Ethical Community without Communitarianism

By Winfield, Richard Dien | Philosophy Today, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Ethical Community without Communitarianism


Winfield, Richard Dien, Philosophy Today


The Rationale For The Renewed Turn To Ethical Community

In both theory and practice, controversy over framing conduct and institutions has increasingly revolved around the idea of ethical community. Advanced more and more frequently under the banner of "communitarianism," this idea has cast an alluring spell. However vaguely it be drawn, ethical community is widely entertained as a practical alternative to the alienations and anomies of modern life, where instrumental rationality and atomistic self-interest have allegedly supplanted tradition without supplying any new bonds of intrinsic worth. And just as commonly, the concept of ethical community is appealed to as a remedy to the complementary dilemmas of the two leading competitors in contemporary ethical theory, teleological and procedural ethics. On both fronts, a turn to ethical community has taken center stage. If this turn sometimes has a nostalgic air, yearning for the faded spirit of ancient assemblies, town meetings, and village commons, it equally reflects the perennial character of the underlying issues, as much in dispute when Plato and Aristotle argued for the polis in opposition to the natural bonds of tribal association and the instrumental association of social contract, as when Hegel defended the ethical life of family, civil society, and state against the advocates of restoration and the contractarians of his day. Although we can take advantage of the experience of past ages that have grappled with ethical community in theory and practice, the worth of their achievements can only be known by first independently certifying the valid content of ethical community and the place it should command in the conception and reality of conduct.

The current rehabilitation of ethical community, comprising the communitarian turn in ethics, has its own lessons for reconstructing theory and practice provided one rethinks its formulations with the same critical autonomy. Above all, what the communitarian turn uncovers of the inherent logic of ethical community must be distinguished from what it ignores and perverts.

To its credit, the communitarian appeal to ethical community is grounded in an understanding of the complementary limitations of teleological and procedural ethics. Admittedly, teleological ethics adopts a plausible strategy by seeking the legitimacy of conduct in the given nature of its ends, transforming ethics into a science of a highest good. Yet every candidate for a highest good is subject to the skeptical doubt that its particular content is devoid of universal validity. Since any putative ultimate end, be it happiness or human perfection, cannot retain its normative primacy if any other factor grounds its Archimedean role, its authority must reside in its own immediate givenness. However, every particular content can be ascribed an immediate givenness, especially when no higher tribunal can be relied upon without undermining the primacy of the end it is intended to sanction. Hence, teleological ethics remains caught in the bind of rooting conduct in a particular content, whose universality remains doubtful.

By contrast, procedural ethics falls into a precisely inverse dilemma. Abandoning any attempt to found normativity in privileged ends, procedural ethics instead appeals to a privileged form of willing, involving a principle that determines conduct independently of any particular end. Right hereby precedes the good, insofar as what makes conduct valid is conformity to an antecedently prescribed formal requirement that first allows an end to qualify as good. Yet, because the privileged form of willing is prior to all particular ends and actual conduct requires that something particular be willed, this content must derive from some other source. But no further law can mandate how to decide which extraneous end should be chosen as the goal of action in conformity with the privileged procedure, since the procedure has exclusive normative primacy. …

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