Friday, December 28, 2012

Community, by my Uncle Gene

Community is one of those words we use all the time, without thinking much about what it means. While it means "those who share common interests," it  implies that some kind of "unity" is essential if there is to be a "community." We have a common interest in the welfare of children, and so we quickly became a national community in our grieving over the mass shooting in Connecticut. We "come together" as a community when such disasters occur, and we like to think our patriotism or love of country unites us all in the community of Americans. We acknowledge that our own "families" are our most basic community, and we build our other communities to some extent on that model. Our recent national election, however, profiled what deep differences there are, when we try to think of the community of all Americans. We have personal examples of how the various communities to which we belong are sometimes torn apart by the differences of opinion held by the members. Some of the most vocal disagreements we hear about, come from members of religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. To the ancient question, Why can't we all just live together in peace?, the philosophical response dates back to ancient times, and is brought up to date by lively interchanges between Harvard philosophers like Thomas Scanlon, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Michael Sandel.

But no philosopher has looked at the problems of community more perceptively than Alasdair MacIntyre. From his book After Virtue:  "We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity." MacIntyre claims we have lost the sense of loyalty to a tradition, the sensitivity to the needs that others may have, a willingness to go the extra mile simply for the benefit of someone who stands in need, and is a member of some community of which we are a part. 

What has torn us apart in recent years is our own penchant for extreme libertarianism: I am free to choose whatever I want to be or to do, quite apart from the needs of my community or my communities. "From the standpoint of individualism I am what I choose to be." While finding our own identities is no doubt important, we do owe something to each community to which we have belonged, beginning with our own family, but also to virtually every community that has had a hand in making us who we are. (Personal confession: I was a student in Canada for nine years, and I know I owe something to that community, something that can never be repaid, so it remains one of my many outstanding debts…) As MacIntyre comments: "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 that past…is to deform my present relationships." 

In a word, we owe something to the communities of which we are members. We owe something on a personal level, not just through the taxes we pay, but through some obligation of community building, of doing something to make every community of which we are a part, better for our having been there. Evolutionary biologists study the phenomenon of "altruism," the capacity to do something strictly for the benefit of someone else, and note that human beings are capable of remarkable acts of altruism, even to the point of sacrificing one's own life. While we may not be called to do that on an everyday basis, certainly there are daily examples when we can ride to the rescue of someone who needs our attention...

Just as we are born into the family that nourished us, and have built families where we may be the primary nurturers, so we are all members of larger communities, and we owe something to those with whom we share common interests, common boundaries, common visions of the future. In pursuing our own private interests, it is all too easy to overlook the obligations we have as community members, to do some good for others. It is the interests we have in common with all those with whom we associate, that truly make us who we are. While we may take pride in our individual achievements, we could not achieve anything apart from the communities that have nourished us. We have obligations of solidarity and loyalty that go far beyond whatever differences that may divide us. We only become truly human by participating in the communities that nourish and sustain us...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful articles. You've been missed!