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New Left Review I/222, March-April 1997


Finn Bowring

Communitarianism and Morality: In Search of the Subject

‘No society can function well’, writes Amitai Etzioni, ‘unless most of its members “behave” most of the time because they voluntarily heed their moral commitments and social responsibilities’. [1] Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community, London 1995, p. 30. The importance of strong families, caring neighbours, a flourishing sector of self-help groups, voluntary associations, churches, trade unions and social clubs, as well as a widespread sense of social membership to the healthy functioning of modern societies is now rarely disputed. The civic institutions of the family and neighbourhood are perceived by thinkers on the Right as a precondition for a sustainable welfare state, [2] Nathan Glazer, The Limits of Social Policy, Cambridge, Mass. 1988. and by conservative traditionalists as the foundation for the formation of self-disciplined and dependable personalities. [3] Brigitte Berger and Peter L. Berger, The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground, London 1983. They are defended by civic conservatives, who recognize that effective free markets rely on and must contribute to strong moral and cultural institutions, [4] David Willetts, Civic Conservatism, London 1994. and by ‘ethical philosophers’ who see the principle of duty as the bond of social cohesion that limits the need for a repressive state. [5] David Selbourne, The Principle of Duty, London 1994.

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