern world these groups tend to extend beyond national boundaries ...’ (LLL, vII: 151).


The communitarian libertarianism that Michael Walzer is advocating in this article makes a refreshing change from the vision of the good society favoured by social democrats and paternalistic conservatives who view governments as having the central role of defining and achieving ‘societal objectives’. Our chances of continuing progress toward good or better societies in coming decades will be enhanced if there is more widespread recognition of the importance of the spontaneous activities of numerous small groups comprised of individuals who share common goals.

6 comments:

Clay Barham said...

Is it self-centered greed or legitimate self-interest that is the main concern with those who do not understand Ayn Rand? Those who admire and criticize Ayn Rand’s beliefs about people who stand on their own feet often say she promoted selfishness, thereby greed, which is self-centered and anti-individual creativity. That is anti-Rand. Rand admired the creative individual, people like railroad builder James Jerome Hill, on whom she was reputed to have based her character Nathaniel Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. Independent “I’m OK, you’re OK” people are OK with Rand, not the criminal takers. If we look at Howard Roark’s summation to the jury, from Fountainhead, we do not see a self-centered individual destroying his work. If he was greedy he would have simply accepted his payment. We see an other- and outer-centered individual in love with his own dreams and creations, as one would love a spouse, child or family and refuse to allow them to be assaulted. That is the kind of self-interest that built America. Though love for anything spiritual may be missing, a great idea or vision also measures up to that which is spiritual, beyond self, and that view is not even inconsistent with Christianity. Claysamerica.com.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Clay. I think you would agree with my comments on Ayn Rand's views on selfishness in this post:
http://wintonbates.blogspot.com/2009/10/did-ayn-rand-regard-selfishness-as.html

Kevin Kervick said...

Hello All:

What a refreshing way to look at what may be the most important issue of our time.

While speaking with a Libertarian commentator on his radio program a few weeks ago we hashed around this notion of "communal libertarianism", that a free man also may have a moral responsibility to be a good neighbor. While the state has no imperative to require a man to give to others, as in objectivism, a man's stake in his community (and indeed his superego) may compel him to be a good neighbor. All of this remains voluntary, to the extent that free choice is unencumbered by social introjects.

The larger point is that the Founders had an implicit assumption that people would naturally be good to each other. Without the logical (neighborly)actions resulting from that assumption, we are left with narcissism and anomie. Hence, the primary criticism of Rand, that she was herself a narcissist.

Kevin Kervick said...

Hello All:

What a refreshing way to look at what may be the most important issue of our time.

While speaking with a Libertarian commentator on his radio program a few weeks ago we hashed around this notion of "communal libertarianism", that a free man also may have a moral responsibility to be a good neighbor. While the state has no imperative to require a man to give to others, as in objectivism, a man's stake in his community (and indeed his superego) may compel him to be a good neighbor. All of this remains voluntary, to the extent that free choice is unencumbered by social introjects.

The larger point is that the Founders had an implicit assumption that people would naturally be good to each other. Without the logical (neighborly)actions resulting from that assumption, we are left with narcissism and anomie. Hence, the primary criticism of Rand, that she was herself a narcissist.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment, Kevin.

I don't know enough about Rand to be sure whether your comment about her personal qualities is accurate. Since her main influence is via her novels, I think it is more useful to focus on the personal qualities of the characters she wants us to admire. The heroes of her novels don't seem to me to be selfish - in terms of the usual meaning of that term.

Kevin Kervick said...

I agree with that Winston. As a family therapist I sometims play the game of personality = political theory.

Readers might want to check out Benjamin Wiker's new book, The 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read, And One Imposter, for a scathing critique of Rand and Objectivism. Guess which book Wiker considers to be an imposter?