How do communitarians disagree with social contract theory?

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Communitarians disagree with social contract theory primarily because they see it as being too individualistic. Whereas the emphasis of communitarianism is on the social bonds that link members of a community together, social contract theory tends to focus on individuals and the choices they make in forming civil societies.

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The term "communitarian" was coined in the mid-nineteenth century, and the ideas on which the precepts of the movement were based go back much further—to Plato's dialogues and the ideals of Monasticism, for instance. However, as a modern philosophical movement, communitarianism arose in the 1980s, largely in opposition to the...

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type of social contract theories espoused by John Rawls inA Theory of Justice. Rawls proposed a formula known as the greatest equal liberty principle, which he expressed as follows:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Rawls concentrates on the basic liberties of individuals, who are to be protected from social pressure to conform, as well as from state power. Communitarians argue that individuals function, learn, and reason within a community, which is the source of their moral values. Therefore, trying to maximize individual liberties at the expense of communities, according to communitarians, undermines the basis of both reason and values.

A common type of dispute between communitarians and social contract liberals occurs in multicultural societies when the customs of a particular religious or ethnic community are at odds with the law of the land. For instance, in some communities in the United Kingdom, girls (and sometimes boys) are married some years before the legal age of sixteen. This is illegal, but is often tolerated in practice. A communitarian would approve of this toleration, emphasizing the rights of the community. A social contract theorist would argue that the legal rights of the individual should always take precedence.

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To answer this question, we need to understand what communitarians are, and what social contract theory is.

A communitarian, in a nutshell, is someone who believes that the most important force in someone's life is the relationship between themselves as an individual and the community in which they live. According to a communitarian, your identity is shaped by those who you grew up around. In other words, the community is the most important shaping force in terms the moral and political judgments that we make. Communitarianism states that without these societal frameworks, we would be desperately lonely and unable to make sound judgments.

According to social contract theory, the existence moral and political obligations depends on a contract or agreement being drawn up to stipulate how members of society will live. Social contracts can be explicit, in the case of laws of a country. They can also be more tacit, such as the need to stand in a queue instead of jumping to the front.

I would argue that communitarians and social contract theorists would come to loggerheads in a discussion about right and wrong. According to a communitarian, the right thing would be to never do anything to hurt any member of the community, due to the importance placed on the people around you. A social contract theorist, on the other hand, would consider wrongness to be any violation of the prevailing social contracts.

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Communitarianism is a branch of political philosophy that emphasizes the importance of shared understandings in the functioning of civil society. That's not to say that communitarians deprecate the importance of individuals; it's simply that they see the role of individuals in society against the backdrop of shared meaning and social solidarity. To that end, they emphatically reject anything that smacks of abstract individualism, such as certain variants of political liberalism that posit the isolated, rights-bearing individual as the locus of sovereignty.

Most varieties of social contract theory are based on just such an assumption of abstract individuality. It is not surprising, then, that communitarianism should be so strongly critical of social contract theory, as it appears to endorse a vision of society in which the abstract individual exists prior to the formation of civil society.

Communitarians wholly reject the notion implicit in social contract theory that values are matters of individual choice exercised in isolation from the wider community. On the contrary, argues the communitarian, all values that exist within a given society are always ultimately derived from the community. Our understanding of any value—justice, for example—depends on a pattern of shared meanings and common assumptions that shape the community's values.

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By focusing on the individual as part of a community, Communitarianism seeks to equalize rights and responsibilities across all members instead of delineating social classes.

Social Contract Theory states that individuals will agree to social rules and regulations based on their mutual desire for protection and safety, rather than by coercion.

Communitarians usually disagree with social contract theory because of the implicit nature of the social contract itself; since they feel that a community should consist of like-minded people who want the same good outcomes across the board, they are put off by the idea that people will only accede to the binding membership for their own individual protection, rather than for the good of all. Communitarianism is, at its core, a type of collectivism, although it usually seeks to emphasize individual importance in the community; meanwhile, social contract theory places great emphasis on the individual's right to support or oppose the mutually-agreed-upon society, but tosses out anyone who refuses to be a member. Communitarians generally agree that the value of the individual is both shaped by and dedicated to the community, and so discard the idea that membership is voluntary; members are born and die as members.

Today, communitarianism is a low-level philosophy, with few proponents, while social contract theory is practiced in all governmental societies but rarely acknowledged as such.

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