Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Wong on the Value of Community in Individualistic, Democratic Societies

Not only is there fruit to be gained from considering communal-ground arguments for individual rights (so that we might see effective ways to secure rights for individuals in collectivist societies), but also rights-centered/individualist moralities should recognize the importance of community for democracy.

In particular, the democratic values of self-governance and social justice (i.e. “justice for all”) require community. Unchecked individualism threatens to erode the ability of individuals to exercise their rights of self-governance and equal access to justice.

Wong writes in his section 3.7, “The Interdependence of Rights and Community” (p. 92, my emphasis):

“Consider Tocqueville’s definition of individualism as a “calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends,” such that “with this little society formed to his taste he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.” Such people, Tocqueville observed, form “the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.” They come to “forget their ancestors” and also their descendants, as well as isolating themselves from their contemporaries. “Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J. Mayer [New York: Doubleday, 1969), 506, 508).

“Tocqueville’s prescience concerning our isolation from our contemporaries and our descendants is reflected in the national unwillingness to address the problem of a potentially permanent class of the severely disadvantaged beset by poverty, crime, and drugs. It is not just political participation at stake here but more basically a question of moral agency and integrity. … [R]ights-centered moralities [must] recognize the indispensability of community for the realization of democratic values of self-governance and social justice. Rights and community are interdependent.”

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