by Lorenzo Piccoli

A few days ago I made a reference to some of the main differences that distinguish modern liberals and communitarian thinkers. This is an old debate which still fascinates me. To put it very simply, I would say that this is a conversation between those who believe we have only voluntary obligations and those who believe we have moral obligations of membership and loyalty.

This latter set of obligations does not exclusively refer to universal moral duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily, but also to obligations towards the communities we are part of, even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. For instance, as communitarians point out, obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.

Of course, this is such a big debate that it would be impossible to wrap it up in a couple of short messages. However, as most of the intriguing conversations we can have, this is an argument for further questions and not for definitive answers. As a matter of fact, the best way to think about it is through a few dilemmas which are proposed on Michael Sandel’s Justice website.

  1. If you caught your brother shoplifting, would you call the police? Should you call the police? Many people would hesitate to report their own brother. Is this evidence of a special moral obligation that competes a universal duty of justice, or is it mere prejudice?
  2. Do parents have greater obligations to their own children than to other people’s children? Suppose your child is drowning next to the child of a stranger. Do you have a greater moral obligation to save your own child than to save the stranger’s child? Why?
  3. Do children have a greater obligation to help their own parents when they are in need than to help other needy people?
  4. Do Americans who live in El Paso, Texas, have greater moral obligations to people who live in Alaska than to people who live right across the river in Mexico? Why? What is the source of this obligation?
  5. Is patriotism a virtue? Or is it merely prejudice for one’s own? Most people do not get to choose what country they will live in, and no one chooses where they’re born. Why are we obligated to the people of our own country more than to the people of any other?

Indeed, these are fascinating questions. Thinking about the answers is not only an exercise for its own sake. These big moral issues are one of the reasons why one would be motivated to carry on a long Phd in politics. Meanwhile, you can watch episode 11 of Sandel’s Justice, which is pretty much all about this philosophical dilemma.