Updated: Mar 14
The advent of a pandemic in the form of coronavirus or more popularly known as COVID-19 has given resurgence to another age-old debate of society versus the individual. As Michael Walzer pointed out, ‘intellectual fashions are notoriously short-lived’ but are certain to return. Due to the abundance of time, the majority of us, including myself, oblivious to the plethora of knowledge and intellectual debate around us, have had a few simple questions which have a profound impact on the understanding of the relationship between an individual and the community he belongs to. Why should I, a person who has not exhibited any symptoms which indicate a likelihood of being infected with the virus, be constrained and confined to the boundaries of my house? The same question can be put forth using several permutations and combinations using different variables for instance considering a person who is infected with the virus. Irrespective of the form of the question, the answer lies in the clash between two famous (or infamous) philosophies namely liberalism and communitarianism. As Michael Walzer pointed out, ‘intellectual fashions are notoriously short-lived’ but are certain to return.
The present article engages in the historical origin of communitarianism and its basic foundational ideas contrasted with the liberalistic notions centred around the individual. It must be noted that this comparative analysis of communitarianism is fundamental to understanding the conception of communitarianism. Further, the idea of communitarianism being obsolete in the modern-day context is laughable and examples of its importance have been highlighted throughout the article.
Meaning and historical origin
Communitarianism is a social philosophy that primarily focuses on societal formulations of good and the normative justification of such formulations. As Aristotle stated, ‘Man is by nature a social animal.’ The basic premise of communitarianism lies in the inextricable relationship between an individual and the community that he belongs to. A holistic understanding of the concept is impeded without contrasting it with the individual’s conception of good thereby, giving rise to a conflict between society and the individual. In fact, Amitai Etzioni, an American sociologist, defines communitarianism ‘in contrast to theories that emphasize the centrality of the individual.’ This juxtaposition of these two concepts can be additionally attributed to the origin of communitarianism.
Although, the term ‘communitarianism’ was coined in the 19th century by John Goodwyn Barmby, it entered the main fray of academic debate only in the 20th century as a response to two prominent philosophical schools namely contemporary liberalism, which seeks to protect and enhance personal autonomy and individual rights through the activity of government (positive freedom), and libertarianism, a form of liberalism also referred to as classic liberalism that aims to protect individual rights through strict limits on governmental power(negative freedom). To be precise, John Rawls’ notion of a just world based on the inalienable rights of an individual and the concept of an original position devoid of any connection to the community, was the spark of the debate. ‘The Theory of Justice’ was met with fierce criticism by prominent scholars like Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, etcetera in their respective works.
However, it must be noted that the origin of communitarianism or at least a basic conception of it can be traced back to Aristotle as well as Hegel. ‘Politics’, a popular work of Aristotle, presupposes ‘a political community, a necessity for the full and complete development of individual capacities.’ Religious affiliation may be attributed to the conception of communitarianism by virtue of idealistic notions of common ownership of resources and being a part of something bigger than the individual itself. Therefore, the above-mentioned scholars drew inspiration from these ideas leading to the formulation of their ‘critique’.
The core of the debate revolves around the clash between a common formulation of good as opposed to each and every individual determining their own conception of good. The subsequent section of the article focuses on the differing aspects between the two concepts and the fundamental implications of the differentiation with reference to the contemporary context.
The primary criticism of the liberalism is of the abstraction of human identity in the terms of their race, sex, religion, socio-economic status, etcetera to arrive at the original position as propounded by Rawls. In fact, Charles Taylor in her paper ‘Atomism’, outrightly rejected the idea of human beings being self-sufficient entities and conformed to Aristotle’s belief of man being a social animal unable to sever his ties from the community that he is a part of. According to communitarian ideology, existence of a community is a pre-condition to the development of moral reasoning. Russel Muirhead also says ‘there is no wholly impartial view from which we can judge the ethical quality of actions or the justice of a society.’ In order to be a “moral subject,” human beings must live inside “a community of language and mutual discourse about the good and bad, just and unjust”. To put it more bluntly, there are only Germans or Russians, Berliners or Muscovites, or members of some other particularistic community and no such thing as merely an individual.
