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Will Kymlicka
Most post-war liberal philosophers had little to say
about the ideal of community.
If community was discussed, it was often seen as
derivative of liberty and equality – i.e., a society lives
up to the ideal of community if its members are
treated as free and equal persons.
Liberal visions of politics did not include any
independent principle of community, such as shared
nationality, language, culture, religion, history or way
of life.
In the 1980s, however, community re-emerged. An
entire school of thought, known as
‘communitarianism’, has arisen in political philosophy
whose central claim is precisely the necessity of
attending to community alongside, if not prior to,
liberty and equality.
Communitarians believe that the value of
community is not sufficiently recognized in
liberal theories of justice, or in the public culture
of liberal societies.
 So the new communitarians are united by the
belief that political philosophy must pay more
attention to the shared practices and
understandings within each society.
 They also agree that this requires modification of
traditional liberal principles of justice and rights.
In response to the communitarian critique, many
liberals have attempted to show that they, too, are
sensitive to the importance of community and culture,
and that they can accommodate at least the ‘forwardlooking’ dimensions of communitarianism.
Hence we have witnessed a proliferation of theories of
‘liberal republicanism’, ‘liberal patriotism’, ‘liberal
nationalism’, ‘liberal multiculturalism’ and ‘liberal
civil society’.
All of these are intended to show that a liberal society
is not exclusively ‘individualistic’, and can
accommodate and support a rich array of collective
identities and associations, without compromising the
basic liberal commitment to the protection of
individual civil and political rights.
Given these developments, the original liberalcommunitarian debate of the 1980s has given way to
a number of new, more differentiated, positions and
Instead of a stark choice between ‘individualism’ and
‘communitarianism’, we now face a range of debates
about how to sustain bonds of moral solidarity and
political community in an era of individual rights and
cultural diversity.
How to build a common national identity without
suppressing ethnic and religious diversity? How to
nurture feelings of trust and solidarity in mass
societies where people share little in common? How to
foster a vibrant public sphere that encourages civic
participation and democratic dialogue? How to
support family life without imposing traditional
gender roles?
We can distinguish three distinct, sometimes conflicting,
aspects in the original communitarian critique of liberalism
that emerged in the 1980s.
Some communitarians argued that community replaces the
need for principles of liberal justice.
Others saw justice and community as perfectly consistent,
but argued that a proper appreciation of the value of
community requires us to modify our conception of what
justice is.
These latter communitarians fall into two camps.
1- community should be seen as the source of principles of
justice (i.e., justice should be based on the shared
understandings of society, not on universal and ahistorical
2- community should play a greater role in the content of
principles of justice (i.e., justice should give more weight to
the common good, and less weight to individual rights).
Justice does not displace love or solidarity, and
nothing in the idea of justice prevents people
from choosing to sacrifice their rightful claims in
order to help others.
 Simply ensures that these decisions are
genuinely voluntary, and that no one can force
others to accept a subordinate position.
 Justice enables loving relationships, but ensures
that they are not corrupted by domination or
Communitarian attempts to define justice in terms of
a community’s shared understandings.
Many communitarians agree with Rawls about the
importance of justice.
However, they claim that liberals misinterpret justice
as an ahistorical and external criterion for criticizing
the ways of life of every society.
Utilitarians, liberal egalitarians and libertarians may
disagree about the content of justice, but they all
seem to think that their preferred theory provides a
standard that every society should live up to.
They do not see it as a decisive objection that their
theory may be in conflict with local beliefs.
In order to resolve these disagreements, we need
to assess competing understandings in the light
of a more general conception of justice.
 So even if we start with local understandings, as
Walzer suggests, we are driven by the existence
of disagreement, and our own critical reflection,
towards a more general and less parochial
For many communitarians, the problem with
liberalism is not its emphasis on justice, nor its
universalism, but rather its ‘individualism’.
According to this criticism, liberals base their theories
on notions of individual rights and personal freedom,
but neglect the extent to which individual freedom
and well-being is only possible within community.
