Frankfurt School: The Limits of Liberalism, Axel Honneth 1995

The Limits of Liberalism: On the Political-Ethical Discussion concerning Communitarianism

Source: Chapter 14 of The Fragmented World of the Social. Essays in Social and Political Philosophy by Axel Honneth. Ed. Charles W. Wright. State University of New York Press;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

One of the experiences which decisively shapes consciousness in contemporary Western industrial societies is the perception of an accelerated process of personal individualization. Although this process has been evaluated in both positive and negative terms, the individual’s increasing detachment from pre-given social forms has come to be understood as a determining feature of our age, even to the point of heralding a new social epoch. The socio-structural developments which are the objective basis for the changed nature of experience have in the meantime been approximately defined by sociology: taken as a whole, the social liberation from traditional role expectations, the economically conditioned expansion of individual options for action, and finally the cultural erosion of social milieus which created a sense of community, have the effect of granting the individual the ability to exhibit an ever greater measure of autonomous achievement and thus augment the degree of individualization. In philosophy, the idea of “post-modernism” which arose from a critique of reason was the first reaction to these changed social conditions. This approach understands the specific process of the accelerated pluralization of individual life-orientations to be a result of the definitive overcoming of universalistic moral principles; and, in an affirmative mode, declares this to be the liberation of consciousness from false “generalities."’ In the meantime, however, the new situation of experience has also been reflected in an incomparably more important form — more important because it is philosophically instructive and theoretically elucidating — by a debate which has thus far ensued for the most part in the United States and which focuses on the foundations of political ethics as a whole. I am thinking of the criticism which various authors currently level at the atomistic premises of the liberalism represented above all in the work of John Rawls. Here, an awareness of the growing individualization of our society takes the form of an increased attention paid to the intersubjective conditions of human socialization. The philosophical questioning of the liberal tradition goes hand in hand with sociological investigations which attempt to demonstrate that the dissolution of value communities based on tradition gives rise to increased suffering among subjects owing to an absence of social contact. The confluence of philosophical and sociological critiques of liberalism yields a powerful theoretical current which has meanwhile come to be termed “communitarianism.”

It would at first glance seem possible to reduce the point of contention in the debate between the liberals and the so-called “communitarians” to the question of the normative priority accorded either to the ideal of equal rights or to the vision of successful communities. The liberal position, indebted as it is to the tradition of contractarian theory, regards the expansion of legally-guaranteed liberties as the key point on which political ethics must focus, and this is a point, incidentally, which can only be justified in rational terms. By contrast, the communitarian position, which for its part is bound to the Classical Greek doctrine of the polis, or Hegel’s notion of ethical life, advocates that all successful forms of political coexistence depend on the presence of commonly-shared values. In other words, whereas for liberals the idea of maximum, equally-distributed rights serves as the overriding standard of political justice, the idea of socially-binding value orientations functions among the communitarians as the decisive normative criterion for judging societies. However if the difference is left in such simple terms, then the importance of the controversy may well be overlooked, especially in a philosophical sense and, moreover, in its significance for an interpretation of the current state of experience. For the core of the debate hinges on the question of how a political ethics must take account of the conditions of freedom for socialized subjects if it is to arrive at a convincing concept of a just society. It is upon this bone of contention between the liberals and the communitarians that I shall focus: an attempt will be made to trace the debate in terms of the sequence that would rationally emerge if the arguments exchanged thus far were reconstructed in terms of their rational content. In so doing, I shall defend the liberals’ position up to the point where, in my view, the communitarians have a better, albeit not yet very clear, argument. The ultimate goal of my reconstruction is to make a contribution to the question of which philosophical considerations can be adduced as the basis for an appropriate judgment of the trends toward individualization in our society mentioned at the outset.

