Monday, March 06, 2006

Dark side of individualism or the importance of community

The fact that this theme is somewhat controversial, doesn’t help – in this sense I will rather speak of "moral obligations" since "duty" might carry some negative connotation.

Letnar finished his last post with a following dilemma: "The question poses whether human rights are western myth and should we re-discover their ideal versions of common well-being?" This is a good starting point for my further contribution to the debate.

I do not doubt that acknowledgment of human rights is among greatest historical achievements of western civilization. I stick to my view, which now I have been repeating almost ad nauseam, that human rights are indispensable in every society, not simply in democracies. It stems from the notion of human dignity - human rights are something that is given prior to state, since it is bound inextricably with a notion of a person. I think that Letnar agrees with this when he writes about "African human rights setting," in which "a sense of duty and responsibilities, on individuals and their communities, is more paramount than the notion of human rights."

However, the rights culture must be opened to criticism. As egalitarian democracy was crucial for advance of humanism it contains its dark side also. This was beautifully noted by Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, where he writes that democratic equality pulls one to himself. One is focused to himself and in this way loses wider angle of view. The community becomes less and less important when individual becomes more and more self-absorbed, and in Tocqueville’s words looks for “petits et vulgaires plaisirs”.

It seems Avbelj concedes to this as he writes: "If the world is failing, if it is drowning in the stinky lake of egoism, it is not liberal society based on the inherent respect for an individuum which is to be blamed, but rather the institutions within this kind of society that have not performed their roles. The state of liberty entails a responsible, reflective individuals, and it demands hard work and continuous improvements. Sometimes it is much easier to bow to the master, to live in the state of duties and to deny one's self than to exercise your freedom responsibly." I agree with much of what is said here, with one – having Tocqueville in mind - important objection: democracy inherently promotes individualistic behaviour which can ultimately end in egoism. More popular for this are in this context expressions such as: "I-generation", "narcissism" or "permissive society". In this view traditional liberal institutions have contributed to modern phenomena such as: alienation from political process, unbridled greed, loneliness, urban crime, dissolution of the traditional familiy, excessive litigiousuess …

As Rawls rightly argues we have a supreme interest in shaping our own destiny. However it is also true, that our selves are constituted by many attachments rooted in community (e.g. family, ethnicity, religion....). Thus policies should not be concerned solely with securing the conditions for protection of individual rights and individual choices, as we need to sustain and promote these social attachments crucial to our well being and respect. Some human goods have irreducibly social nature. Our interest in community may occasionally conflict with our other vital interests in leading freely chosen lives. My view is that the latter does not necessary trump the former in cases of conflict (c.f. that with Dworkin’s maxim regarding policies and rights).

It is true that Rawls also strongly highlights the meaning of basic social structure and government as well that must provide basic conditions for rightful society. He also pays close attention to the psychological conditions that facilitate the formation of liberal selves committed to justice.
However, modern democracies all face the following problem: whereas the assertion of life (basic human rights) was once confined to the matters of essential human interest, an aggressive rights rhetoric has colonized political debate thus making reasonable discussion impossible. This is so called rights culture.

So called communitarian criticism of liberalism can be most fruitful when advocating certain specific policies, such as promotion of family ties, strengthening local communities etc. In this manner it is possible for instance to advocate measures aimed at encouraging marriage, increasing the difficulty of legal marriage dissolution based on empirical evidence that points to psychological and social benefits of marriage etc. Gay marriage issue too can now be resolved in new light: marriage can be seen as public institution, through which certain values are promoted. In this way these values should not be necessary trumped by rights of individual couples. Cartoon controversy of course is another typical case.

Increased attention to intersubjective community is therefore important both for moral life and personal satisfaction. Taking the importance of community seriously in political philosophy would mean acknowledging and attempting to resolve systematically the conflicts that can arise in any theory that recognizes the importance of both individual autonomy and participation in communities.

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