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Moral Agency, Commitment, and Impartiality*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Neera K. Badhwar
Philosophy, University of Oklahama


Liberal political philosophy presupposes a moral theory according to which the ability to assess and choose conceptions of the good from a universal and impartial moral standpoint is central to the individual's moral identity. This viewpoint is standardly understood by liberals as that of a rational human (not transcendental) agent. Such an agent is able to reflect on her ends and pursuits, including those she strongly identifies with, and to understand and take into account the basic interests of others. From the perspective of liberalism as a political morality, the most important of these interests is the interest in maximum, equal liberty for each individual, and thus the most important moral principles are the principles of justice that protect individuals' rights to life and liberty.

According to the communitarian critics of liberalism, however, the liberal picture of moral agency is unrealistically abstract. Communitarians object that moral agents in the real world neither choose their conceptions of the good nor occupy a universalistically impartial moral standpoint. Rather, their conceptions of the good are determined chiefly by the communities in which they find themselves, and these conceptions are largely “constitutive” of their particular moral identities. Moral agency is thus “situated” and “particularistic,” and an impartial reflection on the conception of the good that constitutes it is undesirable, if not impossible. Further, communitarians contend, the good is “prior” to the right in the sense that moral norms are derived from, and justified in terms of, the good. An adequate moral and political theory must reflect these facts about moral agency and moral norms.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1996

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1 Thus, liberalism as a political philosophy obligates the state to enforce, and the individual qua citizen to respect, primarily (or only) these “negative” rights and other principles of justice. The wider moral theory from which liberalism draws its picture of the moral agent and moral viewpoint does, of course, recognize other sorts of moral duties and virtues of individuals.

2 I will note these differences as and when they become relevant. Charles Taylor is generally regarded as a republican communitarian, although both he and Walzer seem recently to have distanced themselves from communitarianism. Even MacIntyre has declared that he is not and “never” has been a communitarian, but all he means by this is that he does not believe that a “systematically” communitarian society is any longer possible, not that communitarianism is not an ideal. In any case, all these writers continue to use the label “communitarian” for others who defend, or have defended, the view I have identified as communitarian morality, or similar views. See Bell, Daniel, Communitarianism and Its Critics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 17 n. 14.Google Scholar (Bell may be the only communitarian theorist who calls himself a communitarian.)

3 On these points, see, for example, Gutmann, Amy, “Communitarian Critics of Liberalism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 14, no. 3 (Summer 1985), pp. 308–22;Google Scholar and Buchanan, Allen E., “Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” Ethics, vol. 99, no. 4 (July 1989), pp. 852–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 A major exception to the first part of my claim is Holmes, Stephen, “The Permanent Structure of Antiliberal Thought,” in Rosenblum, Nancy L., ed., Liberalism and the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 227–53.Google Scholar However, Holmes does not discuss the implications of the centrality of political community for other communities; rather, his concern is to point out the “unbroken continuity” of antiliberal thought since the Counter-Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including the similarities between European fascism and republican communitarianism (p. 227).

5 It is important to note that the rejection of the universal viewpoint is not simply a rejection of liberal political morality, as communitarian criticisms typically suggest, but a rejection of all ethical systems whose fundamental principles include norms of respect or concern, however understood, for all human beings. These systems include not only secular humanism and Christianity but also (though some communitarians might deny it) Aristotle's ethics. For, despite his parochialism, and his endorsement of the idea that only free males, in contrast to “natural slaves” and to women, were capable of full human rationality, Aristotle regards justice and the other virtues as based on universal features of human nature and, therefore, as applicable to all human beings. Thus, justice is possible not only between men and women, but also between masters and slaves, and between Greeks and all other human beings: “every human being seems to have some relations of justice with everyone who is capable of community in law and agreement,” including slaves; and, since justice, community, and friendship are coextensive, there is friendship even with a slave “to the extent that a slave is a human being” (Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence, Irwin [Hackett Publishing Co., 1985], 1161b6; see also 1097b9–11, 1155a17–22, 1159b25–30; and Eudemian Ethics, 1245b18–19).Google Scholar

6 Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), pp. 28, 29.Google Scholar I will follow communitarian practice in using “society,” “nation,” “state,” and “political community” interchangeably.

7 Ibid., p. 28. However, even when by his own admission it is not the case that the political and historical communities are identical, Walzer continues to describe the political community as the community of “common meanings” (p. 29).

8 Walzer, Michael, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 21;Google Scholar Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 15n, 29.