I shall begin with the objection with which Michael Sandel to a certain extent opened the debate in question: namely that John Rawls’s theory of justice presupposes an atomistic concept of the subject and that this prevents him from recognizing the necessary priority of the good, in other words, of commonly-shared values, over the dimension of “rights.” Rawls is able to come up with plausible arguments to refute this criticism by sacrificing the overly “narrow” concept of the subject which he had taken from the tradition of contractarian theory, while not losing sight of the heuristic aims of his theory of justice (I). The communitarians can only react to Rawls taking this step, as I will then attempt to show, by relating their proposal, namely the priority of the good, to the dimension of individual self-realization rather than to that of personal autonomy. In other words, they incorporate the distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberties into the justifications they propose. Although Rawls has to accept the argument if it is couched in these terms, he can, for his part, now put the same question to the communitarians, asking whether they can distinguish normatively between various substantive contents of the “good” (II). The third will establish that the communitarians are inadvertently forced to sacrifice their neo-Aristotelian premises in their attempt to supply an answer to Rawls’s return question. For, in the face of the liberals’ skepticism, they can only uphold their idea that individual self-realization must be linked back to an horizon of commonly-shared values by substituting the moral justification of morality with a normative concept of ethical life (III).


The normative core of Rawls’s theory consists of two principles which are intended to balance out the relation between the goal of maximum rights and the law of economic justice. As is well-known, he initially attempted to justify the claim to universality that his theory of justice made by means of a conception based on contractual law. Rawls begins with the fictitious conditions of an original position in which subjects, with a purposive rational orientation and under a veil of ignorance vis-á-vis their future social position, deliberate with each other as to which organizational form of society they should contractually agree upon. Under these conditions, they would, in all likelihood, decide on those two principles of justice which Rawls previously designated as normative. Rawls conceives of concluding a contract as a constitutional choice that can be traced by decision theory — made between subjects oriented towards utilitarian benefit. When drawing up their decision the assembled individuals agree on the principle of the greatest possible freedoms and the principle of difference. This occurs because, taken together and under conditions in which the parties do not know what their future positions in society will be, the two principles can guarantee them an optimum of primary goods necessary for the self-realization of each person. Now, the concept of the human subject latent in this contractarian conception is initially taken up by Michael Sandel to support his philosophical critique of liberalism and this set the specific course that the debate would subsequently take. To Sandel’s mind, liberalism is linked systematically to the concept of the subject sketched above by maintaining that the idea of equal rights can only be given normative priority over a concept of the “good” if the subjects are erroneously thought of as beings who monologically select their goals. Sandel’s original criticism of Rawls consequently comprises two steps: he first has to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the model of the human subject presupposed in contractarian theory in order then to prove that the fundamental liberal idea depends substantively on this incorrect concept of the subject.

In order to effect the first task Sandel utilizes an anthropology which, while remaining indeterminate in terms of methodology, largely takes an implicitly phenomenological approach. According to Sandel, if, as in Rawls’s theory, the conclusion of a contract is conceived of as a process made in terms of decision theory then the following characteristics are necessarily attributed to human beings: they are isolated and autonomous, and choose individual goals for their lives in terms of a purposive-rational calculation of their respective interests. To speak here of a “choice” also means that the person’s relationship to his life goals is construed as one of subsequent control. For the subject is assumed always to possess sufficient distance from all possible value orientations to enable her to choose amongst them free from external constraint as if she were making a decision to buy something. To this degree, however, the moral person presupposed in this conception is not only isolated and autonomous, but rather also an initially unsituated, and to a certain extent neutral, subject: we have to do with “a subject of possession, individuated in advance and given prior to its ends.” Opposing this concept, Sandel initially proposes that subjects cannot be meaningfully described independently of the life goals and value orientations which respectively determine them. Sandel argues that every human person has already been shaped so constitutively by some life goal or other that she in principle cannot ever be in that situation presupposed for the act of selection — namely, of being able to adopt a distanced attitude toward all possible life goals. It is therefore wrong to proceed from a concept of a subject that is unsituated and ethically neutral. Rather, we must always count on there being persons who are already “radically situated,” or, in other words, people who have always conceived of themselves within the horizon of specific notions of value and who have acted within that framework. As Sandel notes:

The problem here (is) not the distance of self from its ends, but rather the fact that the self, being unbounded in advance, (is) awash with possible purposes and ends, all impinging indiscriminately on its identity, threatening always to engulf it. The challenge to the agent (is) to sort out the limits or the boundaries of the self, to distinguish the subject from its situation, and so to forge its identity.

Given that these identity-generating life goals are, in addition, only acquired intersubjectively, namely by means of communicatively-mediated processes of cultural socialization, the initial underlying assumption of independent subjects who are isolated from one another is untenable in theoretical terms. For no matter how individually distinct a person may be, she draws her understanding of herself from a cultural store of intersubjectively-shared value orientations; consequently, it is, philosophically speaking, impossible to conceive of the human subject as a solipsistic, pre-societal being.

