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  • Moral Dialogue in the Thought of Amitai Etzioni
  • Jonathan Marks (bio)

The Responsive Communitarian Platform states that communitarians "favor strong democracy." Among the features that distinguish new, responsive communities from old, authoritarian communities is the "genuine dialogue" that takes place in them.1 Dialogue is the answer to at least two objections to communitarianism. First, doesn't communitarianism license the majority to impose its views on minorities? On the contrary, responsive communities are consensual, not majoritarian, and dialogue is the means by which consensus develops. Second, isn't communitarianism nostalgic? On the contrary, communitarian dialogue explains how communities respond creatively to historical change without coming apart and without succumbing to the rule of bureaucrats and experts. In this essay, I will focus on Amitai Etzioni's recent articulation of the idea of moral dialogues.2 I will begin by explaining how the idea of moral dialogues arises in response to a problem Etzioni articulates in his 1968 work, The Active Society.3 Then, I will consider how well the idea of moral dialogues addresses that problem.

The use of the term "strong democracy" in the Responsive Communitarian Platform and Benjamin Barber's involvement in the communitarian movement at the time of the platform's drafting suggests that any full treatment of communitarian dialogue would have to begin with Barber's discussion of democratic talk in Chapter 7 of Strong Democracy.4 I do not attempt anything like a full treatment of communitarian dialogue in this essay. It does seem to me that there are advantages to focusing on Etzioni. His understanding of moral dialogue has received much less attention than Barber's understanding of democratic talk, both because it has not been around as long and because Etzioni is often, unjustly, viewed as a popularizer. It is my hope that, by showing how his recent efforts are grounded in his highly regarded and indisputably "academic" work and on realistic reflections on the character and costs of social change, this essay will contribute to putting some of the most ill-informed criticisms of responsive communitarianism to rest. Second, his understanding of dialogue is different from Barber's, above all in its stance toward leadership and in its admission of the constraining authority of self-evident truths, and consequently merits separate consideration.5

The Active Society takes the transition from modern to postmodern society as its point of departure. The postmodern society is characterized by advances, from the development of the computer to the maturing of the social sciences, in our capacity to collect and analyze data. Along with these advances comes a growing awareness of how to exercise control over and restructure societies. These developments raise two big questions: 1) will the possibility of greater social control be realized and 2) will greater social control serve the few at the expense of the many?6 More broadly, how can human history be made less by fate and more by concerted social action?7 In seeking an answer to these questions, Etzioni accepts the view that modernity, which sought to master the physical environment in the service of man, has, for all its breathtaking accomplishments, led to the reduction of man to instrument, and permitted the dominance of the few over the many. Our response to postmodernity, which seeks to master the social environment in the service of man, must avoid this grave danger.

In order to realize the possibility of greater social control, societies must adopt an active orientation. This orientation rests above all on the insight that "social laws can be altered" and that, in this sense, human beings can "change themselves [and] be the creator."8 The active society will be engaged in "intensive and perpetual self-transformation."9 To capture the idea that the active society will transform itself creatively in accord with its own values and not merely in response to internal and external pressures, Etzioni considers the image of an "ocean liner propelled by an outboard motor, requiring not only more drive but also reconstruction while continuing to sail the high seas."10 He uses a similar metaphor, of converting a sailboat to a steamboat, in The New Golden Rule.11

The active orientation rests also...


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