Communitarianism Essay

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 Communitarianism is a social and political philosophy that holds that there ought to be communal definitions of the good, in opposition to the liberal precept that each person should define the good. In its authoritarian (East Asian) version it extols conformity and holds that the individual should find meaning in his or her contributions to the common good. Communal order is not primarily enforced by the state but rather through informal social controls. (This is exemplified by the Japanese proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”) In its Western version, communitarianism holds that individual rights should be balanced with social responsibilities and concern for the common good. These include public health and homeland security.

There are a limited number of scholars and pubic intellectuals who explicitly define themselves as communitarians. However, there are strong communitarian elements expressed in the documents of religious and secular belief systems, including the Christian New Testament, the Koran, and the political writings of 18th-century British convervative Edmund Burke (“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle … of public affections”). Communitarianism is also a principle of social democracy, especially Fabianism.

Communitarian ideas have also played a significant role in public life through their incorporation into the electoral platforms and policies of Western political leaders of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, and U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The term communitarian was coined in 1841 by John Goodwyn Barmby (1820–81), a leader of the British Chartist movement, who used it to refer to utopian socialists and others who experimented with various communal lifestyles. It was rarely used in the generations that followed until the 1980s. At that time Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel published major works that challenged liberalism, especially the work of John Rawls. There followed considerable debate within academia between the communitarian and the liberal camps, which according to some narrowed the differences.

In 1990, Amitai Etzioni and several colleagues launched a movement known as “responsive” communitarianism. Its founders formulated a platform based on their shared political principles. They sought to shore up the moral and social foundations of society by relying on moral dialogues and informal social controls, rather than drawing mainly on the state or the market. Ideas from the platform were eventually elaborated in academic and popular books and a periodical (The Response Community), therby gaining a measure of political currency, mainly in the West.

Because communitarianism favors communal formulations of the good, which are particular to each community, it has been charged with relativism, the claim that there are no universal values but culturally specific ones. Indeed Michael Walzer adopted a clearly relativistic position in his book Spheres of Justice (1983), in which he asserted that the caste system is “good” by the standards of traditional Indian society. Critics argue that if one considers the existence of communities that champion honor killings, lynching, or racial discrimination, he or she realizes that the community should not be the ultimate arbiter of that which is good. Instead, while different communities may have different values, there are some substantive universal values, such as human rights and the protection of the environment, which frame the particularistic communal expressions.

The most important insight of communitarianism for studies of crime, and moral behavior more generally, is that social order does not rely first and foremost on law enforcement. Given that every day members of society engage in billions of transactions—including buying and selling, employing, forming contracts, and so on— there cannot be enough police, customs officers, accountants, and lawyers to ensure that these transactions will be properly carried out, to punish those who fail to live up to their commitments, and to deter those who may choose to do so. Moreover, the old challenge remains: Who will guard the guards?

As Dennis Wrong first laid out in his seminal volume The Problem of Order, society’s first line of defense is the internalization of norms through socialization and the enforcement of these norms through informal social controls. Children are born without moral values. They gain them from their parents or other members of their families, their communities, from places of worship, and in schools. They make these values an integral part of themselves so that they view that which must be done—duties such as taking care of their children—as something they are intrinsically motivated to do in most circumstances, and their motivation is further enforced by the appreciation or censure of others.

In such well-functioning societies, law enforcement’s role is limited to ensuring that those few who fail to voluntarily abide by the social rules, are made to heed them. When there is extensive reliance on law enforcement, this is a sign of social failure. Either society has failed to adapt its norms to the changing needs of its environment and to technical and economic developments, its mechanisms of socialization (such as the family) are weakening, or informal social controls (via communal ties) are degrading. The result is illustrated by the kind of deterioration of law and order that followed the imposition of Prohibition in the United States and the war against drugs in Mexico.

Neither individuals nor communities are locked into the values that they start with. Indeed, both are constantly evolving. However, if revised moral understandings are not shared by the various communities of which modern men and women are members, people will find various measures of moral anarchy, social anomie, and alienation— according to the communitarian position.


  1. Bell, D. Communitarianism and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  2. Etzioni, A. The New Golden Rule. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
  3. MacIntyre, A. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
  4. Sandel, M. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  5. Selznick, P. The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  6. Taylor, C. Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  7. Walzer, M. Spheres of Justice. Oxford: Blackwell,
  8. Walzer, M. Thick and Thin. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Wrong, D. The Problem of Order: What Divides and Unites Societies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press , 1994

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