Descent into Relativism: The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism

The communitarian critique of liberalism rests in essence upon the argument that one cannot derive a moral theory from the position of individualism. Morality must exist beyond the individual, say communitarians. Communitarians locate morality in normative actions rooted in community and tradition. This means that morality usually comes rooted in religious rules, or at least religious-like rules.

However, whether religious or secular, communitarianism ultimately leads its proponents into relativism. This is not accidental; communitarians challenge the liberal claim of universalism. The problem of particularism versus universalism has already been solved (albeit the solution is pending), and this solution issues from the historical materialist conception of the relationship between the individual and society.

Specific moralities, whether rooted in religious or secular notions of bad and good, right and wrong, are, to a substantial degree, expressions of alienation under power. While concrete moral systems sometimes reflect universal morality, rules and values are articulated through the commands of estranged and oppressive systems. The objective core of alienation and oppression is the unequal condition of human existence in segmentally-arranged societies. Whenever the individual is prevented from performing the definitive role in shaping her destiny, and a social system is prevented from working to each individual benefit—that is, when some individuals, alone or organized into groups, systematically enjoy advantage and other individuals or groups suffer disadvantage—then the moral system will always be constrained and distorted.

Now I come to the solution: the elimination of segmentation and the creation of a substantively egalitarian social order, one in which benefit to the one comes with the benefit to all. Only when such an order is established—or, more precisely, restored—will an undistorted universal morality exist.

To put this another way, liberty and universal morality are achieved through equality. It is in the demand for justice that liberalism, at least as currently articulated in all its many forms, is revealed as inadequate, as the emphasis on negative freedom and minority ownership and control over the means of production runs counter to the establishment of a social order based upon democracy and personal liberty.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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