Assuming that this approach does demonstrate that the concept of the subject presupposed by Rawls is theoretically untenable, indeed wrong, then the next step in this refutation of Rawls’s position must consist in showing that the basic liberal idea does hinge substantively on such a concept of the subject. Sandel embarks on solving the problems this entails by attempting to show that the idea of equal rights can only be granted normative precedence over a concept of the good life if the anthropological premise of isolated and unsituated subjects is taken as given. For, according to his argument, it is only meaningful to regard the legal protection of the individual’s freedom of decision as the central goal of a just society if subjects are thought of as beings each of whom monologically chooses his or her goals. If we assume of subjects that they define their value premises in an isolated process of choice, then they must initially have their individual autonomy protected from the normative influences of the community. The institution of equal rights constitutes such a neutral protective apparatus which, because it involves no further-reaching definition of the common good, leaves every individual subject to make her own decision. For this reason, the basic liberal idea of universal basic rights is the necessary complement to an atomistic conception of the moral person: “On the right-based ethics, it is precisely because we are essentially separate, independent selves that we need a neutral framework, a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing purposes and ends. If the self is prior to its ends, then the right must be prior to the good.” If the subject, on the other hand, is conceived of as having been socialized through communication and as searching for her life goals not on her own but through intercourse with others, then the preferential relationship of “rights” and “values” has, as it were, to be inverted. For in order to be able to arrive at an appropriate understanding of herself free from external constraints, the individual has to be able to presume the existence of an intact community in which she can be sure of the solidarity of all others. To this extent, the concept of the “radically situated” person derived from the critique of atomism necessarily engenders the normative precedence of the vision of commonly-shared values over the idea of equal rights.

It is this second step in Sandel’s argument which Rawls can now criticize with good reason in order to defend the underlying idea of his theory of justice. Even if, or so one might argue if putting the case on his behalf, the identity of an individual is always constituted by a specific interpretation of the good life, the idea of equal rights has to be accorded a preferential status in responding to the question of what the form of a well-ordered society should be. For the individual search for the good — and it would in fact be more appropriate to describe this as a process of communicatively-mediated self-understanding than as an act of monological choice — requires that the social collective protect certain basic rights and a basic standard of living. The legal guarantee of personal autonomy is not something which stands in the way of the intersubjective process of personal identity formation, but rather, conversely, first makes it feasible in society. Without a certain measure of economic prosperity and without legally guaranteed basic liberties the individual subject would not be in a position in the first place to deal with alternative ideas of the good without being subject to external constraint and if necessary to derive benefit from them for his own life plan. There is consequently no logically compelling link that obtains between the atomistic concept of the “unsituated” subject and the liberal idea of equal rights. Rather, granting basic legal liberties a normative status can even be justified if Sandel’s anthropological criticism is accepted and the subjects are conceived of as “radically situated” beings who have al ways already undergone socialization through communication. One cannot precisely infer the normative priority of the good over the “right” from the “ontological ” precedence of the good in the context of human life. By contrast, the “right” merits normative priority because only if the individual autonomy of every person is respected can the human being’s “ontologically” driven search for the “good” become possible without being subject to coercion.

Now, Rawls can in fact go even another step beyond this mere defence of his basic model by posing to Sandel the question of whether he can avoid the reference to a normative standard of basic equal rights when judging political events. One example which Rawls would be able to deploy here is that of the American Civil Rights movement cited by Sandel. As Sandel’s thesis has it both the Rawlsian liberal and the communitarian would want to defend the movement’s political objectives in normative terms, but would have to make use of very different arguments in order to do so: “The civil rights movement of the 1960s might be justified by liberals in the name of human dignity and respect for persons, and by communitarians in the name of recognizing the full membership of fellow citizens wrongly excluded from the common life of the nation.” Rawls will object at this point that what the term “wrongly” is supposed to mean in this case can after all only be concluded from the implicit reference to that standard of universal and equal civil rights for which the theory of justice seeks to provide justifications. For if one fails to presuppose the basic principle of universal human rights — such as is contained in the U.S. Constitution — then one is not in a position to justify the normative assertion that a particular group of people are “wrongly” denied the legal status of fully-fledged citizens. However, before Rawls can bring the full potential of this argument to bear against the communitarians’ approach, he first has to acknowledge the differentiations which the opposing camp has meanwhile made in reply to his detachment of the normative principle of law from the atomistic concept of the person on which it was founded.


