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Philosophers have normally identified two features of human nature that seem to make special treatment of human beings appropriate: their rationality and their sociality. By the latter is meant the fact that human beings do not merely live in groups, as do many other animals, but they understand themselves in light of the identities they share as members of groups and of course in light of the attachments they have to friends and relatives and neighbors and coworkers. This had led to a position in moral philosophy called “communitarianism,” which holds that morality is constituted by the ideals that define and hold together real human groups. 

TERRORISM, LIBERTY, AND COMMUNITY: Why We Need a Stronger Focus On the Common Good

However, while our social nature is not to be ignored or underestimated, it should be clear that communitarianism does not so much identify proper moral standards as accept the standards of existing groups as definitive. The problem with this is that it makes morality equivalent finally to the standards that people actually endorse, some of which seem patently immoral. Thus, many philosophers originally sympathetic to communitarianism have come to notice that many communities are defined by moral standards that seem now oppressive. So, for example, traditional religious communities have often held sexist views to the extent that they have taught that women are meant to serve and obey men, and many small-town communities have held racist views or been intolerant of homosexuals, or others who, though harmless, are different. And of course the daily newspapers are filled with the persecutions carried out in the name of one ethnic group’s historical detestation of another. Thus, in a way that is parallel to virtue ethics, communitarianism points rather to where morality should be found, than to what it consists of. It leaves us still in need of valid moral standards to distinguish moral communities from oppressive ones.

The important truth in communitarianism is that we are not separate atoms, but necessarily linked to our fellows. This means that the marks of morality--altruism, self-sacrifice, commitment beyond ourselves--are part of ourselves because we ourselves are social in nature. Even when we think of our self-interest, it is defined by the communities of which we are members. Moreover, without going so far as to accept the moral principles that are endorsed in our group simply because they are endorsed, we can recognize that the moral ideals actually accepted by a community have a special standing. Inasmuch as they shape people’s identities, they are worthy of special respect and ought not to be dismissed lightly, even if they should neither be accepted uncritically.

We believe that individual liberties depend upon the bolstering of the foundations of civil society: our families, schools, and neighborhoods. It is through these institutions that we acquire a sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, an appreciation of our rights and the rights of others, and a commitment to the welfare of the community and its members.

-The Communitarian Network

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