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Communitarianism as a Solution to our National Divide

Virtue and Communitarianism as the Antidote to Modern Capitalism

I posted a blog last week about our inalienable right to pursue happiness and how virtuous behavior enables us to achieve that goal. One definition of virtue, based on the Aristotelian concept of dispositions or tendencies, is to be able to act in a certain way for a certain reason – for the good of man and to advance society. Virtue enables us to live rightly. Virtue requires us to not only act in particular ways, but to feel in particular ways and to act according to right reason. Traits of character such as honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness enable a person to act with virtue. Integrity is the whole of virtue in that it calls for principled behavior and the courage to not give in to pressure to do something other than what brings oneself inner happiness.

We develop virtue over time and with practice. An honest person becomes honest because he or she acts honestly in all behaviors. Lying in one instance can lead to a cover-up in the next and a gradual descent down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope.” A person becomes trustworthy because they are consistently reliable and tells the truth. To be an ethical person you can’t pick and choose when to be honest; when to act with courage; and when to do the right thing.

Our society is a community that seeks the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are a society of laws and hold up justice as the cornerstone of our legal system because it is essential to bring about liberty. The Aristotelian sense of community praises the inner goods of a life well led through virtuous behavior. We should strive for that inner feeling of having done a good thing; helped people to advance their circumstance; acted responsibly; and engaged in principled behavior.

One problem in society during the past thirty years is we have lost sight of the inner goods and focused on external goods as the road to happiness. We pursue our self-interests without due regard for the interests of others – a basic breakdown in the community that is (was) America. Our goal is to be rich, become famous, obtain power, and influence others not through virtuous behavior but by one’s position or lot in life. Throw in starring in one’s own reality TV show and you basically have an inner glimpse into the soul of America in the decade of the 2000s. Doing right has been replaced by self-gratification. Some would say we have become a nation of narcissists.

We have come to a turning point in our nation’s history. Do we continue to go down the road of hedonism that began in the 1960s when the mantra was to “do your own thing.” Or, do we follow the path of virtue and communitarianism espoused by Amiatai Etzioni to counteract the “me-first” attitude of the 1980s.

Communitarianism can establish a common ground between liberals and conservatives, thus bridging the continual divide in our country. It emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community. The movement works to strengthen the ability of all aspects of the community including the families and schools in order to introduce more positive values. In addition, it aims to get people involved in positive ways in all levels of the community and ensure that society progresses in an orderly fashion.

I have written many times before on the decay of capitalism as envisioned by Adam Smith who thought of it as a moral system. The reason is the emphasis on individualism over communitarianism – the personal good over societal good. Individualism is the view that each individual (but only individuals) has, and should regard herself as having, moral significance and inalienable rights. Communitarianism is the view that communities also have moral significance and certain rights. Modern capitalism has morphed into the belief that by acting in one’s self-interest, all benefits will trickle down throughout society. I challenge anyone to prove this to be the case.

In reflecting on the problems of capitalism today I am reminded of something once said by Gandhi: “Capitalism as such is not evil; it is the wrong use that is evil.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 9, 2012