The first part of our reconstruction has shown that John Rawls can justify the normative priority of justice over the good even after conceding at the ontological level that subjects have always already orientated themselves towards certain values which they share in common with others through interaction. For the principles of justice he develops are initially intended only for a negative purpose, namely to protect the individual within the community against social and economic sanctions which would constrain him when practically exploring his individual life goals. Of course, Rawls also has to concede at the same time that an acceptance of Sandel’s anthropological objection compels him to revise the justifications he had initially provided for his project. The fiction of a contract between individuals — whose purposive-rational calculation generates the hub of justification in Rawls’s theory — is no longer possible once human subjects cease to be conceived of as isolated and neutral beings, and are, by contrast, grasped as beings who have already become socialized and bear value orientations.

This may help to explain the direction which Rawls took when he further developed his conception of the “theory of justice.” Although he does not renounce the proceduralist construction of an “original position,” he nevertheless moves towards a new interpretation in which the value of the construction for the justifications of the principles of justice is treated in more communitarian terms. In “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” – an essay of central importance for this development in his theory, Rawls initially emphasizes that his conception of justice is context specific. The conception is thought of as a “political” not a “metaphysical” project: “it starts from within a certain political tradition,” namely the political tradition of Western democracies. It should be noted that this assertion runs against the grain of Rawls’s prior understanding of his theory. The ideal person which forms the normative basis of the theory is not some abstract subject furnished with certain abilities; rather, the subject involved is the “normal” citizen of a Western democracy. In line with the communitarian approach, moral persons are now introduced as “situated” subjects who share common convictions. In the new construction, the assumption is made that in their striving to set cooperative goals these subjects accept the thought experiment of an “original position” as a “device of representation.” Given factual conditions in which divergent notions of the good exist, the fictitious restrictions of such a situation of consultation appear to the subjects as the adequate expression of the normative ideals that they share with regard to a just system of social cooperation. Rawls consequently regards the ideal of contractual agreement as a normative procedure which is in turn first founded in the collectively shared value-convictions of citizens of Western democracies. This contextual link of the “original position” back to a certain tradition of morality can be understood as a compromise between his original proceduralism and the objections of his communitarian critics.

The communitarians, however, are compelled in their reaction to Rawls’s counterargument to specify more closely the normative content of their critique of liberalism. Yet, the anthropological verification of the priority of the social community over the individual should not be applied in order to cast theoretical aspersions on the moral principle of individual autonomy. This is so because the process of ethical self-assurance, if conceived of as intersubjective in nature, has to be safeguarded against social and economic limitations. It is correct to pursue individual autonomy as a moral principle even if we assume that the personal identity of the subject only takes shape given a socially intact community. For it is a legally guaranteed liberty of action which first enables the individual to come to terms with the ethical values of the world in which he lives and, if necessary, to adopt them for himself, without being subject to external constraint in the process. The communitarians are able to react to this preliminary conclusion theoretically by shifting their critique of liberalism back from the level of individual autonomy to that of personal self-realization. Given such a shift, the conviction that normative claims can be made for the process of realizing personal life goals irrespective of the reference to commonly-shared values seems to indicate a flaw in the liberal position. This critique of liberalism is somewhat more moderate than Sandel’s formulation, and its argumentative underpinnings are to be found in Charles Taylor’s theory of liberty as well as in Alasdair MacIntyre’s model of personality.

In order to present his reservations about the liberal model of society Taylor draws on the distinction developed by Isaiah Berlin between negative and positive conceptions of liberty. However he accords the two notions a somewhat different meaning than that given to them by Berlin in his famous essay. Taylor contends that the idea of negative liberty — a key achievement of the tradition of political liberalism — merely represents a concept of how individual liberty might be possible. It is limited because it only represents an answer to the question as to which social safeguards enable the individual subject to determine autonomously his individual life goals within the framework of the commonality. On his own account Taylor believes that the idea of positive liberty which emerged from the critique of liberalism holds the seeds of a model for the practical realization of individual freedom. For such an approach also endeavours to answer the question as to which social preconditions have to exist if the individual is in reality to be able to avail himself of his legally ordained right to self-realization:

Doctrines of positive freedom are concerned with a view of freedom which involves essentially the exercising of control over one’s life. On this view, one is free only to the extent that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one’s life. The concept of freedom here is an exercise concept. By contrast, negative theories can rely simply on an opportunity-concept, where being free is a matter of what we can do, of what is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise these options.

