Liberalism after Communitarianism

Authored by: Charles Blattberg

Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory

Print publication date:  March  2011
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415548250
eBook ISBN: 9780203875575
Adobe ISBN: 9781135997946


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The ‘liberal–communitarian debate’ arose within Anglo-American political philosophy during the 1980s. The liberals were led by John Rawls along with Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel and T.M. Scanlon while the communitarian critique was mainly advanced by Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer. The critique can be said to have focused on one of two (perhaps incompatible) approaches found, for example, within Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971). In order to arrive at what he believes is the best possible theory, Rawls calls on us to take both a universalist route, that which is associated with his idea of ‘the original position’, and a more contextual one, according to which we should aim to achieve ‘reflective equilibrium’ in our thinking about political justice. The original position is a hypothetical perspective that we attain by stepping behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ in order to disregard knowledge of our personal capacities or place in society. By so doing we are said to be able to deliberate in a truly representative manner since we can ‘regard the human situation not only from all social but also from all temporal points of view’ (Rawls 1971: 587) and so formulate principles of justice that could serve as the basis of a social contract affirmed by everyone. Reflective equilibrium, by contrast, requires us to start from – and so remain relative to – a given society: beginning with the considered judgments contained within the society's practices, judgments should serve as no more than provisional fixed points, we are to tack back and forth from practice to theory until we achieve a state of balance over a set of systematic principles. According Rawls, both the original position and reflective equilibrium approaches culminate in the same theory of justice, though the scope of its applicability would, one would think, be different for each.

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