Rights and Responsibilities

American men, women, and children are members of many communities–families; neighborhoods; innumerable social, religious, ethnic, work place, and professional associations; and the body politic itself. Neither human existence nor individual liberty can be sustained for long outside the interdependent and overlapping communities to which all of us belong. Nor can any community long survive unless its members dedicate some of their attention, energy, and resources to shared projects. The exclusive pursuit of private interest erodes the network of social environments on which we all depend, and is destructive to our shared experiment in democratic self-government. For these reasons, we hold that the rights of individuals cannot long be preserved without a communitarian perspective.

A communitarian perspective recognizes both individual human dignity and the social dimension of human existence.

A communitarian perspective recognizes that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect; where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others; where we develop the skills of self-government as well as the habit of governing ourselves, and learn to serve others– not just self.

A communitarian perspective recognizes that communities and polities, too, have obligations–including the duty to be responsive to their members and to foster participation and deliberation in social and political life.

A communitarian perspective does not dictate particular policies; rather it mandates attention to what is often ignored in contemporary policy debates: the social side of human nature; the responsibilities that must be borne by citizens, individually and collectively, in a regime of rights; the fragile ecology of families and their supporting communities; the ripple effects and long-term consequences of present decisions. The political views of the signers of this statement differ widely. We are united, however, in our conviction that a communitarian perspective must be brought to bear on the great moral, legal, and social issues of our time.

–Preamble to the Responsive Communitarian Platform

“Respect and uphold society’s moral order as you would have society respect and uphold your autonomy to live a full life.”

–Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule

At the heart of the responsive communitarian vision lies a simple precept: the quest for the good society is in part the search for a healthy balance between rights and responsibilities, between individual freedom and the requirements of the social order. A society can err in either direction. Pre-democratic societies typically emphasize obligations at the expense of individual rights. Late-twentieth-century liberal democracies often have the opposite problem, stressing rights to the neglect of responsibilities.

In speaking to today’s authoritarian societies around the world, communitarians demand a greater acknowledgement by governments of the rights and dignity of the individual. In speaking to the modern democracies, and especially our own society, communitarians call for a greater recognition by citizens of their obligations to society and to one another.

The enjoyment of liberty requires a healthy social order. If the quest for individual freedom and autonomy is pushed too far, society suffers. The resulting social disorder–manifested in such problems as runaway crime, declining public institutions, economic exploitation, eroding manners, and disrespect for of our common civic space–impinges on our liberty. If our streets our unsafe, our schools and other public institutions neglected, and our attitudes toward one another self-seeking and uncivil, our freedom is diminished.

To provide for the full enjoyment of liberty, a society needs strong non-governmental institutions–solid families, good schools, friendly neighborhoods, vibrant churches and synagogues, active charities and voluntary associations. All of these institutions are built out of a tissue of mutual responsibility and caring.

Reading and Links

The essentials of the communitarian vision are set out in the Responsive Communitarian Platform, signed by dozens of prominent Americans from across the political spectrum. Amitai Etzioni’s The New Golden Rule explores the issue of balancing rights and responsibilities, in a classic communitarian analysis of contemporary American society.

Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk shows how the terms of our political discourse–especially as shaped by court rulings in recent decades–leads to systematic neglect of responsibilities and ultimately to a counterproductive approach to the social problems that face us.

Read Amitai Etzioni, Balancing Individual Rights and the Common Good from Tikkun.

For Further Exploration

Ackerman, Robert M. “Tort Law and Communitarianism: Where Rights Meet Responsibilities.” Wake Forest Law Review 30 (1995): 649-90.

Bahm, Archie J. “Rights and Duties: Restoring the Balance.” Ethics in Education 3 (1983): 5.

Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1985.

Etzioni, Amitai, ed. New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions, and Communities. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Etzioni, Amitai, ed. Rights and the Common Good: The Communitarian Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Gaylin, Willard, and Bruce Jennings. The Perversion of Autonomy: The Proper Uses of Coercion and Constraints in a Liberal Society. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

Iacobucci, Frank. “The Evolution of Constitutional Rights and Corresponding Duties: The Leon Ladner Lecture.” The University of British Columbia Law Review 26 (1992): 1-19.

Lund, William R. “Politics, Virtue, and the Right To Do Wrong: Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Rights.” Journal of Social Philosophy 28 (1997): 101-22.

Prior, D., J. Stewart, and K. Walsh. Citizenship: Rights, Community, & Participation. London: Pitman Publishing, 1995.

Selbourne, David. The Principle of Duty: An Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

Smoke, Stephen. The Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1996.