The difficulties which Taylor has in mind in this context with respect to distinguishing between “opportunity” and “reality” stem from the claims that are implicitly associated with the word “essential” in the context of “exercising control over one’s life.” The modern idea of exercising a legally secured liberty includes the notion that we only follow and implement those personal goals of which we can be sure that they “really” are our own. All individual wishes are “real” or “factual” if we are able to identify with them, and are not compelled to do so, because we have been able to explore them both independently of external influences and without there being any inner compulsion to do so. In turn, such an “inner” freedom points to a certain degree of “self-awareness” and “moral discrimination,” “self-control” and transparent needs. To this extent, the “realization” of freedom presumes the existence of certain abilities among the individuals involved, which are not taken into consideration by negative notions. Further, Taylor assumes that the development of these abilities depends on the existence of intact communities.

The arguments which Taylor deploys in attempting to buttress this central proposition of his critique of liberalism originate in an “anthropological” concept of the human person which, in common with Sandel’s notion, concentrates on human evaluative self-understanding. Human subjects are, for Taylor, beings who exhibit the special ability of being able to adopt an evaluative stance towards their own intentions or wishes. We normally encounter such “second order desires” in the form of feelings or moods which signal to us whether our current primary intentions agree or conflict with the convictions that guide us. However, such feelings are themselves not “directly” given, but depend on interpretations that are imbued with a cognitive knowledge both of the conditions of our situation and our personal abilities. The cognitive contexts of our affective self-interpretation are open to correction by the external judgement of others given that these contents can be true or false, that is, can reproduce the corresponding conditions or abilities either appropriately or inappropriately. Nevertheless, such a helpful correction to our self-interpretation can only be forthcoming from beings who share our orientation towards the goal of self-realization. To this extent, the formation of inner freedom presupposes the existence of a social community whose members know that they agree on the positive evaluation of the self-realization.

It follows from the arguments outlined above that the individual subject can never be completely sure of his “authentic” life goals without resorting to communicative aids. Indeed, he is not even capable of securing them for himself. Rather, I only find out which values I actually want to guide me in my life to the degree that I interact with others who support me in ascertaining my needs and who will, if necessary, protect me from self-deceptions. As a consequence, the presence of legal provisions for individual self-determination only ensures that liberty is possible, whereas the practical creation of freedom depends on the existence of an additional prerequisite — namely, a life form in which the subjects can mutually participate empathetically in the ethical self-assurance of their respective partners in interaction. In his essays, Taylor mentions a series of social conditions on which such a culture of empathy in solidarity must rest. These include above all a republican form of political morality “for we have not only to maintain these practices and institutions which protect liberty but also those which sustain the sense of liberty.” This being the case, other forms of mutual recognition which encourage the individual to continue on his path to self-realization must also be involved. Taken together, these definitions point to a model of community in which the subjects are able to establish a relationship based on mutual solidarity precisely because they regard liberty as their common possession. The individual, in other words, is only rendered capable of practicing his legally guaranteed liberty if he is an active member of a social community, the cohesion of which has emerged from a mutually-shared value orientation toward freedom.

