Liberal and Communitarian Theories of Government


ONE OF THE DEBATES
THAT’S BEEN RAGING IN ACADEMIC PHILOSOPHY OVER
THE LAST 10 OR 15 YEARS HAS BEEN BETWEEN LIBERAL
AND COMMUNITARIAN THEORIES OF GOVERNMENT. IN SOME RESPECTS, THE
COMMUNITARIAN LABEL IS MISLEADING
BECAUSE IT SUGGESTS THAT THE ALTERNATIVES ARE
BETWEEN LIBERAL RIGHTS, WHICH RESPECT THE INDIVIDUAL
ON THE ONE HAND, AND DEFENDERS OF
COMMUNITY WHO ARE AGAINST RIGHTS AND AGAINST THE
INDIVIDUAL ON THE OTHER HAND, BUT THOSE SEEM TO ME TO
BE FALSE ALTERNATIVES. THE REAL ISSUE WITHIN
POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY IS BETWEEN THOSE, SAY, WHO
DEFEND A VERSION OF LIBERALISM AND RIGHTS THAT SAYS GOVERNMENT
SHOULD BE NEUTRAL AMONG ENDS, GOVERNMENT RESPECTS
RIGHTS AND FREEDOM WHEN IT DOESN’T AFFIRM THROUGH
LAW ANY PARTICULAR CONCEPTION OF THE GOOD LIFE. THAT’S ONE VIEW. AND THE OTHER VIEW
THAT SAYS IT’S NOT POSSIBLE, IN MANY CASES,
TO DEFINE OR TO DEFEND RIGHTS, EXCEPT IN RELATION TO
SOME PARTICULAR CONCEPTION OF THE GOOD LIFE. AND IT’S THE SECOND
VIEW THAT I’VE DEFENDED. THE IDEA THAT IT ISN’T
POSSIBLE, IN MANY CASES, TO DEFINE OR TO DEFEND
RIGHTS WITHOUT AFFIRMING SOME PARTICULAR CONCEPTION
OF THE GOOD LIFE. WHAT’S AT STAKE IN
THESE TWO PICTURES? ON THE LIBERAL
PICTURE, THE REASON FOR TRYING TO BE NEUTRAL AMONG
ENDS OR AMONG CONCEPTIONS OF THE GOOD IS TO AVOID
IMPOSING ON PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY IN A PLURALIST SOCIETY,
VALUES THEY MAY NOT SHARE. THE LIBERAL WORRY
IS ABOUT COERCION, ABOUT THE IMPOSITION OF VALUES. AND THE LIBERAL POSITION
IS ALSO ANIMATED BY A CERTAIN
CONCEPTION OF FREEDOM. IF GOVERNMENT IS
NEUTRAL AMONG ENDS, THEN IT CAN SECURE THE
RIGHT OF EACH OF US TO CHOOSE OUR OWN ENDS, OUR
OWN WAY OF LIFE, FOR OURSELVES. AND THERE’S SOMETHING POWERFUL
IN THAT PICTURE OF FREEDOM. BUT I THINK THAT PICTURE
FREEDOM IS FLAWED, BECAUSE I THINK THAT WE
CAN’T THINK OF OURSELVES, AND SHOULDN’T FOR ALL
POLITICAL PURPOSES THINK OF OURSELVES, AS FREE
AND INDEPENDENT SELVES, UNCLAIMED BY PRIOR MORAL TIES. I ALSO THINK IT’S FLAWED
BECAUSE, IN MANY CASES, WE CAN’T DEFINE RIGHTS
WITHOUT FALLING BACK ON SOME PARTICULAR
CONCEPTION OF THE GOOD. ANOTHER THING THAT’S AT STAKE
IN THE DEBATE BETWEEN RIGHTS ORIENTED LIBERALS AND THOSE
WHO SAY THAT RIGHTS CAN ONLY BE DEFINED IN
RELATION TO THE GOOD HAS TO DO WITH THE NATURE
OF POLITICAL DISCOURSE. AND THE LIBERAL PICTURE,
SUBSTANTIVE MORAL AND RELIGIOUS CONCEPTIONS SHOULD NOT PLAY
