Community and Political Thought Today

By Peter Augustine Lawler; Dale McConkey | Go to book overview

justice," "economic justice," "social justice," and "global justice" -- anything but just justice.81 Now, I must confess that I am not certain what each of these terms means, but each clearly is used to refer to an unrealized ideal and seems to impute to society deficiencies that exist above and beyond the deficiencies of individuals. Thus it seems, for example, that in a society wherein each individual is equitably treated according to universal rules, the aggregate itself can somehow be unjust according to an ideal of "social justice." Unequal results are taken not as evidence of the equitable treatment of unequals but as breaches of justice. Such usages make me sympathetic with Friedrich Hayek's characterization of terms like social justice as "weasel words."82 They are used with almost religious fervor, but they typically create a verbal haze and seem to invite breaches of justice while pretending to invoke it.

For the classical liberals, the distinction between the familiar or communal realm of particularistic benevolence and the public realm of universalistic justice is essential to the modern social order. Similitude of conscience, dedication to the common good, and equal devotion to all might be possible in some measure within tribes or within city-states, but they cannot be achieved within modern nation-states. Accordingly, I would suggest, Bellah suffers from an elementary but profound miscomprehension of the nature and ends of modern institutions. Simply stated, Bellah's communitarian vision is a romantic vision that conceives public institutions as familiar ones, just as they had been in the era of tribes and city-states. Stated otherwise, it is a vision that depends upon a confusion of the communal and public realms, as conceived by classical liberalism. In the context of contemporary American realities, Bellah's statist communitarianism is relatively benign; but, at the risk of sounding heavy-handed, it must be recorded that the confusion of realms at the heart of Bellah's work has not been so benign in every context: it has been the centerpiece of all totalitarian regimes in this century. All twentieth-century totalitarian regimes have made elaborate use of communal imagery and have justified the purging of millions of their own people as efforts to purify community, especially of those representing bourgeois individualism. All such regimes have depended upon the impulse toward familial solidarity writ large and upon the subordination of individuals to a supposed greater good. Additionally, of course, while such regimes have relied upon familial imagery in their efforts to reconstruct the public realm, they have also typically worked to minimize the influence of actual communal institutions. Genuine communal institutions become superfluous or dangerous in the eyes of a state founded upon communitarian principles. Yet it is precisely these institutions, the institutions of civil society, that require rehabilitation if we are going to address our most pressing problems.


NOTES
1
Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton , Habits of the Heart, updated edition ( Berkeley: University of California Press,

-96-

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