In moral philosophy and in current popular U.S. political discourse, I see a conflict between two moralities: (1) a morality that emphasizes the protection of individual liberties on the one hand (call this classical liberalism, individualism, libertarianism, or rights-centered morality), and (2) a morality that emphasizes the promotion of the common good on the other hand (call this communitarianism, collectivism, or social-welfare-centered morality). In popular U.S. political discourse, individualism might be represented by my friends who are most concerned that individual workers and business-owners be permitted to earn profit, keep profit, and have great freedom in what they do with their profit, while collectivism might be represented by my friends who are most concerned that everyone have enough food, shelter, and access to good education—including those whose economic situation does not permit them to secure these goods for themselves by earning personal profit through wage or investment income. I believe that (at least for the most part) all of my friends, on both sides of this conflict, think that the enactment of their own philosophy would tend to promote a society in which human beings are respected as having inherent moral worth as human beings (regardless of their socio-economic status), and to promote a sustainable and equitable economy in which resources are fairly distributed and in which there is enough for everyone’s basic needs to be met.
David B. Wong explores the relationship between community-centered and rights-centered moralities in his Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (Oxford, 2006).In Wong’s view, the point of a morality is to promote and regulate social cooperation. Wong identifies some universal constraints on what a system of action-guiding norms must be, if it is to be recognizable as a morality (that is, as a normative system effectively serving the function of promoting and regulating social cooperation). Yet Wong observes that different moralities (such as communitarianism and liberalism), while sharing many values in common, have different norms for resolving conflicts between these shared values. Communitarians do value individual freedoms, and individualists do value the common good. But when these values come into practical conflict (that is, when a choice must be made between subordinating individual freedom to the common good or, alternatively, subordinating the good-for-all to the liberties of individuals), these two moralities prioritize these shared values differently: in ways that have significant consequences (such as the adoption of significantly different social policies).
On Wong’s analysis (p. 84), communitarian moralities take the common good as their core value. “This common good consists in a shared life as defined by a network of roles specifying the contribution of each member to the sustenance of that life” (emphasis added). Rights-centered (or individualist) moralities take the rights of individuals as their core value. Individual rights may be understood to consist in that which individuals are entitled to claim from other members of their society qua individual—that is, individual rights “spring from a recognition of the moral worth of individuals independently of their roles in community” (emphasis added).
Wong thinks we may better understand and appreciate moralities that are different from our own if we look more closely at what those other moralities and our own have in common. Conflicting moralities are often not totally foreign to one another, although they are significantly different from one another. For example, on Wong’s analysis (p. 84) communitarian moralities as well as rights-centered moralities can recognize the need for individual rights. Communitarian and individualist moralities differ, however, in their conceptions of the ground of individual rights. In an individualist morality, rights are thought to be needed to protect individuals from the pursuit of the common good. Individuals are understood to have “morally legitimate personal interests that may conflict with [the promotion of] collective goods.” Rights place limits on demands that individuals sacrifice their personal interests for the common good. For example, rights protect the free speech of citizens as a good that is partially constitutive of the freedom and autonomy of human individuals. Wong labels this “the autonomy ground” for individual rights.
In a communitarian morality, however, rights are thought to be needed to preserve and promote the common good. For example, rights protect the free speech of citizens as a good that makes a significant contribution to, and is partially constitutive of, a healthy society. For a society that cannot include and respond to self-criticism is a society in great danger of ruin. Wong labels this “the communal ground” for individual rights.
Think about this: what would you say if asked to explain the importance of rights, such as the right to free speech, or the right to be paid in exchange for your labor? Would your answer more closely resemble the communitarian or the individualist answer?
Next time you find yourself in a conversation or debate with someone on the other side of a political issue, think about this: what values do you the person on the other side of the argument have in common? What differences in the way you give priority to those common values might help explain your different political stances? How can these insights enrich your conversations and increase your respect for those with whom you disagree?