In fact, Walzer states that liberalism is foremost advocate of the four states of mobility and the Brownian Movement as the former represents the pursuit of liberty and freedom of action and the latter reaffirms self-sufficiency of individuals who keep moving away from each other. Thus, according to this, political mobility which is one of the four mobilities should allow a ‘liberal citizen’ to vote fresh for every set of elections depending on which political party serves their interests the best. All forms of loyalty leaders, movements, parties, etcetera should be absent as according to liberalism, a person should be able to make a decision without consideration of personal identity, bias, culture or family tradition of voting for a particular party. However, Walzer observes that the best way to predict how someone will vote is to determine the vote of their parents. Further, several world leaders in the recent past have ascribed to communist idealogy and visible impact has been noted in communitarianism as the social and legal theory behind the constitution of Germany, as well as the archaic Japanese constitution. It is seen that communitarianism has had a profound impact on politics, governance and the relationship between state and the citizen.
Communitarians have rejected the overly abstract individualism of liberalism. They place the claims of justice in particular social value structures. They emphasize the importance of particularistic moral traditions. Therefore, a just state is not one that is remains neutral towards all individual conceptions of the good. To the contrary a just state is one which encourages its citizens to adopt conceptions of the good that conform to the common good, while discouraging conceptions of the good that conflict with it. According to communitarianism, the nature of the state should not be neutral or minimalist; rather it ought to play a role in guiding its citizens in leading a good life. Hence while liberal individualism encourages each person to define and seek his own “good”, communitarianism believes that a political structure has an important role to play in defining and in helping people seek the “good”.
A relevant modern-day example is that of marriage. The state can limit it to marriage between a man and a woman or include marriage between two people of the same gender but in either case it takes a position in that some particular set of arrangements are included within the scope of the term, while others, such as marriage among three, are excluded. To those who argue that a true liberal state may remain neutral by refraining from issuing marriage licenses and, thus, leaving it to religious and other civilian authorities to conduct marriages, communitarians respond that by staying neutral on this issue but not on others (e.g. by definition what constitutes a crime) the state is nevertheless taking a normative position, namely that marriage is not of significant moral import. It must be noted that there is no universal conception of what is good in this matter. It differs from community to community as seen. However, it does constitute a very important question with regards to the extent of state intervention in a person’s freedom of action. Taking for instance the Navtej Johar v. Union of India, which decriminalized homosexuality in India after its continued sustenance and associated stigma in the Indian society was a matter of judicial intervention reformulating the conception of what is good within Indian society.
Responsive communitarianism, which emerged as a reaction to the increased atomization of western societies had scholars such as Amitai Etzioni at its forefront. They argued that the preservation of social bonds is essential for the flourishing of individuals and societies. In the early 21st century, they discovered that Scandinavian countries had achieved the best balance a good balance between individual rights and societal goals. Therefore, to counter the trend in western societies, they developed criteria for the formulation of policies that would enable societies to cope with the potential conflicts between the common good and individual rights. These matters included the conflict between public health as a societal goal versus the privacy of an individual. One of the criteria was the that a limitation on rights can be considered only if there are significant gains to the common good. Another one was relating to the adverse side effects that result from policy changes must be treated, above all, by introducing stronger mechanisms of accountability and oversight. These criteria can be applied in terms of compulsory vaccinations wherein the threat of the disease is an overriding factor. Also, its application in the testing of HIV for babies in the United States can be considered as it is beneficial for the community.
Coming to the battle against COVID-19, which is at the epicentre of global debate and controversy, presently, the United States has the highest number of deaths as well as infected people due to their strong affiliation with a libertarian ideology. An overemphasis on individual rights has led to the consolidation of a liberalist attitude resulting in responses such as, “If I get corona, I get corona.”, without considering the large-scale ramifications of such actions following a massive loss in human life. In contrast, countries with a communitarian approach have controlled the spread of the virus like South Korea and Singapore. Even Kerala, a state in India greatly influenced and governed by a communitarian approach has been especially recognized across the globe for the successful efforts taken by it to curb the spread of the virus.
An interesting yet controversial approach on how the society is to deal with the pandemic was raised by the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, who stated that the entire country should not sacrifice itself in order to save the lives of the elderly. It imposes a duty on the elderly people to save the lives of the younger generations even if it is at the cost of their own. Another aspect is the limited availability of ventilators and allocation of such ventilators depending upon the age of the patient. The crisis makes it clear that people are not to put their own interests first but to think of the requirements of those who are in actual need of it. General advice pertaining to not indulge into panic buying and stock up on hand sanitizers and surgical masks as both these commodities are not necessarily needed to keep individuals from contracting the virus, as that creates a shortage in places where these are actually needed like hospitals and isolation centres, has been given. People are realising that as they live in society, they have obligations towards others, and solely focusing on individual interests would hamper the well-being of others and would put the survival of society at a risk.
