John Merrill is the senior statesman of journalism ethics, and all of us in the field admire his commitment to ideas and intellectual history. He's a good thinker and philosophically informed. But in the manifesto against communitarianism on the facing page, he fails to make a crucial distinction.

Communitarians are collectivists, he argues. In his mind, there are two alternatives only-liberal individualism and collectivism. It's either the Enlightenment's individual autonomy or Hegelian collectivism.

As a matter of fact, communitarianism is as distinct from collectivism as it is from atomistic democracy. It is a third social theory.

Collectivities, as a holist paradigm, integrate human beings into the social organism. According to this view, rooted in Hegel, what is real to society's members can only be real in relation to the whole. Communitarianism may appear to be collectivistic in John Merrill's disparaging terms-a warm, be-nice, security-in-community mushiness. But its integrating norm is neither individual rights nor the social whole, but humans-in-relation. Communitarianism reorients selfhood rather than rejects it.

In Merrill's binary political philosophy, communitarianism is reduced to Rousseau's stifling General Will in one paragraph and to Marxist conformity in another. It is called a "first cousin" of the critical theorists and their anti-capitalist hostility to the media business.

However, this rhetoric, reflecting the false distinction between liberalism and collectivism, shows no evidence of understanding

communitarianism as a democratic theory.

Communitarianism is an argument within democratic politics. Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Carole Pateman, and Michael Walzer contend that the doctrine of individual rights makes "the good" extrinsic and is unsophisticated about the interactive relationship between persons and community.

Communitarianism is committed to deliberative democracy rather than an egalitarian version, but that's a criticism within the democratic order not outside it. Carole Pateman, for example, focuses her critique on the voluntary contract within classic liberalism, seeing promises made to one another as a healthier basis for democratic public opinion. Communitarians argue in sophisticated terms with Locke, Mill, and Rawls. John Merrill's critique could move us forward more constructively if it, too, engaged communitarianism in terms of its central ideas rather than give us caricatures of it.

Along with nearly everyone I know in media ethics, I follow John Merrill's work closely. It always opens up conceptual challenges that need to be taken seriously. But in this case his polemic is undermined by a logical fallacy: misplaced concreteness.

The over-riding issue he struggles with is a crucial one-ethical theories do not improve the moral behavior of a society or of professionals. In his version, "regardless of individualism or collectivism, the general run of people will be unethical." Thus, there is no hope for an ethical media system, no matter which theories we might propose.

This basic issue becomes concretized here as communitarianism. Supposedly it is communitarianism's aim to transform society once and for all. With self-righteous fervor akin to the religious paternalism of the Middle Ages, it seeks to overcome the rocky, unpredictable moral conditions of the human race across history. Merrill correctly introduces the problem of evil, but diverts our attention from it by castigating communitarianism's idealism.

The truth is, communitarianism takes evil seriously just as Merrill's individualism does. It reads history carefully in the same way he does. But communitarianism makes an elementary distinction between principles and practice as its response. Human behavior that is contrary to communitarian principles does not, as practice, negate the validity of its norms. Communitarianism is a duty-ethics that insists on the validity of principles despite human failure to observe them. This distinction I find more satisfying than John Merrill's retreat to individual autonomy.

One foundational issue on which we disagree is the nature of the human. John Merrill's final and overarching appeal is to the imperative of freedom. Humans are defined by their freedom. However, in communitarian terms, responsibility is inherent in our personhood. Since we are humans-in-relation, our humanness carries moral obligation. As with Emmanuel Levinas and dialogic theorists generally, our duties to others are more fundamental to human identity than are individual rights. Responsibility in itself does not abrogate freedom any more than gravity destroys human balance. As with our concept of the person, freedom is reoriented not eliminated.

In Isaiah Berlin's categories, communitarianism is based on positive freedom rather than a narrow negative freedom. The imperative of responsibility as the opposite of the imperative of freedom may never be resolved within democratic political philosophy.

But that's where the contention between us should be focused.

* Clifford G. Christians is a professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp. 5,16.