9 Walzer, Michael, “Liberalism and the Art of Separation,” Political Theory, vol. 12, no. 3 (August 1984), p. 328;CrossRefGoogle Scholar cited in Galston, William, “Community, Democracy, Philosophy: The Political Thought of Michael Walzer,” Political Theory, vol. 17, no. 1 (February 1989), p. 130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 29–30.

11 Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, p. 21.

12 Ibid., pp. 24–25.

13 Walzer, Spheres of Justice, p. 314.

14 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 233;Google Scholar see also pp. 146, 188–89, 204–5.

15 Ibid., pp. 188–89. MacIntyre defines justice in terms of desert, and desert in terms of contribution to the common good (p. 188). This conception of justice, he adds, is possible only in the kind of community described above, and thus the conception of justice as desert is alien to liberal society, where “there is a limit to the bonds between us, a limit set by our private and competing interests” (p. 233).

16 Sandel, Michael, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self,” Political Theory, vol. 12, no. 1 (February 1984), pp. 8196;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Sandel, , “Morality and the Liberal Ideal,” New Republic, May 7, 1984, pp. 1517.Google Scholar

17 Sandel, “The Procedural Republic,” p. 93.

18 Ibid., p. 87.

19 Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and Its Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1984), p. 5;Google Scholar MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 236–37.

20 Sandel, , Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 6263, 143–44, 150.Google Scholar See also MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 233.

21 MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 205–6. See also MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” The Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas (March 26, 1984), pp. 320;Google Scholar excerpted in Morality and Moral Controversies, 3d ed., ed. John, Arthur (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), pp. 424–31.Google Scholar It has been suggested to me that in this essay MacIntyre is not defending the morality of patriotism, but merely trying to show its incompatibility with the morality of liberalism. This may, indeed, be MacIntyre's formal task here. However, since MacIntyre defends patriotism in After Virtue, and criticizes liberalism in it and several later works (cited below), it is safe to conclude that in showing the incompatibility of patriotism with liberalism, MacIntyre thinks that we ought to opt for the former.

For a similar view of identity, see Taylor, Charles, “Atomism,” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 188–89, 208–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Taylor does not subscribe to the view that morality just is, first and foremost, the morality of the political community we happen to find ourselves in; but he does believe, contrary to liberals, that we have a “natural,” fundamental, and unconditional “obligation to belong” to a political community, to “obey authority,” because we need such a community to realize our human powers and achieve our full human identity as autonomous beings.

22 MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 204–5, 233. In “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” MacIntyre argues that this kind of loyalty to one's moral-political community is part of the virtue of patriotism (p. 5). Patriotism, a central virtue for communitarian morality, “requires me to regard such contingent social facts as where I was born and what government ruled over that place at that time … as deciding for me the question of what virtuous action is …” (p. 5).

For a more liberalized understanding of patriotism, see Charles Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” in Rosenblum, ed., Liberalism and the Moral Life, pp. 172–80. Here Taylor acknowledges the possibility of a common good defined in terms of the rule of right, and the possibility of a patriotism that consists of loyalty to this common good, but expresses reservations about the continuing viability of a regime in which participatory self-rule is marginalized.

23 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 62.

24 Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, pp. 20–21; Walzer, Spheres of Justice, p. xiv. See also Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 7; Sandel, Liberalism and Its Critics, pp. 5–6, 9; MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 119, 205; MacIntyre, “Patriotism,” p. 12; and MacIntyre, , “Moral Rationality, Tradition, and Aristotle: A Reply to Onora O'Neill, Raimond Gaita, and Stephen R. L. Clark,” Inquiry, vol. 26 (1983), pp. 447–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar In “Moral Rationality,” MacIntyre describes the liberal moral agent, “the individual qua rational person … characterizable independently of his or her social role and situation,” as belonging to the same realm as “unicorns, glass mountains, and squared circles” (p. 454).

25 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 179. See also MacIntyre's After Virtue, according to which a person's attempt to reject his past by rejecting his “inherited” obligations and responsibilities “in the individualist mode, is to deform … [his] present relationships” as well as to lose his self-understanding and disrupt his identity (pp. 205–7).

26 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 62; MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 146, 204 (italics mine).

27 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977);Google Scholar Walzer, Spheres of Justice, p. xv; Walzer, , The Company of Critics (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 227.Google Scholar

28 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 179.