Therefore, it is observed throughout the length of this article that communitarians focused on ‘community values’ instead of an overemphasis on ‘individual values’ leading to the concept of a welfare state as opposed to the minimal state proposed by Nozick. It is interesting to note in this context, with the rise of the BlackLivesMatter movement, wherein an entire community faced with systematic oppression has risen up against large-scale police brutality and racism omnipresent around the world and especially in the United States, that the proposal of disbanding the police force in Minnesota presents interesting jurisprudential propositions wherein the police force would be replaced through community safety measures and the establishment of a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. At this juncture, wherein community interests are aligned with the protection of individual liberties in times of state interference, another legal theory namely utilitarianism brings us at a crossroads. A justifiable argument can be made in favour of police intervention to preserve the security and safety of individuals in the long-term in consonance with the ‘permanent interests of mankind’ as propounded by Mill. In fact, the implications of a quick-fire decision due to community pressure resulting in instant abolition or defunding without proper planning have already been pointed out. However, regardless of the outcome of such decisions, it is evident that the tides are turning in favour of the communitarian movement.
References  Michael Walzer, The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism, 18(1) Political Theory 6 (1990) [‘Walzer’].  Russell Muirhead, Communitarianism, The International Encyclopedia of Ethics 926–932 (2013).  Amitai Etzioni, Communitarianism, The Encyclopedia of Political Thought (1st ed., edited by Michael T. Gibbons) (2015).  Amitai Etzioni, Communitarianism Revisited, 19 Journal of Political Ideologies 241 (2014).  The distinction between the two primarily lies in the role of the state. Classic liberals believe in a state without oppression where individuals are free from governmental control whereas modern liberals believe in state intervention to the extent that all individuals are enabled to achieve their way of life. For more clarity on the aspect, See Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) which talks about a minimal state. Also See John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869).  John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 22 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).  Russell Muirhead, Communitarianism, The International Encyclopedia of Ethics (2013).  Act 4:32 of the Christian New Testament, which states “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common”. Also, a few of the foundational ideas are mentioned through the Islamic concept of Shura or consultation, Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), in Confucianism and in Roman Catholic philosophy, the writings of Edmund Burke and also in Fabianism.  It is pertinent to mention that none of the scholars actually proposed an alternative system of justice or aligned themselves with a communitarian movement but restricted themselves to the criticism of liberalism as a concept. However, it may well be argued that by endorsing societal formulations of good and discrediting the liberalist conception of justice, the scholars formulated an idea which could sustain itself in isolation. Therefore, communitarianism may be viewed as independent idea focusing on the importance of the community. Alternatively, it may be viewed as the antithesis of liberalism.  Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1982).  Charles Taylor, Atomism, Philosophical Papers (Vol. II., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).  Daniel Bell, Communitarianism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016), available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/communitarianism/.  Russell Muirhead, Communitarianism, The International Encyclopedia of Ethics(2013).  Supra, note 11.  Supra, note 1.  A. Campbell et al., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960), pp. 147-148, as cited in Walzer.  US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Democrat forewoman Hillary Clinton; Tehreek-e-insaaf in Pakistan is the first political party that ascribes to communitarianism as one of their official philosophies.  Winfried Brugger, Communitarianism as the social and legal theory behind the German Constitution, 2(3) Int’l J. Con. L. 431 (2004).  ‘Wa’ or group harmony as a core value in Article 1 of the 1st Constitution of Japan in the 7th century.  Milton C. Regan Jr., Morality, fault, and divorce law, in Martin King Whyte (Ed.) Marriage in America: A Communitarian Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2000), p. 220, as cited in Amitai Etzioni, Communitarianism Revisited, 19 Journal of Political Ideologies 241 (2014).  Navtej Johar v. Union of India, (2018) 10 SCC 1.  Supra, note 11.  Supra, note 3.  https://theprint.in/opinion/coronavirus-is-shaking-up-the-moral-universe-and-testing-profound-philosophical-questions/391050/  https://nationalinterest.org/feature/coro