Lesson 12: Community Loyalty (Sandel, Chapter 9)

Hebrew word, HesedIf I asked you who you are, chances are you would describe yourself with a list of the groups to which you belong: your family, neighborhood, ethnic group, town, and nation, as well other social affiliations. Sandel claims these communities shape our ethics as much, if not more, than abstract rational reasoning or voluntary choices. We understand who we are, what we believe, and what we are to do by identifying with the stories, histories, and traditions of these communities. It is downright silly that we harp so much on individual freedom, when we are radically dependent on one another in our highly specialized world.

Think of all the profound implications when Lupe’s granddaughter, Cassie, reported she does not think of herself in terms of race, but rather as a Bolivian. Consider how much Christian ethics are based on the story told weekly by the Church. When the Old Testament Torah commands care for the weak, it tells the story of how God rescued the Hebrew community when it was enslaved in Egypt. When Christians call for love, they tell the story of Jesus’ words and deeds– even dying for us.

As much as we might understand the important role our communities play in passing down the lessons from the past and checking our self-centered pursuit of happiness, we immediately feel the tension between what Sandel labels corporate responsibility and collective selfishness. We feel a deeper loyalty with those in our own group, more common humanity with our families than our nations. Yet we also have to live with some awful past history. Too often we have found our identity by labeling and even oppressing outsiders. What is Western Civilization to make of the Holocaust, or the Church of the Inquisition?

It seems obvious that we must always be ready to correct the stories of our communities, so they are relevant to contemporary situations. We have done that with great effort and sacrifice in overcoming slavery, granting rights to women, accepting gays and lesbians. We, also, need to constantly compliment and check our communal ethics with the natural and voluntary approaches Sandel discussed in previous chapters.

My guess is almost all of us appreciate how our families form our understandings of right and wrong, but what about the other communities to which you belong? Does solidarity with other Americans mean we have an ethical obligation to “buy American”? Does it support an “America first, right or wrong” stance? “American Exceptionalism”? Can we consider patriotism a virtue? If so, what does it involve? How far does it go?

Bob and Derek spoke of the difficulties of individuals engaging in a public conversation about the common good in our large, pluralistic, bureaucratic communities. Is it any easier, if we see the conversation involving our communities rather than individuals? Is the conversation more workable with smaller groups? We have seen the limitations of civil discussion in the global village that has no history or tradition. Does it offer more hope to “Think globally and act locally” as the ecolologists counsel?

Lately, I’ve heard the word” community” used mostly by online groups, for example referring to “My Facebook community” or my “Facebook friends.” Coming a close second would be gays and lesbians speaking of “the community.” Are these new forms of community that have the potential to shape ethics?

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    April 25 was Liberation Day in Italy, the anniversary of April 25, 1945 when the Germans were expelled from the nation. I smile every time I see a photo of the “partisans” entering the cities from the hills and occupying them immediately when the Germans left them. This happened throughout 1944 and 1945. So some Italians really believe (I kid you not) that the Partisans liberated the cities, conveniently forgetting that the Germans left only because Allied troops were about to arrive. A wonderful example of how nations modify their history so they are the “good guys” and look better.

    The Catholics have the doctrine of a Just War. Wars that don’t meet this criterion are a sin. An American friend who went to Catholic schools in the USA as a child told me the that the textbooks carefully explained how every war fought by the USA was a “Just War.”

    This is the problem with “community” (whatever level) traditions. They are not about truth but about building group loyalty. This is not to say that they are always false, only that truth is not the primary concern. Group loyalty can be a good or a bad thing depending on what the group is doing.

    Communities as shapers of ethics will always be a mixed bag by the very nature of the animal.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      I’ve already received other responses agreeing with the one Bob posted: “Group loyalty can be a good or bad thing depending on what the group is doing”.

      I would come at it from a different angle than Sandel. I don’t like the idea of basing ethics on “loyalty”. Instead I prefer to emphasize how much ethics depends on narrative or stories.

      When I want to examone who I am, what I believe, and what I am to do I begin with stories, something like Jesus did with the parables. The value of finding meaning and ethics in stories is retaining the ambiquity of real life. Some of these are going to be stories about groups in which I have found myself involuntarily, such as being Pennsylvania Dutch and American, but others are those to which I have chosen to belong, such as the Church or the Science, Technology and Society community. I think Sandel makes a mistake by focusing on the involuntary belonging.

      Of course, there is always still the need to evaluate the good and bad characteristics of the stories. Most of us see this in the way we decide which parts of the Christian story we choose to apply to our quest for meaning. Sure, some pretend they accept the entire message without question, but most see that is self-deception.

      This provides a transition to discussing what it means to belong to the Christian community. Interestingly, Sandel turns to this for the first time in his last chapter.

  2. Anne Crawford says:

    I do think our communities shape our ethics and that we belong to many communities – some voluntary and some involuntary. The more intimate, immediate communities probably have a greater influence than the larger, less personal communities (e.g., family has a larger influence than nation). I would rank faith community as more intimate and immediate than the ‘church’ at large. The stories of all these communities contain truths, assumptions, myths, experience, pain, pleasure – all the stuff that Fritz calls “ambiquity” (sorry Fritz, I caught the typo right away, but actually like the new word). Ethics then, for me, derives from shared experiences and values of my communities. I guess that’s why when I see horrific events, like the Boston Marathon bombing, I find it incomprehensible how someone can do such a thing. It is so foreign to my own ethical framework that I don’t know how to process it.

  3. Derek says:

    I meant to reply to the question regarding online communities.

    But the question that came to my mind when setting out to write was how much of the importance of online communities is due to the decline of more traditional types of communities?

    I think families are still very important. But they are smaller at the least in terms of people having fewer children. Also, I recall reading a few years back that more than half of the children in the united states live in situations other than nuclear families with their parents, instead being raised by grandparents, a single parent, being wards of the state etc. Even if there are good relations between family members, the children have a tendency to scatter all over the country. I’m guilty of that myself, and while I try to call or Skype with my dad often and keep up with my brother on Facebook, it isn’t really the same as being there.

    In terms of neighbors I think the new norm is to not know them very well in general. That seems to be the case for my current neighborhood. We’re all friendly enough when we pass each other, but that’s about it for the most part.

    As politics seem to become more partisan and bitter I’m finding fewer people that would espouse loyalty to state or country in the US. Rather they are angry at the elements from “the other side” that they have to deal with.

    I like my church community. But at a large church it is rather different and more distant than the feeling of a small town church.

    So perhaps online communities are filling a void felt by younger generations?

    In any case they are powerful. The internet allows you to find people very much like you, interested in what you have to say, and sometimes the option to be anonymous allows one to open up and express themselves in ways they simply wouldn’t in real life.

    However I do think there is a danger there. In the more traditional forms of community there was a certain degree of mixing of ideas and backgrounds. In self selected online communities it can be very easy to wrap oneself up in an environment where everyone agrees with you and reinforces your beliefs. I think that, and custom news channels and sources, are part of what seems to be driving people to not understand and demonify “the other side” on the various issues.

  4. Bob Nordvall says:

    Getting back to Fritz’s promotion of stories as ethical templates — why does Bible use stories so often? Obviously a story places an ethical precept in a real life situation. In addition, the people the Biblical authors and Jesus were addressing were not folks used to ethical discourses like those of Socrates and Plato. So concrete examples replaced philosophical discussions. Had Jesus followed the explanatory model of the Greek philosophers I doubt that Christianity would have grown to be a major religion.

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