29 MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” pp. 13–14.

30 Ibid., p. 7.

31 Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 312, 313. The notion of morality, including justice, as grounded in shared understandings is retained in The Company of Critics, where Walzer argues that the good critic “gives expression to his people's deepest sense of how they ought to live …” (p. 232). More recently, however, Walzer, might have changed his view of justice. In “The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” Political Theory, vol. 18, no. 1 (February 1990), pp. 623,CrossRefGoogle Scholar he rhetorically asks how, “if we really are a community of strangers,” as Sandel claims, we can do anything “but put [liberal] justice first” (p. 9).

32 Cf. Galston, “Community, Democracy, Philosophy” (supra note 9), p. 123.

33 Is it open to Walzer to argue that respect for universal rights sets a limit on the view that distributive justice is a matter of shared understandings? I think not. For if there is no principled way to draw a line between rights-based and distributive justice, then a priority of universal rights over relativistic justice will end up invalidating the latter altogether. For other problems with Walzer's theory, see Dworkin, Ronald, “What Justice Isn't,” in Dworkin, A Matter of Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 214–20;Google Scholar and Galston, “Community, Democracy, Philosophy,” pp. 122–27. Both point out that, among other things, Walzer's theory is unfaithful to our self-understandings, our conception of justice, which we see, in Dworkin's words, as “our critic not our mirror” (p. 219).

This points to a problem with communitarian morality in general. Since communitarians regard their view of morality as a social product as applicable to all societies, they all face a difficulty with respect to societies that understand their own morality as embodying universal principles. And these probably include all societies, both liberal and illiberal. For a discussion of this and related issues, see Waldron, Jeremy, “Particular Values and Critical Morality,” California Law Review, vol. 77, no. 3 (May 1989), pp. 561–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 313–15. If“shared understandings” simply means “shared by most people” rather than “shared by all,” then Walzer is, of course, right to suggest that the caste system, unlike slavery (p. 250n), rests on shared understandings. However, aside from the fact that this is irrelevant to the issue of justice for each individual, Walzer underestimates the problem of the oppressed internalizing the understandings of the oppressors and, thus, the possibility that the Sudras have internalized the understandings of the upper castes. Indeed, it appears that even some slaves internalized their masters' understanding of slavery; see The Slave's Narrative, ed. Davis, Charles T. and Gates, Henry L. Jr, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).Google Scholar In any case, it is not clear what Walzer means by shared understandings; see Will Kymlicka's discussion of this point in Bell, Communitarianism and Its Critics (supra note 2), Appendix 1, pp. 211—15. Bell suggests that “deepest understanding” be understood as “those beliefs that we can consciously articulate and rationally endorse as our guiding principles” (Appendix 2, p. 224). But the reference to rational endorsement just gives the game away to the liberal, unless the notion of rationality itself is relativized to a community; and this leaves the communitarian conception of justice also relativized, and therefore still open to the objections already made.

35 Walzer, Spheres of justice, pp. 313–15; MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 236. This view also justifies communities of hard-line Muslim clerics and their followers around the world vis-à-vis governments with reformist (or relatively reformist) tendencies. A case in point is the example of the Bangladeshi feminist Taslima Nasrin, who was targeted for death by Muslim hard-liners, but supported by the Bangladeshi government in her attempt, with Western help, to escape to Sweden (San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, October 23, 1994, p. C-13).

36 Walzer, Spheres of Justice, pp. 313–14.

37 MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” p. 16.

38 Ibid., p. 11.

39 Ibid., p. 18.

40 Ibid., pp. 13, 18.

41 Ibid., pp. 14–15.

42 Ibid., p. 16.

43 See also MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 236–37, where “moral community” is characterized as “the moral community of citizens” or one's “country,” and patriotism is characterized as loyalty to this community and obedience to a government that represents it. Recall, also, Sandel's assertion (in Liberalism and Its Critics, p. 5) that our personhood is inconceivable apart from our role as citizens (see Sections II above).

44 Aristotle, Politics, 1276b30–35, 1278M-5, 1293b5–8.

45 It is part of the communitarian contention that liberal society is not a genuine community precisely because it refuses to inculcate a single, politically defined conception of the good in its citizens. I am not sure how communitarians, living in a liberal society, explain their own grasp of genuine moral standards. (MacIntyre seems to see himself as belonging to the community of ancient and medieval philosophers, but this, of course, is an intellectual, and not a political, community.)

46 Walzer, Spheres of Justice, p. 29.

47 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, pp. 62, 150, 172, 173. There are also, of course, organizations of people united by universal principles of charity or compassion, such as the Sisters of Charity, or Children, Incorporated.

48 MacIntyre; “Moral Rationality” (supra note 24), p. 465. See also MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 160, 209, 236–37.

