The Communitarian Concept of the Self

For the communitarian self, the pursuit and choice of the good life is a process that is interpretive and deliberative. Persons are born into, or thrown into, situations that contain fragments of traditions, values, customs, norms, and habits. However, these raw materials are continuously reinterpreted and reappropriated as circumstances evolve and change. Similarly, persons make choices, accumulate experience, and receive a variety of kinds of feedback. They modify, refine, or change their ends, or the means to those ends, based upon these life processes. In so doing, they come to know who they are. Being a "self" is therefore a process of self-discovery.

Being a person is also a process of mutual self-discovery (Kuczewski, 1997, pp. 51-56, 108-112). That is, a person not only makes his or her own plans and gathers feedback, but is also shaped by his or her response to, and participation in, the process of self-discovery of others. A person's identity is thereby inseparable from the life of the communities and societies in which the person participates. Of course, this is not the mere alignment of the projects and values of the person with the community. The person's identity is partially constituted by his or her community, even in the person's rejection of the community's values.

The essence of a person comes from the person's participation in the process of mutual self-discovery. Thus, for the communitarian, the ultimate question is always how to foster the development of a person's deliberative powers and create appropriate opportunities for exercising meaningful participation in communal deliberation. This heuristic applies to deliberation on levels of interpersonal encounters such as clinical decision making as well as societal decisions regarding the use of common resources.

Communitarian thought is obviously closely related to another neo-Aristotelian ethic, virtue theory. Communitarians hold that the concept of the person includes the notion of capacities that need to be developed to be a good citizen and good person. Virtue ethics takes the development of excellence of character as its end-point, its telos. That is, the virtuous person is what the community and social practices should aim to produce. There are few obvious points of tension between communitarianism and virtue ethics, and disputes would seem to be a matter of emphasis and tone. Communitarians are generally oriented to process, virtue theorists to outcome (i.e., character). But both emphasize the relationship and interdependence of the community and the deliberative capacities of its members.

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