Communitarianism and a free-standing theory of justice.
Fellow Gentleman Tom Van Dyke recently wrote the following:
For if I were an atheist member of Congress, I’d still follow GWash on the political and social utility of religion. No big deal. Religion, like paying taxes, is for the little people.
The interesting thing about Mr Van Dyke’s argument is that it purports to be a free-standing conception of justice. It would be true whatever the comprehensive notion of the good turned out to be true (if it were in fact true). Now, I disagree with him about whether religion is uniquely socially useful in such a way as to warrant such state action. In fact, part of the problem may be that it would turn out that he is endorsing some specific conception of the good in a way that reduces the free-standing-ness of his beliefs. I am now going to explain why the idea of a free-standing conception of justice is important in theorising about justice.
Traditionally, conceptions of justice are derived from comprehensive moral views. Philosophers develop a full theory of morality and develop some conclusions before they start talking about what the fundamental social institutions should be like. So, its something like utilitarianism first then liberalism or libertarianism etc etc. From this perspective, it seems really strange that we would even try to go about answering questions about justice before we settled on what the moral theory was. However, this is not as odd as it looks like. The question of which political institutions we should have can in fact be answered separately from what the moral theory is.
Let me broach the argument in the more general form so that we can understand the abstract argument without being bogged down by concretes. i.e. if I were to start talking in specifics, your intuitions would start getting in the way and we wont have a productive discussion.
Let us take certain premises A and B. As a first stab, I will say that A and B are true. (in fact they are conceptual truths) But whether or not we can show them to be true, what is the case is that all sane non-nihilists think that A and B are true. If you are not using A and B, you are probably talking about something very different from me (i.e. you are using the same terms in a different way). If you were talking about the same thing as me you would agree about A and B. That’s how obvious and self-evident they are. Its pretty much on the same level as I think therefore I exist, or all bachelors are unmarried.
Given A and B, I can deduce P.
However, lets talk about some conception of the good “C”. C is a conception of the good, in that it is a collection of statements which details out what is good, what is bad, what is worth pursuing, achieving etc etc. However, from C we can deduce ~P. What that means is that people cannot hold both A and B and C at the same time. You may not have to give up everything in C, but just some of them such that you are holding C1 which is different from C, but not so different as to be completely something else. C1 is agnostic about or entails P. But, people often do.
What this means is that some Cn is reasonable iff it is compatible with A and B.
Why can’t we give up A and B? because A and B are such modest claims that everyone who understands them will accept them. To not accept it is to fail to understand what A and B mean (or to be insane) Of course, it will have to be shown that A and B are indeed like this. But, let us suppose that this A and B are like this, what implications does it have for liberalism individualism vs communitarianism debates?
Liberal individualism (hereafter known as LI) is the thesis that the good (or at least the politically important good in any case) is individual. i.e. Only individuals benefit or lose out. Even if we can aggregate the good, the collective good is no more than the sum of its parts. LI is not inconsistent with prioritarianism which is the view that when choosing who to benefit, some people (often the worst off) should be benfited in preference to others. Prioritarianism does not claim that the people who do not receive the benefit are benefited in some other wayAny form of communitarianism is going to endorse more than that. To count as communitarian, a conception of the good must say that at least some politically important goods are collective. The collective can be better off even if it is difficult to point to any particular individual who is. Or, some person can be said to benefit merely in virtue of being a part of a collective which does benefit whether or not he actually gains anything. It is not that communitarians deny the existence of individual goods, they just think that there are some collective goals which outweigh (or in any case, compete with) at least some, if not all of the individual goods.
So, conservatism, socialism, social democracy and some forms of progressivism etc are communitarian while high liberalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism and libertarianism are individualist.
To relate it back to the structure of a free-standing theory. Everyone endorses A and B. The communitarian believes something like C as well. In so far as LI can be derived from some minimal notion about individual goods etc, communitarianism is false. i.e. some notion of liberalism is true.
Let us suppose that in Rawls’s original position something like the priority of liberty is going to be chosen. This would only be the case because of the very features of the original position. One of the key premises is the conception of society as a system of cooperation of mutual advantage. If you are a communitarian, you are going to have to say that society is more than that. However, you are going to have to concede that it is at least that i.e. communitarians have to say that society is a system of cooperation + something else. This something else is basically some specific conception of the good. Therefore communitarianism is false.