49 MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 205; Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 179.

50 Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, pp. 20–21; Walzer, The Company of Critics, p. 232.

51 MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 205–6; MacIntyre, “Moral Rationality,” p. 451.

52 MacIntyre, “Moral Rationality,” p. 459; MacIntyre, , Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 310.Google Scholar

53 Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, p. 179.

54 Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, p. 21.

55 Walzer, The Company of Critics, p. 232.

56 Richard Rorty claims that our “sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as ‘one of us’, where ‘us’ means something smaller and more local than the human race. That is why ‘because she is a human being’ is a weak, unconvincing explanation of a generous action” (Rorty, , Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], p. 191;CrossRefGoogle Scholar cited in Bell, Communitarianism and Its Critics, p. 150 n. 33). Ironically, research on the rescuers of Jews in Europe during World War II reveals that the thought “because she (or he) is a human being, one of us” is the very thought most rescuers report as the (rather obvious) explanation for their actions. See Hallie, Philip, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper and Row, 1979);Google ScholarOliner, Samuel P. and Oliner, Pearl M., The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: The Free Press, 1988);Google Scholar and Monroe, Kristen R. et al. , “Altruism and the Theory of Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe,” Ethics, vol. 101, no. 1 (October 1990), pp. 103–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

57 I defend this and related points, including the contextual nature of identity, in “Altruism Versus Self-interest: Sometimes a Dichotomy, False, ”Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 10, no. 1 (Winter 1993), pp. 90117.Google Scholar For an account of the rescue effort launched by the village of Le Chambon, see Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.

58 This criticism is made by MacIntyre and Sandel in their discussions of family, friends, and country. Walzer makes a similar point with respect to the critic who takes the impartial point of view. Even some liberals seem to have accepted that liberal norms are, at least, not quite in harmony with deep commitment. For example, Stephen Macedo agrees that the requirement of liberal justice that we subordinate our particular commitments to liberal norms will lead to affections that are “broader but less intense or deep than pre-liberal ones …” (Macedo, , Liberal Virtues [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990], pp. 244, 267–68).Google Scholar And Buchanan, “Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism” (supra note 3); Larmore, Charles, Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987);CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Waldron, Jeremy, “When Justice Replaces Affection: The Need for Rights,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 2 (Summer 1988), pp. 635–47,Google Scholar all seem to think that the communitarian thesis that liberal justice and community are inversely related is, at least, highly plausible. I discuss these issues in “The Circumstances of Justice: Pluralism, Community, and Friendship,” Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 1, no. 3 (1993), pp. 250–76; reprinted in Philosophical Perspectives on Sex and Love, ed. Robert Stewart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), where I argue that rights and justice play a constitutive role in friendships and other communities.

59 I give a fuller argument for these conditions in “Friends as Ends in Themselves,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 48, no. 1 (September 1987), pp. 1–23; reprinted in Alan, Soble, ed., Eros, Agape, and Philia (New York: Paragon House, 1990) pp. 165–86;Google Scholar the essay is also reprinted in Hull, Richard T., ed., Histories and Addresses of Philosophical Societies, Value Inquiry Book Series (Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishers, 1995);Google Scholar and in Clifford, Williams, ed., On Love and Friendship: Philosophical Readings (Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1995).Google Scholar

60 See Williams, Bernard, “Persons, Character, and Morality,” in Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981);CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Stocker, Michael, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 63, no. 14 (August 1976), pp. 453–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Interestingly, Alan Gewirth sees John Rawls's difference principle and Ronald Dworkin's principle of equal concern and respect as forms of distributive consequentialism, because they justify unequal distributions as a means to some form of overall equality; see Gewirth, , “Ethical Universalism and Particularism,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 85, no. 6 (June 1988), p. 289. Gewirth's own universalist rights-based justification of certain particularist attachments escapes this problem.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

61 Even Gewirth's justification of rights-respecting commitments seems to treat rights as justified entirely independently of considerations inherent in these commitments (ibid). Williams's and Stocker's criticisms of certain sorts of impartial theories suggest the worry that impartiality may be incompatible with intrinsic valuing of persons and projects.

62 Badhwar, Neera K., “Friendship, Justice, and Supererogation,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2 (April 1985), pp. 123–31.Google Scholar

63 See Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's description of interrogative methods in Soviet camps that create such conflicts in Solzhenitsyn, , The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I–II (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 106–8.Google Scholar

64 In “Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” pp. 871–72, Buchanan argues that communitarian society may leave so little room for autonomy, that it may be unable to accommodate any genuine commitment (as distinct from blind obsession).

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