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Moral Agency, Commitment, and Impartiality*

  • Neera K. Badhwar (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

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.

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Allen E. Buchanan , “Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” Ethics, vol. 99, no. 4 (July 1989), pp. 852–82.

Michael Walzer , “Liberalism and the Art of Separation,” Political Theory, vol. 12, no. 3 (August 1984), p. 328;

William Galston , “Community, Democracy, Philosophy: The Political Thought of Michael Walzer,” Political Theory, vol. 17, no. 1 (February 1989), p. 130.

Michael Sandel , “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self,” Political Theory, vol. 12, no. 1 (February 1984), pp. 8196;

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.

Walzer might have changed his view of justice. In “The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” Political Theory, vol. 18, no. 1 (February 1990), pp. 623,

Jeremy Waldron , “Particular Values and Critical Morality,” California Law Review, vol. 77, no. 3 (May 1989), pp. 561–89.

Kristen R. Monroe , “Altruism and the Theory of Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe,” Ethics, vol. 101, no. 1 (October 1990), pp. 103–22.

Charles Larmore , Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987);

Bernard Williams , “Persons, Character, and Morality,” in Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981);

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.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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