This train of thought implies that Rawls’s basic liberal model will inevitably run into difficulties as soon as the principle of self-determination and the conditions for its realization are taken into consideration. For the prerequisites for individual realization of freedom obviously cannot be adequately defined without reference to such commonly-shared values, and it is these which the liberal specifically seeks to exclude in order to preserve the ethical neutrality of the theory. However, only by the solidarity of partners in interaction can legally guaranteed liberties be realized in practice, and this presupposes that a social community exists whose members know themselves to be of one accord in their commitment to specific ethical values. Alasdair MacIntyre comes to a similar conclusion when investigating the conditions of personal self-realization in order to question the premises of modern “liberal individualism.” He is interested in demonstrating that, unlike the dominant opinion on the matter, we are today still compelled to understand individual life as an occurrence, the success of which depends on the acquisition of certain virtues. To this end, he endeavours to show that human individuals must interpret their lives as the search for the “good.” MacIntyre proceeds from the assumption that for individual existence to be experienced meaningfully it must be able to be described in terms of a story. If I am not able to present my life narratively in the formal framework of a beginning and end, then it has no point of reference to instil it with unity, no point from which it can become instilled with “sense” or “meaning” for me. Accordingly experiencing one’s life as something that can no longer be narrated in terms of such a teleological schema usually goes hand in hand with the painful experience of existential meaninglessness, something that can be heightened to the point of an intention to commit suicide. Every life must be aimed at a goal if it is to be open to narration; from such a goal one has to say that in a certain, weak sense it exhibits an ethical quality. For, only to the extent that every overarching goal must also contain “criteria for success or failure” of the form I have given my life, that is that it include moral claims, can it serve via reference back to a constructed beginning as the reference point for such a narrative account of my life. As a consequence, the narrative form of organizing human life demands the depiction of the “quest for the good,” in terms of which the individual episodes can be construed meaningfully as “harms, dangers, temptations and distractions.” However, in order to be able to view all the disparate episodes of a life from one such uniform vantage point, it is necessary also to refer to the mediating authority of social roles, by means of which the subject always remains subliminally connected to the history of a humane society. If stripped of the tasks and traditions which allow me to be a member of a community, my life would lack the overarching point of orientation and the social framework through which I can provide a narrative account of a steadfast, if not continuous search for the “good”:

For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from the past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.

To this extent, every form of individual self-realization necessarily presupposes reference to socially-shared values for it must be possible to render it in the form of a narrative, just as every narrated life, in turn, implicitly contains reference to a social community.

It need not presently concern us that MacIntyre develops his analysis of the narratability of human life with a view to rehabilitating the classical doctrine of virtue; that is, his attempt to derive the normative validity of certain character traits in the present from the demands which the “quest for the good” places upon behavioural features? All that is pertinent here is the fact that he arrives at the same conclusion as Charles Taylor, namely, that the self-realization of the individual subject is tied to a social precondition, more precisely, that the community is constituted by common value references. Both Taylor and MacIntyre believe that the context of a social community must necessarily figure among the preconditions for an authentic realization of freedom, that is, a social community whose inner commitment to certain values is shared by the subject. For in the absence of such an ethical consensus the individual would be deprived of the consent which he must be able to rely on when attempting to realize his life goals within society. This proposition marks the point in the debate at which a definite limitation of liberalism would appear to emerge. Given that the liberalist tradition insists that normative status may not be granted to any specific ethical value, it is not possible within the framework of such theories to develop the idea of a community that is integrated in terms of a notion of ethical life, even though, it is precisely this which we evidently have to presuppose when trying to explain the process of the individual realization of freedom. Liberalism is also forced to conceive of the process by which one puts one’s life goals into practice in terms of the very same pattern which it employed, initially with good reason, when conceiving of the creation of personal autonomy through a notion of rights — namely, the neutralization of overarching community ties.

The basic error of atomism in all its forms is that it fails to take account of the degree to which the free individual with his own goals and aspirations, whose just rewards it is trying to protect, is himself only possible within a certain kind of civilization; that it took a long development of certain institutions and practices, of the rule of law, of rules of equal respect, of habits of common deliberation, of common association, of cultural self-development, and so on, to produce the modern individual; and that without these the very sense of oneself as an individual in the modern meaning of the term would atrophy.

In this sense, the reproach with which Sandel already attempted unjustifiably to annul the liberal principle of the precedence of equal rights — that is that it was atomistic — is, and only in a certain sense, now justified at this, the second stage in the debate. For the very reason that liberalism has categorically uncoupled moral subjects from all intersubjectively shared references to values, it cannot adequately clarify those social preconditions under which these subjects can individually put the liberties which are legally accorded to them into practice. Rawls will have to concede that this is lacking in liberalism. After all, he stumbled upon the necessary connection between self-realization and commonly-shared values when devising his concept of “self-esteem.” However, he can now, in return, put the question to the communitarians as to which normative principles they can deploy in order to provide justifications for distinguishing between right and wrong notions of the good life.


