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Liberalism versus communitarianism: the individual and his cultural group

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As far as I can see, in what concerns the relation between an individual and his cultural group, communitarians could endorse one of the following two claims:

(1) The group is ontologically, but not politically, prior to the individual. As a consequence, the interests of the group should be protected, but when these interests conflict with those of the individual members, individual interests (and rights) must always trump group interests (and rights)

(2) The group is both ontologically and politically prior to the individual. As a consequence, the interests of the group should be protected, and when these interests conflict with those of the individual members, group interests (and rights) must always trump individual interests (and rights)

If (1), then there is no conflict between liberalism and communitarianism. Even if some liberals deny that the group is ontologically prior to the individual, the problem is not that important. All that liberals want is to sanction the view that the individual is politically prior to his cultural group. In other words, (a) the group should be protected just because this protection increases the freedom and welfare of group’s individual members; (b) whenever there is a conflict between the group and (some of) its individual members, the interests of the individual members is prior. Bluntly put, I consider that this view is endorsed by liberal communitarians like Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka and Joseph Raz. But this shows that there is no conflict between communitarianism and liberalism.

If (2), then the conflict is genuine: if group’s interests must always trump individual interests, then the group (in fact, its leaders, right?) has the right of life and death over its individual members. The “traditions” of the group (and the power of its leaders, right?) must always be defended, even at the expense of the individual members’ welfare and freedom. I do not know any communitarian theorist who would explicitly endorse this view, although Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer can be read as supporting a “soft” version of this idea.

In short: if (1), there is no conflict between liberalism and communitarianism in what concerns the relation between the individual and its cultural group. If (2), then this latter theory (if not simply wrong) cannot be sincerely endorsed by any mentally healthy person. So it seems that liberalism wins the case again.

Written by Andrei Stavilă

Ianuarie 13, 2008 la 3:18 pm

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