A PART IN JUSTIFYING RIGHTS. WE SHOULDN’T TIE RIGHTS
ON THE LIBERAL VIEW TO ANY PARTICULAR MORAL
OR RELIGIOUS CONCEPTION, BECAUSE PEOPLE DISAGREE
ABOUT MORALITY AND RELIGION. AND THE LIBERAL
ARGUES THAT IT’S NOT REALISTIC OR
REASONABLE TO SUPPOSE THAT WE CAN GET ENOUGH
AGREEMENT ON MORAL AND RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS TO MAKE THEM
THE BASIS OF GOVERNMENT, AND LAW, AND RIGHTS. THERE’S A LOT IN
THAT, AND WE NEED A– THERE’S A LOT
IN THAT REPLY, BUT I DON’T THINK IT’S
ADEQUATE, BECAUSE I THINK ONE OF THE FLAWS IN THE
LIBERAL IDEA OF PUBLIC REASON IS THAT IT’S TOO RESTRICTIVE. IT RULES OUT OF POLITICAL
DISCOURSE SUBSTANTIVE, MORAL, AND RELIGIOUS
ARGUMENT THAT I THINK IS UNAVOIDABLE IN A
PLURALIST SOCIETY. BUT ALSO DESIRABLE. I WOULD RATHER TRY
TO ORGANIZE POLITICS AND POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN A
WAY THAT ENCOURAGED ENGAGEMENT ON MORAL AND
RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS. BECAUSE THE ALTERNATIVE,
AND THIS IS REALLY A PRACTICAL POLITICAL PROBLEM,
AS WELL AS A PHILOSOPHICAL, IF WE ATTEMPT TO BANISH
MORAL AND RELIGIOUS DISCOURSE FROM POLITICS IN DEBATES
ABOUT LAW AND RIGHTS, THE DANGER IS WE’LL HAVE A
KIND OF VACANT PUBLIC SQUARE, OR A NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE. AND THE YEARNING FOR
LARGER MEETINGS IN POLITICS WILL FIND UNDESIRABLE
EXPRESSION. FUNDAMENTALISTS WILL RUSH IN
WHERE LIBERALS FEAR TO TREAD. THEY WILL TRY TO CLOTHE
THE NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE WITH THE MOST NARROW,
INTOLERANT MORALISMS. AND WE SEE THAT IN THE POLITICS
OF THE US IN RECENT YEARS, WITH THE RISE OF THE MORAL
MAJORITY, THE CHRISTIAN COALITION. WE SEE THAT IN OTHER
PARTS OF THE WORLD, WHERE A PUBLIC DISCOURSE
THAT BECOMES DRAINED OF THE SUBSTANTIVE, MORAL,
AND EVEN RELIGIOUS ENGAGEMENT LEAVES THE WAY OPEN,
LEAVES THE MORAL VOID INTO WHICH FLOW THE
MOST NARROW, INSISTENT, STRIDENT, INTOLERANT MORALISMS. AND I THINK THAT’S A DANGER
OF TOO STRINGENT AN IDEA OF LIBERAL PUBLIC REASON. AND SO THOSE OF US
WHO HAVE CRITICIZED THE VERSION OF LIBERALISM
THAT HAVE SEARCHED THE PRIORITY OF THE
RIGHT TO THE GOOD, IT SAYS YOU CAN DEFINE
RIGHTS WITHOUT DEBATING SUBSTANTIVE MORAL AND
RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS. THE DANGER IS A
PUBLIC LIFE EMPTY OF LARGER MORAL
QUESTIONS, AND THAT LEAVES THE WAY OPEN TO
NARROW, INTOLERANT MORALISMS.

Maurice Vega

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