Rawls’s counterquestion opens up what has thus far been the final round in the debate which is taking place between the representatives of liberalism and communitarianism in American philosophy. This latest stage in the discussion has focused on a problem which is difficult to solve. This is the question of how I can assign normative validity to one of the numerous models of a commonly-shared “good” once I concede that well integrated communities play a constitutive part in the realization of individual freedoms. However, this question to a certain extent affects both sides in the politico-philosophical debate. For, having in recent years dropped the system of justifications based on contractarian theory, Rawls has — and this has to do with the communitarian objections — also relinquished the claim his theory made to the universality and has limited the domain for which it is valid to the horizon of the tradition of Western democracies. Consequently, he also confronts the question as to what reasons can be given for granting the tradition of ethical life of this particular community a normative status above all others. The communitarians, on the other hand, and to the extent that they are challenged to provide an explication of their concept of community, begin to become increasingly embroiled in a theoretical self-contradiction. For as soon as they attempt to explicate concrete concepts of the collective good, they intuitively make use of universalistic principles. We have already seen this to be the case in Sandel’s use of the word “wrongly,” and in Taylor’s case, it comes to light in the consistent reference to the moral idea of individual autonomy. It also comes to the surface in MacIntyre’s work when he states that a stance of argumentative openness is the feature characterizing a rational tradition. At the same time, however, all three communitarians are sufficiently convinced of their contextualist premises that they do not make these implicit principles normatively restrictive conditions which have to be imposed on every definition of a collective good. Rather, they tend to run the danger of having to distinguish every form of community formation as normative if it fulfils the function of generating value-related forms of solidarity.

The problem this brings with it cannot, however, be answered without responding to the decisive question as to which level of aggregation of social integration is normatively desirable in community formation. There is, after all, a great deal of difference in the communitarian argument between speaking of value-related community formation solely with a view to the intermediate groups and associations involved or with regard to the interactive relationship between all citizens, in other words, Hegel’s notion of ethical life in the state. The first option amounts merely to a diluted form of communitarianism, for it simply asserts that membership of some form of “value community” is part and parcel of the conditions for realizing individual liberty. As Michael Walzer has shown, such a thesis can in principle be reconciled with liberalism since the state would have to transcend its ethical neutrality only in the narrow realm of active, legal promotion of group solidarity (family policy, educational and cultural policies for minorities, etc.). Things are different, however, if it is assumed that “ethical” community formation is necessary for the level of overall social integration. Such a position could be justified if, following Taylor, it was asserted that the formation of group solidarity within societies can also only succeed completely if it receives social backing in the shape of the active, value-related agreement of all citizens on the forms of solidarity. Such a proposition would first take us truly beyond the political-philosophical limits of liberalism.

For this reason, and leaving aside the special problem for the communitarians, both sides currently find themselves in very much the same dilemma. They no longer have any supra-contextual criterion with which to distinguish justifiably between morally acceptable and morally objectionable concepts of the collective good. The reason for this is that they wish, in their employment of contextualistic arguments, to abstain from providing a universalist foundation for the principles of morality anchored in the constitutional principles of western democracy. Yet, both sides are at the same time all the more dependent on such a criterion because in the meantime they widely agree that without any link to value convictions there is an inability to clarify the conditions under which individual freedom is realized. Evidently, the only way out of this theoretical cul-de-sac in which the politico-philosophical debate presently threatens to get stuck is to adopt a formal model of ethical life. Such a model conceives of the universalistic principles of a postconventional morality as constituting the delimiting conditions of every community-based model of the good. For, in such a case, all those collective notions of the good life would be acceptable which are sufficiently reflexive and pluralistic as not to violate the principle of the individual autonomy of each and every subject. In my opinion, discourse ethics currently offers the most suitable point of departure with respect to providing the justifications for such a post-conventional principle of morality. It is, on the one hand, not affected by the anthropological criticisms which the communitarians justifiably raised with regard to Rawls’s original approach because the methods of justification using the rules of linguistic interaction departs from the premise of subjects who are both socialized and situated. Yet, on the other hand, given that it is concerned with justifying the principles for granting equal respect to the autonomy of every individual, its moral goal coincides with the approach Rawls takes to a theory of justice. Needless to say, the ethics of discourse must at the same time conceive of its principle of morality as a delimiting condition of a concept of the good which has still to be developed if it is to be able to fulfil the task of liberating both communitarianism and contemporary liberalism from their contextualist premises; that is, by offering them a normative concept of community. It can, however, only acquire such a formal model of ethical life if it takes on the great challenge of Hegel’s philosophy for a second time.