This is a strand of political theory; usually represented as a school of thought, it is rather a particular critical approach to the liberal theory of the late 20th century, particularly the liberalism of John Rawls. Its main proponents do not usually present a coherent alternative to political liberalism, and indeed none of the original thinkers behind this movement would call themselves communitarians. Key thinkers include Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer.

Criticisms of liberal theory - MacIntyre

One work of particular importance is MacIntyre's After Virtue, which is a response to what he saw as the moral chaos of the modern world. He argued that our moral thought is dominated by emotivism - basically an extreme form of subjectivism, which says that all moral judgements are purely subjective - and that our moral positions are determined by pretty arbitrary factors. We try to justify these arbitrary positions by the universal language of rationality. We turn to supposedly objective reasoning as if we could find a consensus, but we don't live in a world where this sort of reasoning will lead to universal agreement - the basic foundations of our moral thought are simply not compatible with one another. Emotivism is fundamentally manipulative, according to MacIntyre, because it fails to perceive that we can never have consensus, demanding that should all share a common viewpoint. What these 'objective' arguments are aiming for is in reality nothing more than emotional alignment.

This is a pretty conservative critique and characterisation of modern life, in which individualism has left us all feeling pretty alienated. MacIntyre uses 3 models to sketch out our reactions to this sort of life:

1. The Aesthete. Here, life is viewed as an opportunity to act out an identity. This involves a Nietzchean rejection of conformity and an extremely personal moral ethos, which would not extend to others.

2. The Manager, as characterised by thinkers such as Max Weber. We use instrumental rationality; that is, we simply do what we deem to be most efficient.
3. The Therapist. Here, we channel our individual neuroses into something more functional.

The latter two of these are instrumental, our attempts to offset the damage of extreme introspection, no matter what. All three are insubstantive as moral role models.

Narrative Unity and Community Involvement as Value-shaping

MacIntyre's solution is a retreat to Aristotle - we must all return to teleological ethics, with each of us having a strong sense of our own social role. Our role will suggest to us a set of practices to act out in order to take on the identity of that role. Having a notion of our ultimate purpose solves the dichotomy between 'is' and 'ought'. We can make fuller moral judgements about things in life if we know the goal towards which we're headed, whether it is to be a 'good person', or merely a good cleaner/fisherman. We must aim for a narrative unity - that is, we must construct a story for ourselves which will give a dynamic structure to our lives. We all do this to some extent anyway, retelling the events in our lives as if they had all been leading towards some particular goal; e.g. 'I thought breaking my leg would ruin my career as a footballer, but it turned out that it was fated all along, as it was only in the hospital that I came to realise my true calling - as a terminal grouch!'

We all make decisions in our lives which we view as being key to the narrative unity which we construct for ourselves. When faced with these decisions, we must choose the path which fits us best. So rather than work to become a brilliant international chess player, I might choose to be a good parent - or perhaps not! Considerations of narrative unity won't always give us clear answers in a moral dilemma , but it will give us a framework within which to rank our choices.

Now the community aspect of communitarianism kicks in. For we all undertake our practices within the context of certain traditions. Each of us is embedded in a different tradition, for example as an Englishman, or a Christian, and it is our tradition which provides the cultural materials from which we shape our individual narratives. Perhaps my choice to be a good parent rather than a good chess player was influenced by the moral nostrums of my religion, which values family more than game-playing skill.

For MacIntyre, and other communitarians, any sense of the good life - a concept strong in liberal theory - comes from being strongly embedded in a particular community. Thus liberal theories like Rawls' are deeply flawed, because they premise a detachment from culture which communitarians think is completely incoherent. Rawls created a theoretical situation called the Original Position, in which representatives are stripped of all knowledge of their background, culture, skills and interests in order to disinterestedly choose some principles of justice which would best serve the interests of everybody in a state under social cooperation. Communitarians argue that it makes no sense to operate in the original position, because if an individual were truly stripped of all knowledge of this kind then she would be unable to formulate any conception of the good life at all. Our decisions are based on strong evaluations of what is good relative to our situation in life.

All communitarians express an extreme scepticism about achieving objectivity in moral matters. They reject the claim that we can reach neutral principles and argue that Rawls' own principles of justice are culturally-conditioned, since not all would accept that autonomy is a fundamental goal in the way in which he argues it is. For communitarians a conception of the good life precedes a conception of justice. We all have strongly held ethical values which inform the type of justice we want to see. Rawls accepts moral pluralism and doesn't think that we can overcome it, arguing that we must simply nurture a spirit of toleration in our communities. However, Sandel disagrees, believing that we can overcome moral pluralism by returning to self-legislating communities - that is, tight-knit communities where a fundamental conception of the good is shared by all. (I don't endorse Sandel, by the way. It all sounds pretty Nazified to me, but I'm assured that it's not).

The critical starting points of communitarians are fairly similar to those of feminist thinkers, and particularly to the work of Carol Gilligan. Both groups argue that we can never fully abstract ourselves from our situations, and that it is not always desirable to do so. It also shares something with socialism, in arguing that we only derive a sense of self from our relationships with others. However, communitarianism is deeply liberal in origin and, in the case of many of its central proponents, rather conservative. Thus it is not really compatible with more radical points of view.

Objections to and Criticisms of Communitarianism

However, some have argued that not everyone is able to construct the sort of narrative unity outlined by MacIntyre. Power relations may prevent us developing a meaningful sense of self, or impose narrative unity on an oppressed group only in order to reproduce oppression. For example, a racial identity could mean that people objectify you in a way which bears no relation to yourself. This leads to an inability to have a coherent, worthwhile sense of self. The same applies for feminists, who argue that most societies are hierarchical, predicated on the oppression of some by others, which prevents some from ever having a full status within the community. MacIntyre's argument favours traditions, but traditions can be oppressive, and it may be hard to see how they can as such be intrinsically worthwhile.

Another criticism focusses on the simple argument that communities such as the ones favoured by communitarians simply do not exist in the modern world, and that to establish them would be completely artificial. We all have fleeting moments in our lives when we exist in communities which might fit the communitarian model - when at school or university for instance - but for the main part most of us are members of communities which are too diverse to have any shared sense of the good life. Indeed, most of us consider ourselves members of more than one community - I could be an Englishman, a Christian, an international socialist and a mechanic, associating myself with people from all these different groups and sharing some sense of the good life with all of them, but never wishing to attach myself definitively to any one in particular. In this sense we are cosmopolitan and neither communitarian (since while we do base our sense of selfhood on the cultural materials provided us, these are not the materials of one particular culture) nor liberal (since our sense of 'the good life' fluctuates throughout our lives).

Communitarianism has been important in criticising the atomistic, individualistic trends in liberal political thought, emphasising the importance of culture and context in our moral and judicial decisions. However, it has to some extent been overridden by cosmopolitan thought and the backlash of liberal thought, which points out the extent to which communitarian communities are an artificial construct, often reproducing oppressive relations (such as forbidding marrriage outside of the group) in the name of a dubious cause.