Once we recognize the dependence of human beings
on society, then our obligations to sustain the
common good of society are as important as our rights
to individual liberty.
Hence, communitarians argue, the liberal ‘politics of
rights’ should be abandoned for a ‘politics of the
common good’.
However, a liberal society often restricts
individual liberty to promote the common good
 However, liberals believe that there is an
important constraint on the way the state
restricts individual liberty – namely, it cannot
take a stand on the essential merits of different
lifestyles (or ‘conceptions of the good’).
 A liberal state does not deprive people of their
rights or resources on the grounds that their
lifestyle is worthless.
 Nor does it reward people with greater liberty or
resources on the grounds that their lifestyle has
more intrinsic value.
Each person’s conception of the good is shown
equal respect, if consistent with the principles of
justice, ‘not in the sense that there is an agreed
public measure of intrinsic value or satisfaction
with respect to which all these conceptions come
out equal, but in the sense that they are not
evaluated at all from a [public] standpoint’.
(Rawls, 1982, p. 172).
 This idea that the state does not rank the
intrinsic merit of different conceptions of the good
is often called the idea of ‘state neutrality’.
Communitarians, on the other hand, conceive of the
common good as a substantive conception of the good
that defines the community’s ‘way of life’.
This way of life forms the basis for a public ranking of
conceptions of the good, and the weight given to an
individual’s preferences depends on how much she
conforms or contributes to this common good.
A communitarian state is not, therefore, constrained
by the requirement of ‘neutrality’.
It encourages people to adopt conceptions of the good
that conform to the community’s way of life, while
discouraging conceptions of the good that conflict with
Communitarians object both to the liberal
conception of individual autonomy, and to the
way liberals connect autonomy to state
According to Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre,
the liberal picture of autonomous individuals picking
and choosing their conceptions of the good is facile.
They argue that Rawls exaggerates our capacity to
stand back from and question our social roles, and
ignores the fact that the self is ‘embedded’ in existing
social practices.
“Communitarians exaggerate our ‘embeddedness’ in
particular roles. It may not be easy to question deeply
held beliefs about the good, but the history of the
women’s movement, for example, shows that people
can question and reject even the most deeply
entrenched sexual, economic and family roles”.
Many communitarians accept the liberal
commitment to individual autonomy, but criticize
liberalism for neglecting the social conditions
required for the exercise of autonomy.
 Charles Taylor claims that many liberal theories
are based on ‘atomism’, the view that individuals
are not in need of any communal context in order
to develop and exercise their capacity for selfdetermination.
 Taylor argues instead for the ‘social thesis’,
which says that autonomy can only be developed
and exercised in a certain kind of social
Liberals do not literally deny the social thesis.
‘The view that we might acquire autonomy
outside of society is absurd’.
 However, Taylor believes that liberals ignore the
full implications of the social thesis.
 The social thesis tells us that the capacity to
assess one’s conception of the good can only be
exercised in a particular sort of community.
 But, Taylor argues, this sort of autonomysupporting community can only be sustained by a
politics of the common good, not by a liberal
politics of state neutrality.
Kymlicka considers three versions of this claim,
focusing respectively on the need to sustain a
diverse culture that provides people with
meaningful options; the need for shared forums
in which to evaluate these options; and the need
to sustain political legitimacy.
The freedom to choose one’s way of life is only
meaningful if we have options to choose from, and the
social thesis tells us that these options come from our
Communitarians argue that liberal neutrality is
incapable of ensuring the existence of a rich and
diverse culture that provides such options.
According to liberal theory, a state that intervenes in
the cultural marketplace to encourage or discourage
any particular way of life restricts people’s autonomy
But what if the cultural marketplace, left on its own,
eventually cultural pluralism, leading to a drab and
uniform mass culture? Neutrality would then be selfdefeating.
Individuals require the sharing of experiences
and the give and take of collective deliberation.
