A view that goes back to fifth-century Greece is that government should be the teacher and that citizens should serve the state. An opposite Founding Fathers concept is that the state and government should provide a matrix of security within which each individual can pursue his/her goals. Now civil society advocates argue for a third term: some sort of devotion by the individual to finding self-fulfillment by combining with others, in non-governmental organizations and institutions. Which way does/should the future go?
The Centrality of Society
It is important to specify the historical context in which we live so that our analyses and new ideas can serve as correctives to previous biases built into the social system. For example, the endless debate whether the United States is a Lockean country with room for both civil and Republican virtues assumes that there is a tension between the two. Arguing for a reduction in community values today would be a different undertaking than in the markedly different circumstances of colonial America. Many of my colleagues who write about civil society, individual freedom, and such, haven’t really discovered the twenty-first century. In many ways they are still looking backwards as they quote Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, obsessed with twentieth-century totalitarianism, was concerned with limiting the power of society so that individuals could have as many choices as possible. Historical circumstances change sometimes because of the moral vacuum that has been created by the successful attack on existing values and traditions.
Liberal and communitarian thinking divides on the question of whether ideas of social good should result from shared formulations. Fundamentalism in all its forms attempts to provide meaning to life in immoderate, illiberal ways. A fault line separates modernity and fundamentalism since no third body of ethics bridges the gap. We need a moderate ethic that is tolerant, inclusive, and based on moral dialogue, not coercion. Debate, no longer confined to intra-social conversation, but ranging over all of global society, will bring divisions to the surface that are not consensus-driven and lack an ethical standpoint.
Modern relativism was a historical reaction to a philosophy that claimed the authority of a superior white, European civilization. While this was a useful correction, we have gone too far in the other direction and must now search for new, shared ethical foundations. The old Tocquevillean argument that the state should protect individuals from itself is a thin, contentless notion and is no longer sufficient. A good society must have some notion of what is good, which should be based on moral dialogue rather than imposition by force.
In certain ways moral dialogue contrasts with the liberal notion of reason and cool deliberation based on facts and the rules of logical discussion. It allows us to come to that place of fear we need to occupy if we are to engage genuinely in normative conflicts. We also need to reconsider the ideal of keeping values confined to the private sphere. On the contrary, moral dialogue requires us to engage our deepest values and bring them to the table. The simplistic distinction between private and public morality can no longer serve us in a world where people care deeply about things that happen in private.
On the other hand, such dialogue does not necessarily lead to cultural wars. There are many national and international examples of successfully resolved moral dialogues. Initial disagreement can be emotional and impassioned, but after a few years the dust settles and a new shared understanding and formulation of the good arises as people changed their own understanding and commitments without government interference. This is the case in changed public support of environmentalist ideals. Shared values resulting from moral dialogue have the advantage of being largely self-enforcing. They require a great deal of preparation for their evolution. On the other hand, laws that are enacted without moral dialogue preceding them will be met with resistance and require constant policing and enforcement.
Moral dialogue keeps us involved in a good community by keeping things simple. Most of the time we do not need theocracy, morality squads, and policing to make us do what is right. Men and women are social animals, profoundly dependent on the approval of their fellow human beings. Communitarian ideals encourage us to be nobler than we otherwise would be. The internal sense of community frowns on people who don’t live up to their obligations and applauds them when they do. This is what we mean by a social fabric. It is a measure of community and can lead to a fairly high level of social order without the necessity of extensive state intervention and coercion.
Professor Etzioni, who is a sociologist, thinks about these problems from the point of view of society. I tend to look at the world domestically and internationally, from the point of view of political and legal thought. Professor Etzioni adopts a communitarian point of view, in which the group has the prominent place in society. More than a voluntary association of free individuals, the group is also a moral order in which the individual cannot be as free as he is in traditional liberal theory. I have considerable sympathy for this point of view, which was shared by Edmund Burke, who extolled the virtues of the little platoon over the big battalions and insisted on the positive value of tradition. He conceived of the state as a partnership of the living, the dead, and those yet to be born whose values are transmitted over generations. Professor Etzioni’s paper criticizes the classical liberal view that attempts to preserve the rights of the individual by reducing the social constrictions of communities and institutions. In his view, it is dangerous when these institutions weaken, because then neither the state nor the market can function properly.
I have some questions about this position. First: are there other perspectives we can adopt to deal with these questions? For example, can we conceive of a stable, orderly, and safe society without an overarching system of authority? Conservative thinkers like Burke, Locke, and Hobbes deny this possibility, and, on the whole, I agree with them. Second: although moral conduct and notions of right and wrong are surely learned in a social context, can society itself be understood coherently as a moral agent? Only individuals and corporate persons have responsibilities. Societies as such do not. Is it not more profitable to understand society as a sphere of human relations, where individuals engage in mutual relations under the protection of a state operating under the rule of law? Third: virtue is a disposition learned primarily in societies to engage in conduct with good consequences. But because vicious people live among the virtuous, we surrender some of our freedom to the state. Moreover, the state can play an important role in inculcating some virtues that are appropriate to citizenship, as is the case of the military. Fourth: law in a good society is an extension of morality which applies to all members. Insofar as it creates a space for people to enter into social relations with each other, law is above society. Fifth: although the political has historically been undergirt by the social, it may be possible to have a society without a state under which it exists and flourishes.
Two final general comments. First: the communitarian vision de-emphasizes and blurs the distinction between public and private. The clarity of this distinction in legal and political thought, however, is an achievement over previous medieval thinking when authority was multiple, ambiguous, and overlapping. The modern state is a solution to this problem. In overlooking this achievement, much contemporary communitarism is regressive. Second: I have had considerable experience in Africa, where the notion of the state has largely failed. People seek what refuge they can find in little enclaves, although they can find little security there compared to that offered by more enduring states.
Reply by Amitai Etzioni
In these matters we always deal with state and society. The primary question is what we should do when the state becomes too powerful. In Iran virtue is enforced by state power rather than by moral discussion and persuasion. When there is deviation from community norms, we have a choice of calling the police or trying to stimulate the moral juice of a community. We need both resources, but we always have to decide which is the first and the second line of defense against lawlessness. Society can be an agent in these processes, not in the sense that it is a free-acting, freethinking individual, but insofar as it can exercise an independent force.
On the other hand, the community cannot always be the ultimate arbiter of what is right. Communities can act malignantly and destructively. Some consensus can be horrible, even when it has arisen out of moral dialogue. We therefore have to think about what criteria such consensus should be based on. The Constitution of the United States or the UN Declaration of Human Rights rests on criteria that we can bring to bear even against those semi-sacred documents. There are some absolute values out there, which we can talk about freely. Self-evident truths can sometimes be hidden, but they emerge when we engage in free conversations.
This is a chapter from Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference).
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