Shaming in public? It'll do you good

The Monochrome Society
November 9, 2001

Amitai Etzioni has written extensively on the nature and value of community and has established himself as a major theorist of the "communitarian society". In this new collection of 13 previously published but revised essays, he carries the discussion further, answers his critics and refines his theory.

For Etzioni the good society should be constituted as a community, and relations between its members should be governed by a communitarian spirit. He says the community has two distinguishing features. First, it involves emotional bonding between its members. Second, it involves a shared culture, including a broadly shared concept of good, core substantive values, a shared history and a shared system of meanings. Etzioni believes that a shared concept of good emerges from countless "moral dialogues" between its members and the "metadialogues" within the society. He realises that they may prove inconclusive or yield unacceptable values. He turns to what he calls "self-evident moral truths" to regulate the dialogue and to predetermine its outcome. These include such things as being protective about the environment, concern for the vulnerable and universal human rights. Different societies define and relate these truths and other "secondary" values differently and arrive at distinct visions of good.

Etzioni asks how a communitarian society could be created and sustained. He relies on five devices. First, a communitarian society is suspicious of the state, though not hostile to it, and relies on informal mechanisms of social control. In addition to the pressure of public opinion, Etzioni thinks that public shaming might be used to build community. He sees nothing wrong in asking a woman convicted of social security fraud to wear a sign saying "I stole food from poor people".

Second, Etzioni feels that holidays and rituals could play a part in affirming the society's commitment to its collective values. But as these can be ethnically or politically divisive, he urges caution in deciding which ones to encourage and how to use them.

Third, consumerism needs to be countered by encouraging "voluntary simplicity" and a more balanced perspective on life.

Fourth, the communitarian society should aim at reduction of inequality. This involves ensuring a "rich minimum" to all and capping the income and power of the few. Unlike John Rawls, who justifies any degree of inequality so long as it is beneficial to the worst off, Etzioni considers inequality inherently unacceptable beyond a certain point.

Finally, Etzioni thinks that individual morality cannot be sustained without a social ethos. Such an ethos is created by individuals acting as unofficial enforcers of social values. If a man helps an old woman cross the road or saves a child from being molested, we should compliment him. If someone fails to act as a good Samaritan, we should make him aware of our disapproval.

Some critics wonder if large and impersonal modern societies can be organised along communitarian lines. Etzioni thinks they can. They consist of countless small communities and these can be strengthened. Large business corporations can be required to give their stakeholders a genuine share in the conduct of their affairs and thus be made socially accountable and expressive of the communal spirit. The wider society can become a "community of communities" based on common values. While some American writers are frightened by the US having a majority of non-white minorities by 2050, Etzioni welcomes the prospect. Anything else would be racist and in any case the large number of interethnic marriages taking place in the US will undermine racial and ethnic divides.

Etzioni's liberal communitarianism addresses a serious problem, namely how to arrest the atomisation of modern societies and improve the quality not only of citizenship but of life in general. His answer is more persuasive than that of communitarian liberals such as Robert Putnam. Communitarian liberals turn to the civil society and its voluntary associations to revitalise communities, and they face obvious difficulties. Voluntary associations have no history, no collective memory and cannot create genuine communities. They can also be fascist, militant or deeply divisive. Communitarian liberalism offers no coherent criteria for deciding which associations to encourage. As Etzioni's liberal communitarianism locates civil society in a wider communal context and attends to areas it excludes, it is more penetrating and tackles the deeper roots of atomisation.

Etzioni's communitarian society, however, has its problems. He does not appreciate the diversities that characterise modern societies and the difficulty of agreeing on a shared concept of the good. Appealing to "self-evident moral truths" is no help, for such truths either do not exist or are open to different interpretations. Etzioni is right to stress the value of communities but he does not appreciate that all communities are not of equal value. One needs to show which ones to encourage and why. Demands of communities can conflict, and such conflicts can be resolved only by a vigorous democratic political process, for which communitarian societies seem to have a limited space. If communities are to flourish, the wider society itself cannot be a strong community as Etzioni insists, for the latter would be too committed to a particular conception of the good to leave space for others.

Bhikhu Parekh is professor of political theory, University of Hull.

The Monochrome Society

Author - Amitai Etzioni
ISBN - 0 691 07090 3
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 297

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