 Individual judgements about the good become a
matter of subjective and arbitrary whim if they
are cut off from collective deliberations.
 Communitarianism, on the other hand, adopts
the view that ‘men living in a community of
shared experiences and language is the only
context in which the individual and society can
discover and test their values through the
essentially political activities of discussion,
criticism, example, and emulation’
The state is the proper arena in which to formulate
our visions of the good, because these visions require
shared inquiry.
They cannot be pursued, or even known, by solitary
For Rawls, shared experiences concerning the good
are at the heart of the various groups or ‘communities
of interests’ that exist in a liberal society.
Freedom of association is important precisely because
it enables people to enter into this ‘free social union
with others’ (1971, p. 543).
Rawls simply denies that the state is an appropriate
forum for those deliberations.
Liberals and communitarians do not disagree
about the need for communal practices and
 Rather, they disagree about the need for state
involvement in evaluating and protecting those
Whatever the proper role of the state, it can only
fulfil its functions if public institutions are stable,
and that in turn requires that they have
legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens.
 Taylor believes that political institutions
governed by the principle of neutrality are
incapable of sustaining legitimacy, and hence
incapable of sustaining the social context
required for self-determination.
 The common good has been undermined partly
because state neutrality means that people are
free to choose their goals independently of this
‘common form of life’, and to trump the pursuit of
this common good should it violate their rights.
Contemporary welfare states require a high
degree of legitimacy and solidarity, yet neither
liberals nor communitarians have provided an
adequate explanation for these thoughts.
 They can be grounded neither in shared beliefs
about universal principles of justice, as liberals
propose, nor in shared conceptions of the good
life, as communitarians propose.
 The former are too widely shared across state
borders, and the latter are not shared within
While the historical importance of nationhood is
increasingly recognized in the literature, there are
also many doubts about whether it can continue to
provide a viable basis for feelings of political
In particular, it is being challenged by a range of
ethnic and racial minorities who reject traditional
ideologies of nationhood in favour of a more
‘multicultural’ conception of political community.
Western states historically have attempted to diffuse
a single, homogenous national identity based on some
recognized account of the nation’s history and culture,
with its pantheon of heroes and cultural images.
These nation-building policies have typically ignored,
or actively suppressed, the identities and practices of
various minorities, whether they are long-standing
historical minorities, such as the indigenous peoples
of the Americas, or recent immigrants.
Such groups faced the choice of assimilation or
Today, however, many minorities are resisting this
choice, and demanding the right to participate
without having to assimilate.
They are seeking a model of political community that
respects and accommodates ethnocultural diversity –
in short, ‘multiculturalism’.
One dimension of this concerns traditionalist ethnic
and religious groups who do not recommend the value
of individual autonomy, and who do not wish their
members to learn about other ways of life.
The challenge of multiculturalism to liberal
nationalism goes far beyond this. For even where
minority groups share the same liberal-democratic
values as the majority, they may still object to the
model of nationhood being promoted by the state.
They may share the same political values, yet speak a
different language, and demand the right to use it in
public institutions (e.g., the French in Canada, or
Catalans in Spain).
Or they may feel that they form a distinct nation
within the larger state, and so demand the right
to exercise regional self-government on their
historic national homeland (e.g., the Scots in
 Or they may feel that the recognized accounts of
the nation’s history and culture exclude their
own, heroes, holidays, music, literature and so
on, and so demand a more inclusive national
“Many of these multiculturalist claims are
legitimate, and indeed are needed to ensure that
nation building does not have unjust and
exclusionary consequences”.
 In the absence of multiculturalism and minority
rights, nation building inevitably leads to the
systematic marginalizing and stigmatizing of
minorities (Kymlicka, 2001).
 But critics worry that a passionate embrace of
multiculturalism will undermine any sense of
nationhood, and hence erode the feeling of ethical
community that sustains democratic welfare
states (e.g., Barry, 2001).
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